It is this ceremony, emptied of its spiritual dimensions and specific cultural context, from which the Golden Potlatch liberally borrowed. Through a form of sympathetic magic—an act of mimicry performed to bring about the thing being copied—social and economic value systems from both Native and European societies were merged, creating a new hybrid event. It was produced, I think, in the hope that this act of mimesis—not unlike the sensational arrival of the ships the Excelsior and the Portland—would conjure once again a moment of economic optimism. Capitalist desire and prosperity were emphatically linked through the metaphor of sickness (an intriguing parallel to the healing dimensions of the koo.éex’), and this link was the very thing mobilizing the narrative. In a moment of marketing genius, the men behind the Golden Potlatch created the perfect mascot for their event. Called the Potlatch Bug, it was created for the festival’s second iteration in 1912 as an emblem and highly recognizable “brand.” Rendered in a style now thought of as typical of Northwest Coast Native aesthetics, the Bug was more human than insect-like, its face painted in red and white with black form lines. With a decorated crest on its forehead, kohl-rimmed eyes, and claw-tipped fingers, the Bug’s primary characteristic was its “infectious” grin. Through their marketing campaign, the organizers pointed to an intriguing link between the desire for economic prosperity and illness. The purpose of their mascot was to “inoculate you with the carnival spirit” (my italics).34 Festival organizers even went so far as to invent a “Bug High Priest,” who merged Christianity with the organizers’ understandings of the potlatch. The hypothetical virus that was to infect Seattle’s populace was called “enthusiasmitis,” and initiation into the Golden Potlatch Club included a mock injection of “the sacred virus of the Great Bug (…) administrated by an Ad Club member who attended the meeting in full regalia.”35
Pierre Berton has similarly described the effects of the Klondike Gold Rush (the event, you will recall, the Golden Potlatch attempted to conjure) as a malady: “So infectious was the Klondike epidemic that that flimsiest rumour served to send hundreds dashing to the farthest corners of the northern hemisphere.”36 The Golden Potlatch, with its performative rhetoric of the “sickness” of capitalist desire, enacts the symptoms of Western colonialism (inextricably linked with capitalism), while at the same time constituting a public acknowledgment of colonialism’s existence—in this instance, perhaps revealing a need (if deeply buried) in colonial actors for the true spirit and intent of the koo.éex’—that is, to be healed. Those producing the Golden Potlatch clearly saw the link between economic prosperity and collective belief—rightly understanding that the very belief in potential wealth can transform economies (something put into motion the very moment the two ships from the Klondike docked). Within the koo.éex’, the production and distribution of wealth ensures the health of the community and that societal values and obligations are upheld in perpetuity.
Of further use in understanding the grand gesture of appropriation central to the Golden Potlatch is Edward Said’s notion of Orientalism, which he succinctly describes as “a set of relationships marked by an imbalance of power that is the crossing point of divergent needs.”37 The central operation of Orientalism is characterized by a dominant narrator who idealizes and objectifies a perceivably passive subject so as to “produce images that illustrate or embody possibilities the dominant narrator desires but cannot tolerate in itself.”38 Articulating these desires, acknowledged and unacknowledged alike, was certainly at play in the creation of the Golden Potlatch.
Another aspect central to this event, and which takes the possibilities presented by the embodiment of the Other further still, relies on the relationships between mimesis, alterity and sympathetic magic. For Walter Benjamin, the mimetic faculty represents not only the desire to illustrate or embody characteristics desired in the Other, but is born from the very “compulsion to become the Other” (my italics).39 A compelling image from the Golden Potlatch shows the four progenitors of the festival dressed in authentic Tlingit raven’s tail ceremonial robes with traditional headdresses, holding elaborately carved paddles and staffs. Here they are taking on the identity of a myth of their own devising, quite literally becoming the fictitious Alaskan chiefs who paddled down from the North in search of modernity.
The Golden Potlatch was at its very core a mimetic gesture, demonstrating how object-hood (and, by extension, culture) has become increasingly fetishized under capitalism.40 Within the context of modernity, this fetishization emerges at the point where contact between people is displaced by contact between people and commodities.41