Conference Paper

The Golden Potlatch

Study in Mimesis and Capitalist Desire

Seattle Potlatch Parade showing people wearing totem pole costumes, 1912,
Seattle Photograph Collection / University of Wahsington.

The docking of two steamships, the Excelsior and the Portland, loaded with gold mined from Canada’s Yukon Territory and newly rich prospectors, was among the most significant events to take place on the West Coast during the late 1800s. It immediately boosted the economies of individual cities and of the country as a whole. And it brought the intricate relationship between belief, capitalist desire and wealth fully into public consciousness. Upon arrival in San Francisco’s harbor on 15 July 1897, the Excelsior caused a media frenzy; photographs of individuals hauling sacks and suitcases off the ship—some so heavy with precious metal they required more than one person to lift—quickly entered circulation. But it was the Portland’s arrival in Seattle two days later, containing even more gold—over two tons-worth—that initiated the largest collective expedition for gold in North America’s history, the Klondike Gold Rush.

With the promise of riches for anyone willing to undertake the journey north, some forty thousand people, mostly Americans, abandoned their homes and livelihoods to become prospectors, suppliers, showgirls or to take up other ancillary professions in Yukon territory.1 The Klondike’s harsh climate presented a greater degree of personal risk to prospectors than previous gold rushes:2 many never made it beyond the first leg of the grueling journey across the Chilkoot Pass and White Passes, the two main routes to reach the mineral-rich Yukon.3

The Portland and the Excelsior arrived at a fortuitous moment. Their dockage coincided with a protracted period of economic depression in the United States. The first depression, the Panic of 1873, had been precipitated by over-investment in railroads—an economy with slow returns—as well as the switch from bimetallism to a de facto monometallic gold standard, inaugurated by the United States Coinage Act of 1873, which introduced a new monetary system based on the fixed weight of gold.4 This almost immediately resulted in a perception of scarcity, justified to an extent by the disparity between the increased demand for the metal and its rate of extraction. The speed with which many European countries also adopted the gold standard contributed further to a crisis that, at its outset, was largely imaginary. Belief in gold’s scarcity and a concomitant increase in value, combined with feverish demand, had a deep effect on America’s citizenry. Gold was quickly hoarded in “socks, sugar bowls, and under floorboards, and in personal safes.”5 During this period savings were withdrawn from banks, causing bank runs; an estimated 15,000 companies and 500 banks failed (many in the Western United States). As a result, the number of gold coins and gold certificates in active circulation rapidly diminished, and by 1892 “only one hundred and ninety million dollars in gold coin and gold certificates out of a total of seven hundred and thirty million” remained in the US Treasury.6 At its peak, between 17 and 19 per cent of the workforce was unemployed. The slump morphed into outright panic in 1893 when foreign governments lost faith in the American government’s ability to maintain payments in gold. It was the most severe economic crisis yet experienced in the United States.7

George G. Cantwell, Klondikers carrying supplies ascending the Chilkoot Pass, 1898,
University of Wahsington, Special Collections, UW39143.

It is not surprising, then, that when the Excelsior and the Portland docked, loaded with the coveted metal, the event immediately took on mythical dimensions. Images and stories circulated widely in newspapers and illustrated journals, the event read locally and abroad as a sign of the United States’ renewed economic vitality. It is arguably the very belief in economic prosperity signified by the widely circulated images of two gold-filled ships rather than the influx of real monetary resources that had the most impact in transforming the United States economy. Pierre Berton describes one of many examples of this rapid transformation:

“In the first two weeks (of the gold rush) (…) telegraph orders on the Puget Sound National Bank, headquartered in Seattle, increased fivefold over any other period in the bank’s history (…) the sale of bank drafts tripled and express business doubled (and by) August the city’s total business had leaped by fifty per cent.”8

The focus on gold had other unanticipated effects, one of which was that people began seeing it everywhere. Berton continues:

