FAIRBANKS — Alaska Native groups each have their own way of celebrating potlatches. Here’s a quick look at their approaches:
Potlatches among the Athabascan groups of the Interior differed among the 12 groups, but songs were a big part of the event. In his book “Crow is my Boss,” the late Kenny Charlie of Tanacross remembered the potlatch songs he learned as a kid.
“The songs were powerful! You can feel our power that’s working in there in that potlatch,” he wrote. “That’s why we don’t let any kids go on that canvas that we put down. If the kid goes on there he might have a short life.” what does this mean?
Charlie also says at funeral potlatches they have kaii (meaning gifts), “If my wife gives you something that I used to own if I died. You take this to remember me by. That’s what it means ‘Kaii.’ It’s a gift given to my own (clan) relative otherwise it goes to the opposite clan.”
In the book “A Dena’ina Legacy K’tl’egh’I Sukdu,” the late Den’ina Elder Peter Kalifornsky stated that potlatches would be mainly used to invite friends and neighboring tribes in order to quell bad feelings and avoid skirmishes.
Tlingit potlatches were among the most complicated of Alaska Native potlatches.
According to the book “The Tlingit Indians,” by George Emmons and Frederica de Laguna, a major potlatch was called a “big invitation,” involving guests from other tribes as well as from the home village. It was a lavish and expensive affair.
Funeral potlatches were the last of what was called the four “Joy Feasts” following the four “crying feasts,” ending the funeral cycle of eight feasts to “finish the body” of the deceased. The number eight was significant because of the eight major bones of the body.
There also were headstone potlatches — a year after the death of a loved one, it would mark the end of the mourning period and a stone would be placed on the grave and another potlatch would be held called, Headstone Potlatch. The mourning period would then be over. It was a communal way of helping those in grief.
The Tlingits also specific potlatches for totem pole raising, erecting grave monuments, and Tlingits in Canada would sing their national anthems at potlatches to show their sovereignty.
Inupiat did not have potlatches but ceremonies, rites that went with a cycle of activities during the course of the year, according to Ronald Brower of Barrow.
“In the wintertime, we hold the ceremony called kivgiq (the eagle wolf messenger feast dance), where we’re feasting each day for a number of days — about a week — and every night there’s storytelling and Eskimo dancing,” Brower says.
To this day, Brower says the difference between Inupiat and other Native cultures is that Inupiat host a lot of feasts but not potlatches.
“A whaling captain who’s been successful will invite other villages to come and will host a large gathering,” he said. “They’re similar, in a way, to potlatches, but here when people were invited they brought gifts to exchange with people. Part of the dances we have is called maglaq — giving of gifts.”
Like the Inupiat, Yupik people did not have potlatches, but instead held messenger festivals called kelgiq, which meant gift-giving. These were traditionally ceremonial gatherings with neighboring villages, where in the kashim (men’s house or qasgiq), they practiced their songs and painstakingly worked out the motions of the dance, according to the documentary “Drums of Winter.”
Theresa John is a Yupik professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She said there are nearly 20 different ceremonies and festivals, which are practiced differently among the 60 Yupik villages.
John also mentions the Yupik memorial ritual ceremony called elriq, a “major, major event” that takes 20 years of planning for the dances and feasts. Elriq is held for a beloved family member who has died.
Gifts are given out on behalf of the deceased person or child. John said people used to give away canoes and sleds, which today would be the equivalent of giving away your car and boat.
There is not much is known about the potlatch customs of the Aleuts (traditionally called Unungan) due to loss of life and history from Russian invasion and colonization.
According to anthropologist Roza Liapunova, potlatches among the Aleuts were “festive celebrations” or “plays.” The festive celebrations consisted of stage performances, which always took place in winter, moving from one settlement to another. The entire population attended, and every individual gave everything they had, especially food.
For the Aleut funeral potlatch, the deceased was mourned by relatives for 40 days, according to a report by Liapunova on the subject. “After that time elapsed, they held an elaborate (replete) funeral feast as possible.The food from the house of the decease would be given away and on the last day of the funeral feast, the relatives of the deceased presented the guests with gifts in memory of the deceased, various articles which were either given away according to the will (testament) of the deceased or by the judgment of the relatives.”
Like the Aleuts, not much is known about the Alutiiq potlatch tradition due to the severe impact of colonization.
What little is known is that the Alutiiq held sophisticated ceremonies throughout the year and had “Wise men” — who were like priests to liturgy — that ensured the ceremony rituals were maintained and properly followed.
Matthew Gilbert is a freelance writer living in Fairbanks.