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Potlatch is a traditional Indian ceremony that was performed traditionally by the Indian communities. The ceremony was characterized by elaborate song and dance as well as wealth redistribution and sharing of belonging. There were also several forms that this ceremony could take, with ceremonies being performed during the birth, naming, death related ceremonies an in many other forms of rights of passage. The ceremony therefore had tremendous influence to the way of life of the people as it cut across various cultural practices hence defining the cultures of regions where it was practiced.
As noted by Donald, (2007), Potlatch ceremonies had various functions in aboriginal societies in British Columbia. To begin with, the ceremony provided the cohesive forces that bound the members of the society together. The aboriginal group of the British Columbia had a unique culture that ensured that various aspects of the society were well taken care off. The ceremonies were used to reinforce values and norm to the society members especially su to the fact that the ceremony had a huge cultural connotation. The ceremony also integrated the basic survival tenets of the society whereby various aspects of the society such as economic aspects were incorporated and managed.
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Potlatch ceremonies also were seen to unite the community with its ancestry as the ceremonies provided ample grounds where the original ancestors of a specific cultural group were hailed and described. As noted by Olson, (2008), creatures such as dzunukwa who are ancestral parents of supernatural creatures were only noted during potlatch ceremonies. The community was therefore informed on its origin from the ceremonies and taught on how to hail its founders. The other function that the ceremonies performed were humanitarian duties as the ceremony by itself was based on reciprocity of wealth. Some cultures such as the Kwakwaka'wakw used these ceremonies to achieve status of prestige and social clout especially due to the emphasis of reciprocity and introducing the means to measure ones wealth. In cultures such as the Kwakwaka'wakw, wealth and personal status were measured not by the amount of wealth that a person held but through the amount of goods that a person shared with the others (Aderkas and Hook, 2005). The ceremony therefore had the function of economic stratification of its members, redistributive purposes as well as cultural purposes.
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Potlatch ceremonies cut across various dimensions of social life. The ceremony had economic dimension where by it was conducted majorly during the winter seasons as they were considered better as the warmer months were spared for the sake of property or wealth generation. The ceremonies also acted as ways of showing what people have acquired over the warmer months. Religiously, the ceremonies were used to acknowledge the duties and to sensitize the communities on the goodness of the supernatural creature, to thank the supernatural creatures as well as to offer gratitude's to this creatures. The ceremony also provided the community with an avenue for socializing the younger ones into the aboriginal community's ways of life. In such ceremonies, the younger people were reminded of their lineage, their origins and ways of worshiping. Day to day cultural aspects were also taught to the younger generation where enculturation took place making the young community members to learn more on the need for wealth reciprocity and sharing, a key fact pillar to the potlatch ceremonies.
Bracken, (2003), cites that the potlatch ceremonies were useful tools to sensitize the community members especially the younger ones on the importance of brotherhood. The ceremonies transmitted the values of caring for one another especially through reciprocity. Sharing of various gifts, both materials and non material were a key pillar to the ceremonies and young members of the society were taught on how to share with one another. The ceremonies also taught the aborigines on norms and values of hard work. As noted by Olson, (2008), the ceremonies were majorly conducted on winter to allow the community members to utilize the warmer months for wealth generating activities. The ceremony also reinforced the values of norms and hard work by providing how hard work was measured and praised through providing avenues of appreciating those who produce more. The ones who had more goods to share were given greater clout hence encouraging the society to produce more to ensure that each member has something to share out.
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Despite the traditional significance played by the ceremony to the communities that practiced these ceremonies, the ceremony was outlawed in 1885 by the mainstream inhabitants of the British Columbia. Many reasons have been advanced towards explaining why the ceremony was outlawed. As cited by McKee, (2000), one of the major reasons why the ceremony was outlawed was to pave way for Christian missionaries who considered the ceremony a huge block towards converting the Indians into Christianity. They therefore saw the ceremony as a stumbling block and sought the help of administrative units to withdraw the ceremony. Another reason why the ceremony was outlawed was that the mainstream society saw the ceremony as redundant in the age of civilization. As noted by Aderkas and Hook, (2005), the ceremony was seen as a huge block towards ensuring that that the aborigines adopted civilization and thus they opted to have the ceremony terminated. The ceremony was seen as the force for solidarity against civilization among the aborigines' societies and thus they were forced to use the legal channel to ensure that they weakened this force that united the community to its culture against civilization.
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The ceremony also contradicted the norms of the British Columbia majority who were Europeans. To begin with the ceremony seemed to have a socialistic ideology that was considered retrogressive to the general development. McKee, (2000), asserts that the potlatch ceremony encouraged sharing of resources and failed to recognize wealth, a fact that was considered detrimental economically by the main stream society. The fact that the ceremony contradicted the economic institution of the mainstream European societies was recipe for conflict among the two societies. The culture of this ceremony also contradicted the main religious view of the European societies. The culture advocated for supernatural beings that were unacceptable among the mainstream societies that were mainly Christian prompting the religious institution of the mainstream cultures engineer the outlawing of this ceremony. The religious groups therefore preferred to have this ceremony and its culture outlawed as they saw it as the stumbling block towards conversion of the Indians into Christianity.
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Today, the ceremony is still being performed. However, the performance of the potlatch ceremonies is more of a ceremonial nature and an attempt of the aborigine's community to preserve their culture and ancient practices. The initial meaning of sharing are no longer evident in this ceremony as the ceremony is more ceremonial and a way of sowing the younger generations what used to happen prior to civilization. The functions of potlatch today therefore are purely ceremonial and are geared towards ensuring that the community does not loose its original culture. The ceremony therefore is a pale shadow of its former self, acting only as a reminder with no reinforcing norms as it used to be in the 19th century and centuries prior to this period. The legal restrictions also are no longer active as the younger educated Indians did not copy the ceremony's acts that were considered retrogressive.