“A group of Italian labourers in New York City saw gold in some sand in which they were digging and began to talk to newspapermen of fortune. A visitor to Victoria saw gold in an outcropping in a gutter near the city’s post office and tried to stake a claim on the main street. Gold started to turn up in almost every state in the union. Trinity County, California, went wild over the alleged discovery of some old Spanish mines (…). A report from Marquette, Michigan, claimed that the town was sitting on top of a vein of gold forty feet wide (…). Peru tried to revive the gold mines of the Incas; Deadwood announced the discovery of a new gold vein; the old Caribou and Kootenay districts of British Columbia began to report new gold finds. Mexico claimed there was gold in the Yaqui country, Russia insisted there were fabulous mines just across from Alaska, and even China talked about new discoveries.”9

When the rush began, no consensus existed between newcomers and Native peoples in the Yukon regarding gold’s value. Although the metal was valued highly in many Native societies throughout the Americas as both material and resource. In Mesoamerica, gold was the preferred material to create effigies of gods, and Indian people from the Andes considered the metal as coming directly from the heavens—for them the metal was quite literally “sun shit.”10 But for the Yukon’s Tagish and Tlingit people, gold had no existing function or value, although once the opportunity for trade arose within the micro-economies of the Klondike Gold Rush, it quickly began to circulate among Indigenous communities who had previously traded with Russians, Spaniards and British for nearly one hundred years, as well as with other Indigenous peoples since time immemorial. They could see an economic opportunity when presented by one. The Chilkat people charged exorbitant fees to any unwitting prospector looking to cross their territory to enter the Yukon, and for many years leading up to the Klondike Gold Rush they deliberately held off prospectors.11 Those heading with their supplies over the Chilkoot and White Passes had to rely on the high-priced services of Tagish and Tlingit men and women, who were often the only source of labor in the region physically capable of carting the prospectors’ heavy supplies into the Yukon interior. There were a number of instances during the Klondike Gold Rush when the value of resources such as pack dogs, chickens, eggs, and sewing machines, as well as alcohol and entertainment (commodities with an immediate use value), far outweighed what could be traded for gold extracted from the ground.12

Asahel Curtis, Dawson, Yukon Territory, and the Yukon River, ca. 1899, University of Wahsington, Special Collections, A. Curtis 46128.

Unlike at the beginnings of previous gold rushes, early rumors and published reports of the Yukon’s burgeoning mineral wealth initially had little impact to the south. This made the ships’ arrival that much more of a sensation. It was as though a situation of extreme desperation had conjured its own miraculous cure. With the events surrounding the Klondike Gold Rush, the link between desire and economic prosperity was made clear; economic prosperity is the very motor of capitalist desire and vice versa. What these events also indicate is the extent to which magic, belief and luck remained tied to systems of exchange and, ultimately, to the accumulation of capital. Marcel Mauss describes the very origins of economic value as religious in nature. Economic activities, in his view, “retain a ceremonial character that is obligatory and effective.”13 No matter how distanced we are from our collective origins in systems of mutual reciprocity and exchange, these activities remain “full of rituals and rights.”14 In many ways then, money still possesses the magical power that Mauss first observed.15 It was precisely this conception of systems of exchange as intrinsically connected to magical power, ritual, and ceremony that four prominent Seattle businessmen seized upon when they invented the Golden Potlatch, a city-wide festival that rather artfully combined the just-passed prosperity of the Klondike Gold Rush with the mutual reciprocity that is the basis of “potlatch” ceremonies customary in certain Native North American societies, particularly in the northwest of the American continent. 

The Golden Potlatch took place annually for three years from 1911 to 1913, (it was briefly resuscitated between 1935 and 1941 and continues today, in a much different form, as the Seafair Celebration). Central to the festival was an elaborate performance of “sympathetic magic,” including a re-enactment of the docking of the Portland, complete with a small-scale replica of the original ship. In combining the optimism and promise of wealth associated with the gold rush with the communal gifting and wealth redistribution characteristic of the potlatch the organizers perhaps acted in ignorance of the fact that potlatch ceremonies in the United States and Canada were illegal at the time, and this ban was rigorously enforced by missionaries and Indian agents as a part of assimilationist policies in both countries.16 (This ban was notoriously enforced in 1921 at Nimpkish chief Daniel Cranmer’s potlatch in Alert Bay. Some of the ceremonial objects and regalia seized, now considered government property, were incorporated into the collections of the Canadian Museum of Civilization and the Royal Ontario Museum, while the finest pieces were sold to a private collector in New York City.17) Official invitations to the 1911 Golden Potlatch circulated in the form of beautifully typeset postcards. A particularly compelling example included an image of “Siwash Indian Ware Sellers” flanked by portraits of Chief Seattle and Princess Angeline.18 The tag line promised a “Hot Time in a Cool Place.” 

Elbridge W. Merrill, Guests from Angoon at 1904 Sitka potlatch, Alaska State Library.

The 1912 edition was more elaborate. Two hundred and fifty full-scale plaster replicas of totem poles were erected throughout the city along with other public ceremonial markers. Major events included a large parade down Main Street as well as plays, initiations to quite literally “infect” the public with the festival spirit, and a daily media blitz consisting of press releases containing poetry, news, songs, and images to further promote the event.19 The parade, a gesture unabashedly intended to boost the city’s economy, was a form of social narration. Parades are demonstration of power through public spectacle, assisting in solidifying connections with their audiences. As a form of tableau, they rely on elaborate symbolism to “tell” spectators a particular story about society as they pass by. The story of the Golden Potlatch was one of “organized optimism.”20 During the parade, different ethnic groups were displayed and celebrated through dedicated floats. One image is of a float with a large banner reading “Afro-Americans”21; others honored technical advancements in transportation, the city’s burgeoning automobile culture, and local clubs such as the Rotary. Westward expansion and settlement were celebrated with a float dedicated to “The First Cabin,” presumably the home of the first settler in the region. While parades are typically a commemoration of history, the Golden Potlatch also conjured a very specific idea of the future—one linked to economic prosperity and the will for collective wealth redistribution suggested by the purposefully borrowed idea of the potlatch.

Unlike traditional potlatch ceremonies, in the festivities described above no goods, materials or other such tokens were gifted or exchanged. In traditional potlatch ceremonies, goods in the form of material and non-material “wealth” were generally given with the intention that they be “paid back” at a future date—with interest. Potlatches, each with very specific associations and intentions, depending on the local context, are one way in which Native societies honor ancestors, bestow names, repay debts, share resources, settle disputes and instill social values. Peter Lamborn Wilson puts forth the notion that the “spiritual anarchy” arising from the appropriation of Native traditions and beliefs is, in fact, America’s oldest heritage.22 Considering the Golden Potlatch, this idea points to both a desire for economic prosperity, along with the obligatory and ceremonial redistribution of wealth. 

An invention of four of the country’s earliest advertising men (they are not named in texts) from the ranks of Seattle’s biggest downtown promoters—including the Chamber of Commerce, both major newspapers (the Post-Intelligencer and the Seattle Times) and the recently established Seattle Advertising Club—the Golden Potlatch was a self-declared “advertising stunt.”23 The origins of the festival are described as follows:

“Organizers explained that they had borrowed the term ‘potlatch' from the ‘quaint jargon of the Chinook,’ meaning a ‘carnival of sports, music, dancing and feasting, and the distributing of gifts by hosts to all the guests.’ (They) developed an extended Indian fantasy to suggest the exotic and mysterious character of the Potlatch. The Tillikums of Elttaes formed a local ‘secret order. (…) The narrative that shaped the Potlatch festival was that the Hyas Tyee, the 'chief of the North,' paddled to Seattle to visit ‘his white brethren of the South.’ He was attended by leaders of five Alaskan tribes, each represented by a contrived totem. (…) The Hyas Tyee shared his knowledge of the ‘picturesque and romantic Indian North’ with Potlatch visitors, and, in return, the city of Seattle offered him access to ‘the ways of modernity.’”24

Frank H. Nowell, Golden Potlatch parade, Seattle, Washington, ca. 1912,
Don Sherwood Parks History Collection, Seattle Municipal Archives Digital Collection.

The specific ceremony that the Golden Potlatch is conjuring remains integral to Tlingit society in Alaska and in the Yukon, and is practiced today. The memorial ceremony most closely resembling a potlatch is the koo.éex’. It is central to both the spiritual and the healing dimensions of Tlingit societies and commemorates the recently deceased.25 As it is practiced in the present day, during the event a hall is stacked with food and other material goods, ranging from berries, apples, oranges, bread, candy, juice and soft drinks, to blankets and other special gifts intended for specific individuals. The most sacred of objects, the at.óow are not displayed publicly, but are kept out of sight in decorated chests until such time as they are needed in the ceremony (at.óow include robes which are worn at the start of a koo.éex’). It is the at.óow, the most highly valued objects in Tlingit society, that are considered “masterless or ownerless things.” Clan groups collectively act as their stewards in perpetuity.26 Currency in the form of paper money has also entered the ceremonial realm through its integration into the koo.éex’. Small amounts are exchanged more as a symbolic gesture of support than a display of ostentatious wealth, and are given discreetly to friends and relatives of the opposite moiety (a moiety being one of two kinship groups making up the specific community).27 Names of gift-givers are later publicly acknowledged.28

The hosts begin the ceremony with the Gáax or “Cry Section,” one of four normally performed mourning songs. The opposite moiety (the guests) then perform the
L S’aatí Sháa Gaaxí or the “Widow’s Cry,” whose purpose is “to remove the grief of the hosts.”29 The role of the Widow’s Cry is central to understanding the ceremony:

“This interaction in the Widow’s Cry can be confusing at first to people outside of Tlingit tradition, because the removal of grief is directed not toward the surviving spouse, who is also of the guests’ moiety (relations), but by the survivor’s clan toward the clan of the departed! The speeches are directed not primarily or exclusively to the widow and her clan and moiety, but by her relatives to the family and clan of the deceased. This is not to minimize the grief of the widow (or widower), after whom this part of the ceremony is named (and who is of the same moiety as the speakers), but to maximize the consolation offered across moiety lines to a clan of the opposite moiety who has lost a member.”30

This ceremony is an example of the complex relationships of balance and reciprocity central to Tlingit society31 which form the “underlying philosophy of Tlingit tradition and social structure.”32 The economic base is one of symbolic and spiritual support, enacted through the exchange of actual goods. When given and received, this wealth (material or otherwise) is freighted with contractual obligations. For Marcel Mauss, the contractual relationship one enters into through a potlatch is legally binding. Through what he terms “total social phenomena,” “all kinds of institutions are given expression at one and the same time—religious, juridical, and moral, which relate to both politics and the family; likewise economic ones, which suppose special forms of production and consumption, or rather, of performing total services and of distribution.”33 The koo.éex, then, is a permanent form of contractual morality brought about through “total social phenomena,” where the necessity to heal generates an economic act.

Official Invitation Seattle Golden Potlatch. July 15–20 1912, Golden Potlatch Seattle, Washington, July 15–20 1912, CLMorgan Postcard Collection.

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

Frederick N. Irwin, The potlatch bug, 1912, Pacific Northwest Sheet Music: from the Ashford Collection.

