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“It Is a Strict Law That Bids Us Dance”: Cosmologies, Colonialism, Death, and Ritual Authority in the Kwakwaka'wakw Potlatch, 1849 to 1922

  • Joseph Masco (a1)

In the century since Franz Boas began his field work on the Northwest Coast, the Kwakwaka'wakw1 potlatch has proved irresistible to the anthropological imagination. It has been variously interpreted as an interest-bearing investment of property (Boas 1897), as a demonstration of a paranoid, megalomaniacal personality (Benedict 1934), as a substitution for warfare (Codere 1950), as a means of distributing food (Piddcocke 1965; Vayda 1961), as a phenomenon of social morphology (Levi-Strauss 1969; Rosman and Rubel 1971), and as a religious event (Goldman 1975; Walens 1981). Indeed, an intellectual history of anthropology can now be written simply by examining how the Kwakwaka'wakw potlatch has served the various theoretical schools (see Michaelson 1979). If anything unites such disparate accounts, however, I suggest it is an underestimation of the impact of European colonization on Kwakwaka'wakw society.2 Our understanding of the nineteenth-century potlatch has been limited by a tendency to exclude Kwakwaka'wakw cosmology from the colonial power dynamic. This study contributes, then, to the longrunning, and at times vociferous, scholarly discourse on the potlatch by focusing directly on the cultural repercussions of the colonial experience. Consequently, it is not an analysis simply of the funding or logistics of exchange: This essay attempts to situate the cosmologies behind the gift in their changing historical context in order to assess the socio-cultural impact of the colonial encounter on native systems of belief.

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