POTLACH (Historic Alaska Information)
The potlach may be given by and Indian because he thinks he will not live much longer, and by giving away his blankets and other gifts and a feast to his friends he pays his debts and makes an honorable name for himself. Or it may be given as an announcing event of the retiring of an old or beginning of a new chief. Or it may be given for the purpose of outranking a rival, or many other reasons. But some of the underlining reasons are, that the giver is entitled to and will get in return any where from 25 to 200 percent for his gifts from the recipient or his friends, and a great name. Therefore it has a three-fold beneficial result it makes his rival poor, it makes him rich, and gives him honor and rank.
Invitations to these potlaches are often sent out to thousands, covering the whole coast from Yakutat to Puget Sound, and several months may be required to make the canoe journey. Eating, drinking and gay festivities, gorgeous dress and lavish gifts continue until the givers estate is exhausted and he is apparently as poor as poverty. But that is the richest moment of his life, his honor and generosity will be handed down from generation to generation, totems high up on the top of a pole will announce to all coming near for years the greatness of this man, and the gifts from time to time will be repaid with usury.
At these gatherings the history, traditions, legends, customs and nevr s are related, and thus disseminated and perpetuated; the young bucks and squaws form new acquaintances and often marry: matters of tribal importance are discussed and decided; in brief for a people that has no school, church, books, newspapers, courts or law-making assemblies, it serves for all purposes. At different seasons of the year hundreds of natives gather at Yakutat Bay to take seal for the year's supply, or at Dixon Entrance or Nase River to take herring for the same purpose, or at other places for salmon, and these meetings are important as the potlach. They unify the tribes.
Blankets are the medium of exchange, and values are fixed by comparison, for example a canoe is worth 10 blankets (single).
A good quality of government blanket, a double blanket and specially made blankets are worth more than the single blanket used as the base of value. There are engraved copper plates in use on the coast which, according to their engraving, are worth a certain number of blankets. The ordinary cheap while blanket is perhaps the correct standard now. The Chilkat blanket, so much sought by tourists and playing such prominent part in the display of chiefs and extravagant dress on important occasions, is worth from $50 to $150.