It is not useful to simply deem the appropriative act of the Golden Potlatch “good” or “bad.” Instead we must consider what can be gleaned from this act. What Michael Taussig terms “mimetic excess”—an excess or spillage emanating outwards from the original mimetic act that at its most generative creates a “reflective awareness as to the mimetic faculty”42—is also at work in the Golden Potlatch festivities. In the context of post-colonialism, this awareness can provide an opportunity to “live subjunctively as neither subject nor object of history but as both, at one and the same time.”43 Perhaps the re-emergence in Tlingit society of the koo.éex’ after legislation banning the ceremony was lifted is but one manifestation of this opportunity. Here Tlingit ceremonial culture, at once repressed, bastardized and appropriated, breaks free from its association with (only) the past. The integration of Euro-American monetary systems and goods within the ongoing practice of koo.éex’ brings other systems of economic exchange and value to bear on contemporary society.

The hoped-for mimesis sought by the organizers of the Golden Potlatch was decidedly different from its indigenous source. From the outset its intent was not to create a perfect copy but instead borrow from the idea of the potlatch for different objectives. The festival was the public performance of a larger narrative about economic prosperity (always already from a prospector/settler perspective). It was a form of mimetic excess framed by individual desire for wealth and power, made possible by the conjurations of modern-day capitalism. Perhaps to fully enter modernity it was necessary for Seattle to perform this mimesis so as to experience “the freedom to live reality as really made-up.”44 It was in the moment of creative freedom and a quite liberal bastardization of “other” economic values—fueled by a superficial understanding of the potlatch as a cultural institution—that the Golden Potlatch achieved a part of Marcel Mauss’s proposition for hybridized economies articulated in his conclusion to The Gift. In his words: “These concepts of law and economies that it pleases us to contrast: liberty and obligation; liberality, generosity, and luxury, as against savings, interest, and utility—it would be good to put them in the melting pot once more.”45 Mauss argues for the re-recognition of the value of reciprocity and exchange, something that, for him, forms the very basis of social life, and by extension, social values.46

This essay is dedicated to the memory of my great-grandparents, Jessie Jim and Tommy (Togo) Takamatsu. For Jessie, Keish’s niece, the changes brought forth by the Klondike Gold Rush brought much pain; pain she handled in her own way. By contrast, the story of Togo, lured to the Yukon’s shores from Japan by presumably the same desires that brought the first prospectors, is one of cultural adaptation and resilience.

Keish, also known as Skookum Jim, was the Tagish prospector who, along with his brother Tagish Charlie and George Carmack, was responsible for the discovery that began the Klondike Gold Rush. My grandmother, Vera Mattson, relayed to me that upon his death, Keish gave all of his assets to the Anglican Church in Carcross, Yukon, in the hope that his resources would benefit the future of his community.

To them: Gunalchéesh!

  • 1 The Gold Rush had its most immediate impact in Seattle, which was the hub for gold prospectors boarding ships for the North. Documents from the period report that the city emptied out nearly overnight. The mayor was also caught in the craze. Out of town during the ships’ dockings, he sent in his resignation from afar to immediately join the throngs of people heading north. See Pierre Berton, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush 1896–1899, Random House, Toronto 1972. Differing from previous gold rushes in the United States, those struck by the potential of gold in Canada’s North were not only North American but also from Europe—an anomaly that perhaps points to the fact that the desire for the metal was also present throughout a number of countries in Europe, perhaps due to their recent adoption of the gold standard.

  • 2 In the beginning nearly all of the gold extracted from the Yukon was recovered by hand. Prospectors would remove the frozen earth, wait for warmer weather, melt the earth, and run the slurry through a system of wooden troughs. Gold, a relatively heavy metal, would then fall to the bottom of the slurry. This process was mechanized only at the decline of the rush, a development in which the Guggenheim family played a major role. Kevin Hillstrom and Laurie Collier Hillstrom, The Industrial Revolution in America, 3 vols., ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara 2006, p. 82.
  • 3 A detailed description of the conditions of the pass is revealing: The Northwest Mounted Police were stationed at the summit of both (the Chilkoot and White Passes) to ensure that every stampeder was adequately outfitted to survive one year in the Klondike. “Adequate” translated into one ton of goods per person, including food, tents, cooking utensils, and tools (…). Stampeders walked 80 miles for every single mile they moved their provisions. The worst part of the trail (…) was the “Golden Stairs,” 1,500 steps carved out of the mountain ice. Stampeders moved up the stairs in a single line, clutching the rope balustrade, carrying their goods on their backs, 50–60 pounds at a time. The term “stampede” was laughable in such crowded, slow-moving conditions. A single trip up the “Golden Stairs” could take as long as six hours. “The Trails,” National Postal Museum,, accessed 14 Feb. 2019
  • 4 For more information see Barry J. Eichengreen and Marc Flandreau (Eds.), The Gold Standard in Theory and History, Routledge, London 1997.

