October 05, 2005

Jeopardy Gets It Wrong

There was a rare gross error on Jeopardy yesterday. Jeopardy ruled correct a question that equated pow-wow and potlatch. That's wrong. They're entirely different events. A pow-wow is a gathering for fun. People go to them to meet other people and for the entertainment. They typically focus on dancing, much of which is competitive. There will also be people selling crafts and food stalls. Most people camp at the pow-wow site, so the socializing goes on day and night.

A potlatch on the other hand is serious business. Food is served, sometimes fairly modest, sometimes a real feast, and people may enjoy seeing their friends, but the purpose is not merely socializing and entertainment. The purpose of a potlatch is for business to be conducted in the presence of witnesses so that everyone can see what has been done and that it has been done properly. The business done may be clan-internal, such as the taking of a name. The holders of names are usually described in English as hereditary chiefs, but this is inaccurate since they aren't chiefs in the sense in which English speakers generally understand the word and their positions are not hereditary. Holding a name is more like holding a noble title.

Nowadays the most common kind of potlatch is a funeral potlatch, at which the clan of the deceased pays other people for the duties that they have performed related to the wake and funeral. Other potlatches have to do with the resolution of disputes. These are usually internal to the community, but sometimes take place between tribes. In 1861, for example, a long period of violence between the Tsetsaut and the Gitanyow in northern British Columbia came to end with the transfer of the area around Meziadin Lake from the Tsetsaut to the Gitanyow as blood money.

Many sources describe the potlatch as a ceremony for the purpose of wealth display. That's true to an extent, but more so in some areas than others, and it probably isn't the whole story anywhere. It certainly is not true in the interior of British Columbia, where I am personally familiar with it.

Posted by Bill Poser at October 5, 2005 03:52 AM