Tsimshian Society and Culture
Wealth and Rank
Feasts and Potlatches
The purpose of both feast and potlatch was to announce a significant social event: the birth, marriage or death of a person of high rank, or inheritance and ascension to a title, such as the naming of a new chief. During a feast, only food was distributed; during a potlatch, objects of wealth were distributed as well. All members of the lineage hosting a potlatch would contribute to the wealth that was given away by their chief. The prestige accorded the host chief depended on the amount of wealth he displayed and gave away. In return, the host expected to get back more wealth than he disbursed at the next potlatch given by a rival chief.
Potlatch guests were important because they acted as witnesses to the event. The ascension of the new chief took place during the memorial potlatch, where coppers and other objects of wealth were prominently displayed.
The songs and dances performed during feasts and potlatches celebrated a family's crests and the history of their ancestors.
Tsimshian communities today continue to hold potlatches to mark important events such as the raising of a totem pole, the naming of children or a new house, or the marriage of an important person.