New York Times
Tips From the Potlatch, Where Giving Knows No Slump
By JOHN TIERNEY
Published: December 15, 2008
Now that hard times have arrived, now that we’re being punished for our great credit binge, what
are we supposed to do for the holidays? The logical answer is to cut out the useless and the
lavish, but I have it on the highest authority that it’s just not that simple.
The authority is Bill Cranmer, whom I consulted for holiday tips because he is a hereditary chief
and elected leader of the Kwakwaka’wakw Indians, the world’s most experienced gift-givers.
They’ve learned that exchanging presents is too important to be discontinued in any kind of
These Indians on the Pacific coast of British Columbia are famous for their potlatches, which are
feasts and gift-giving ceremonies that serve a variety of functions: creating alliances, promoting
altruism, redistributing wealth, vanquishing rivals and, not least, showing off. The events,
particularly at their most extreme in the 19th century, became a staple of anthropology textbooks
(which referred to the Indians as the Kwakiutl) and helped inspire Thorstein Veblen’s theory of
When Chief Cranmer’s ancestors hosted a potlatch, they displayed stacks of blankets and
mountains of flour to be handed out to the masses, and singled out important guests for
expensive silver bracelets and boats. A chief sometimes flaunted his affluence by tossing his own
canoes into the fire or cutting up pieces of copper currency worth thousands of dollars.
Missionaries denounced the potlatch as “wasteful” and “heathen.” Canadian authorities outlawed
the ceremonies and sent Indians to prison after raiding a potlatch in 1921 hosted by Chief
Cranmer’s father. (For details, see TierneyLab.) But nothing, not even the Great Depression,
could stop the potlatchers.
They went on holding underground ceremonies, sometimes in remote villages, sometimes by
exchanging gifts under the guise of giving Christmas presents. In the 1950s, when the authorities
finally gave up and lifted the ban, it was clear that the missionaries’ hopes of reforming the
Indians were futile. Instead, the rest of society was assimilating the Indians’ ways by turning the
holidays into a gift-giving extravaganza. Shoppers may try to restrain themselves this year, but