I am the only great tree
Everyone has been busy on their thesis lately, so there have been fewer potlatch dinners. Even still, I have been to more potlatches this year than my entire life combined. For those of you who don't know, a potlatch is a style of get-together we do in the US and Canada whereby each guest brings a dish to share. I hadn't realized that this was a uniquely American custom. I know the word "potlatch" is a native american word, but I just assumed that other countries would have the same tradition, just call it something else. As a matter of fact, they do have potlatch dinners here in Sweden, but I am told it is called "American dinner".
Interesting note: A buffet (also called smorgasbord in the US -smorgasbord is form a swedish word meaning sandwich table) is called "A Viking" in Japan. So, for example, you will go into a restaurant in Tokyo and order the "salad viking" meaning the all you can eat salad buffet.
Anyway, a while back I read an interesting story about the origins of the potlatch in the book Cows, Pigs, Wars, and Witches (really fascinating book). I have copied an excerpt here to share with my classmates.
The Kwakiutl (native american tribe from west coast of Canada) chief was never content with the amount of respect he was getting from his own followers and from neighboring chiefs. He was always insecure about his status.... Every chief therefore felt the obligation to justify and validate his chiefly pretensions. The prescribed manner for doing this was to hold potlatches. Each potlatch was given by a host chief and is followers, to a guest chief and his followers. The object of the potlatch was to show that the host chief was truly entitled to his chiefly status, and that he was more exulted than the guest chief. To prove this point, the host chief gave the rival chief and his followers quantities of valuable gifts.
Preparations for potlatch required the accumulation of fresh and dried fish, fish oil, berries, animal skins, blankets, and other valuables. On the appointed day, the guests paddled up to the host village and went into the chiefs house. There they gorged themselves on salmon and wild berries while dancers masked as beaver gods and thunderbirds entertained them.
The host chief and his followers arranges in neat piles the wealth that was to be given away. The visitors stared at their host sullenly as he pranced up and down, boasting about how much he was about to give them. As he counted out the boxes of fish oil, baskets full of berries, and piles of blankets, he commented derisively on the poverty of his rivals. Laden with gifts, the guests finally were free to paddle back to their own village. Stung to the quick, the guest chief and his followers vowed to get even. This could only be achieved by inviting their friends to a return potlatch and obliging them to accept even greater amounts of valuables than they had given away. Considering all the Kwakiutl villages as a single unit, potlatch stimulated a ceaseless flow of prestige and valuables moving in opposite directions.
And ambitious chief and his followers had potlatch rivals in several different villages at once. Specialists in counting property kept track of what had to be done in each village in order to even the score. If a chief managed to get the better of his rivals in one place, he still had to confront his adversaries in another.
At the potlatch, the host chief would say things like, "I am the only great tree. Bring your counter of property that he may try in vain to count the property that is to be given away." The the chief's followers demanded silence form the guests with the warning. "Do make any noise, tribes. Be quiet or we shall cause a landslide of wealth from our chief, the overhanging mountain." At some potlatches blankets and other valuables were not given away, but were destroyed. Sometimes successful potlatch chiefs decided to hold "grease feasts" at which boxes of oil obtained from the candle-fish were poured on the fire in the center of the house. As the flames roared up, dark grease smoke filled the room. The guests sat impassively or even complained about the chill in the air while the wealth destroyer ranted, "I am the only one on earth-the only one in the whole world who makes this smoke rise from the beginning of the year to the end for invited tribes." At some grease feasts the flames ignited the planks in the roof and the entire house would become a potlatch offering, causing the greatest shame to the guests and much rejoicing among the hosts.
UPDATE: So it appears this was all wrong... the story is real, but that is not where the potluck as we know it comes from. According to the all-knowing web:
The potlatch was a big celebration--often the host would give all his possessions away. The modern notion of bringing dishes to share (in essence, giving away what you have) seems like a natural extension of this idea.
It may be natural, but it's wrong. The term potluck comes from the traditional practice (not that it's entirely unknown among us moderns) of never throwing anything away. Meal leftovers would be put into a pot and kept warm, and could be used to feed people on short notice. This practice was especially prevalent in taverns and inns in medieval times, so that when you showed up for a meal, you took the "luck of the pot." A related term found its way into French usage, as an impromptu meal at home is often referred to as pot au feu, literally "pot on the fire."
Please notice the bolded portion. it sounds a lot like sustainability soup, which I will be writting about soon....