It's been a hit or miss being able to open this article without signing up for the New York Times, but it's free, and hey, why not? I spotted it in the Anchorage Daily News Newsreader this morning, and well worth it!
It's about Northwest Coast "potlatches" - though we tend to call them just "celebrations" or "parties." Potlatch tends to have some connations attached. The traditions and social purpose these serve are discussed, with just a bit of humor. It's actually "advice" for people to follow using good, old fashioned Indian common sense! And party procedure...
I've heard lots of criticism of the potlatch, or Indian Party, but I think that's mostly from people who have never attended one. Yes, there is certainly a showmanship part to it, but that is just so little of the whole. There is a point in the article they do take this on, though I wish there was a lot more time to devote to the subject:
“Even though the elite chiefs controlled the fishing grounds and the trade networks,” Dr. Glass says, “the potlatch functioned to make sure everyone had enough fish and that the excess trading wealth was redistributed to the entire community.” In hard times that function is especially important, so remember the neediest this year.
I have heard of the "third world" conditions of these villages, but I gaurantee, no neighbors, no Elders, no poor people starve in the Alaskan villages. They just don't.
Really, if you ever get a chance to attend one of these, GO. All up and down the coast there are very different traditions and protocol surrounding them, but I can vouch that attending a Tlingit party is a good opportunity. They take years to plan sometimes, and are worth the wait. Modern goods are merged with ancient custom for a really great party, and some of them are still days long.
But I bet you big money you can't outlast the Elder ladies.