British Museum blog

Potlatch coppers: wealth and power on the Northwest Coast

Jack Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum

Last year I began a Collaborative Doctoral Award at the British Museum and UCL studying Native American material culture, having worked for the Americas section of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Museum since 2008. In this post I want to introduce two new acquisitions that help the Museum illustrate the complex wealth-exchange systems of the North Pacific coast of North America.

At times of celebration, the wealthiest and most powerful chieftains among the tribes of the Northwest Coast would hold great ceremonial events, known as potlatches. These occasions could last several days, featuring a series of expansive feasts accompanied by dancing, singing and the telling of ancestral stories in the chieftain’s plank-built longhouse. During the potlatch, open negotiations over hunting territories and trading rights would be conducted, the host demonstrating his power and wealth by ostentatious demonstrations of disregard for danger.

The anthropologist Franz Boas describes an event that took place among the Kawkwaka’wakw:

When a person gives a grease feast, a great fire is lighted at the centre of the house. The flames leap up to the roof and the guests are almost scorched by the heat. Still the etiquette demands that they do not stir, else the host’s fire has conquered them. Even when the roof begins to burn and the fire attacks the rafters, they must appear unconcerned. The host alone has the right to send a man up to the roof to put out the fire.

At the climax of the event the host would address his guests in a ceremony centred on the distribution of lavish presents. Most significant of all gifts would be large sheets of shield-shaped copper decorated in a variety of tribal crests. These objects are known by various names: tináa to the Tlingit, t’agu to the Haida and collectively in English as ‘coppers’. Often individually named with complex life-histories, coppers carried a nominal value measured in blankets or slaves, but their importance lay primarily in the obligation they placed on the recipients as part of a network of wealth and power distribution.

Haida copper (Am1929,0811.1)

Haida copper (Am1929,0811.1)

To the people of the Northwest Coast, copper was an exotic item, originally traded from the north and later with Europeans. It held supernatural properties, and to present a guest with a copper or a piece from a broken copper placed on them a powerful obligation. A host who had received coppers from his guests at their potlatches was compelled to present them with a greater value of coppers than he had previously received and thus obliged his guests to present coppers of even greater value at their next potlatch. The wealthiest chieftains would even smash coppers or throw them into the sea to demonstrate their superiority and strength. A leader who could not afford to make these presents or did not possess coppers could not hold a successful potlatch to celebrate important events and would consequently be considered a man of little importance among his peers.

In the late 19th century, colonial authorities saw the potlatch as a dangerous, wasteful and subversive event and sought to stamp it out. It was outlawed in Canada in 1884 and in 1921 Dan Cranmer’s potlatch at ʼMimkwa̱mlis (Village Island) was raided by the local police who seized and confiscated hundreds of items of regalia. Potlatching did not cease, but it was forced underground, becoming invisible to the authorities as the regalia which supported it was gradually dispersed to museums and private collections around the world. Since the removal of the anti-potlatch laws in 1951 however, potlatching has once again become a prominent part of life for the people of the North Pacific.

Kwakwaka’wakw copper (2013,2037.1)

Kwakwaka’wakw copper (2013,2037.1)

Two new acquisitions help the British Museum tell the story of the coppers. The first is an unadorned copper from the turn of the 20th century recently donated by the London School of Economics. Unlike the coppers already in the collection, which are made from single thick copper sheets, this is a thinner, lighter example made from two sheets riveted together, a method of manufacture which suggests a Kwakwaka’wakw origin. Unusually, this example is not etched with an animal crest, and is thus a so-called ‘spurious copper’, one which was a valuable but routine item of exchange passed from chief to chief from potlatch to potlatch but without the ritual significance of the decorated coppers.

Five, Alison Bremner, (2013.2014,2002.1)

Five, Alison Bremner, (2013.2014,2002.1)

The second acquisition is a pendant produced by contemporary Tlingit artist Alison Bremner. Titled ‘Five’ from her series ‘Potlatch Dollars’, this pendant is made from copper in the shape of a traditional copper. Printed onto the surface of the pendant is a detail from a $5 note originally issued in Seattle. Bremner writes:

Potlatch Dollars resulted from my consideration of the concept of money, as any self-employed artist will do. Tináa’s once held a money-like value that today is held by dollar bills. Money is the object that contemporary society chooses to place value on.

As a child of two cultures, I view these works less as an appropriation from one culture to another but as a joining of the two. The Potlatch Dollar is a symbol of the past and present that all Northwest Coast residents now live in.

In juxtaposing 19th-century embodiments of Native and non-Native conceptions of wealth, Bremner is highlighting both the similarities and the misunderstandings that have characterised Native and non-Native relations over the last two centuries and celebrates the re-establishment of traditional Native practices in recent decades.

For further reading, see Carol F Jopling, The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians: Their Origin, Developments and Possible Antecedents, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre (ALRC). These two new acquisitions will be on display at the ALRC until December 2014.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , , ,

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Mandy Crook says:

    What wonderful objects! I have not heard of them before, the Haida Copper is beautiful, as is the modern pendant. Thank you for introducing me to them.


Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 16,401 other followers


Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

%d bloggers like this: