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Potlatches are still held today, with some of the same ostensible motives. My response suggested, however, that modern potlatches are held more for the purpose of connection with the past than for their traditional purposes, which was, as pohnpei and I both pointed out, to distribute wealth and to demonstrate the political power and influence of community leaders.
I am not sure that the previous answer actually gives a reason for having a potlatch that is different from its "stated purpose." However, it is hard to tell because we are not given the "stated purpose" as defined in your class.
People participating in a potlatch would have understood it in the following ways:
- As a celebration
- As a forum for gift-giving
- As a means of earning and displaying status
- As a means of earning and displaying power
There are also reasons for having a potlatch that the participants might not have understood. For example, potlatches are generally said to have been a form of redistributing wealth in a community. It is not clear if this would be one of the "stated purposes." A marxist analysis might say also that a potlatch was a means of pacifying the lower classes. It could be seen as the equivalent of the Roman circuses--as an event that distracted the lower classes from the unequal distribution of wealth and power in their society.
The stated purpose of a potlatch among Northwestern Indian peoples, of course, is gift-giving, which in past times went well beyond Western ideas. It rather connoted the distribution of wealth, and the more goods a chief could give out at one of these ceremonies, the more powerful he was. In most societies, a potlatch was also held to commemorate a wedding, funeral, or some other occasion, but its underlying purpose as interpreted by anthropologists (most famously Franz Boas) was to assert the power of political and cultural leaders. Potlatches, as well as many other aspects of indigenous culture, were banned by the Canadian government in the late nineteenth century, though the ban was lifted in the 1950s. Today, along with the stated purpose, potlatches have become a means of holding on to cultural identity by Native peoples. They are time-honored rituals that are observed today as a statement of cultural autonomy and out of appreciation for the past.
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