Potlatching and Political Organization among the Northwest Coast Indians

By Tollefson, Kenneth D. | Ethnology, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

Potlatching and Political Organization among the Northwest Coast Indians


Tollefson, Kenneth D., Ethnology


Although Drucker (1983:95) acknowledges "large aggregations of local groups among some Northwest Coast divisions," he contends that "they were not political organizations" because "no authority resided in such a grouping." According to Drucker's (1983:89) six criteria, only the local band qualified as a genuine political unit for this culture area. He suggests that any organization beyond the band level was limited to "socioceremonial hierarchies in which no political authority was vested." The reason given for this interpretation is that the ranking of chiefs lacked the political clout to order lesser ranking chiefs "to fish or not to fish, to build or tear down a house, to make war or peace." Drucker bases his conclusion upon an ecological interpretation of the economy in which no task required the assistance of more that a few dozen persons. However, ecology is only one variable in the equation.

While intercommunity ceremonials contained considerable use of songs, dances, stories, and drama, they used this forum to address specific political concerns. Limiting these intercommunity gatherings to socioceremonial activities fails to address the issue of how these local, autonomous groups met political objectives that could not be fulfilled within the local community (Tollefson 1984:234). This study seeks to apply the conflict-management model of political organization to the institution of potlatching along with the concepts of primary and secondary political arenas in an effort to clarify the nature of intercommunity gathering.

The conflict-management model has been used in comparative studies with considerable success and is therefore applicable to this study in order to test Drucker's socioceremonial thesis. Many of the political goals and concerns of Drucker's local hands lacked fulfillment apart from the institution of the potlatch. Thus, the potlatch seems to represent more that a socioceremonial activity, since it provides the culmination of a significant segment of local political activities.

The Tlingit, located along the northern boundary of the Northwest Coast Cultural Area between the present towns of Ketchikan and Yakitat, Alaska, provide the basic ethnographic data for this analysis. The Tlingit lived in community longhouses composed of some 40 to 70 or more individuals within autonomous matriclan settlements. Approximately 50 clans were divided between the Eagle and Raven moieties. They placed considerable importance upon the acquisition of wealth and the achievement of social rank. The Tlingit are known for their use and trade in copper, their Chilkat blankets, and participation in potlatching: the focus of this article.

CONFLICT-MANAGEMENT MODEL

According to Macrides and Brown (1968: 1), "A political system is, above all, a mechanism for the making of decisions." Decision-making models focus upon various problems that confront a society, such as how a group resolves conflicts and why one option may be selected among many possible choices (Garbarino 1967:469). This type of model provides an explanation for the constant internal and external changes that occur among interacting groups. From the perspective of a decision-making model, social change is perceived as a series of decisions that members of a group make in the process of survival. In the last few decades, the decision-making model for political organization has become one of the standard methods of analysis within political science.

The conflict-management model permits the analyst to follow a public concern from its introduction into the system to its implementation within society. Conflict-management refers to the "process by which a government sets limits on what will enter the political process" (Gorden 1972:vii). The six phases of this model are (1) goals; (2) rules of exposure; (3) spokespersons; (4) organizations for action; (5) bargaining; and (6) implementation (Gorden 1972: 12-16).

Goals Phase

Every society has basic values and goals that give direction to public concerns, that act as filters to eliminate those which are in conflict with public goals, and that channel public concerns toward culturally prescribed ends. …

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