  • 5 Pierre Berton, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896–1899, Random House, Toronto 1972, p. 93.

  • 6 Ibid., p. 93.

  • 7 The “currency famine” also brought about a number of creative monetary substitutes including “due bills from manufacturers, certified checks, certificates of deposit, and cashier’s cheques in small amounts.” Because of the scarcity of legal currency, it was sold in shops for “two percent over its face amount (and) some large companies made plans to issue a currency of their own that would be redeemable when the banks resumed cash payments.” Markham, “Investment Trusts and the Panic of 1893,” p. 331.

  • 8 Berton, Klondike, 1972, p. 105.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 107.

  • 10 Jimmie Durham, Between the Furniture and the Building (Between a Rock and a Hard Place), Kunstverein München, Munich 1998, p. 85. One of the most stunning examples of the material wealth of Indigenous cultures is found at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC, where a wall filled with thousands of gold objects is on view arranged in constellations representative of the cosmologies of Indigenous societies in the Americas.

  • 11 Michael Gates, Gold at Fortymile Creek: Early Days in the Yukon, UBC Press, Vancouver 1994, pp. 9–10.

  • 12 Michael Gates describes how volatile the values for goods were in the early days of gold prospecting in the Yukon. Values were based on immediate need as well as on speculation; miners were always chasing potential (and largely imagined) riches. Within twenty-four hours (of the Klondike gold strike), the price of a cabin in Circle (City) had dropped from $500 to nearly nothing, while the price of dogs skyrocketed. As the supply of dogs dwindled, so did the size of the teams that were being run. Those lacking dog teams pulled their own sleds—a numbing and heartbreaking task. By the time any of these men arrived in Dawson (City), hundreds of claims had already been staked and the prime ground had already been claimed, in: Ibid., p. 127.

  • 13 Marcel Mauss, The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Society, trans. W. D. Halls, W. W. Norton, New York 1990, pp. 70–74.

  • 14 Ibid., p. 72.
  • 15 Ibid.

  • 16 The potlatch ban was repealed in Canada in 1951. In the US (where the potlatch was less of a threat to assimilationist practices as fewer of the population customarily practiced it) the ban was dropped in 1934. During the ban, when ceremonies were not forced to a halt altogether, they continued in a more subdued form or moved “underground” so as not to attract the attention of overzealous missionaries and/or Indian agents. It was the opinion of missionaries and Indian agents that the potlatch—the very backbone of many Northwest Coast Native societies—was a “worse than useless custom.” It was vehemently regarded as “wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to ‘civilized’ values”; even more curious then, this public emergence in the early 1900s, in the bastardized form of the Golden Potlatch. G. M. Sprout, quoted in Douglas Cole and Ira Chaikin, An Iron Hand upon the People: The Law against the Potlatch on the Northwest Coast, Douglas and McIntyre, Vancouver 1990, p. 15.

  • 17 After the potlatch was decriminalized in Canada, these items were successfully repatriated to the Kwagiulth Museum in Cape Mudge and the U’Mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay following long negotiations. See Aldona Jonaitis, Art of the Northwest Coast, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver 2006, pp. 224–25 and 285–87.

  • 18 See-atch, known as “Chief Seattle,” and his eldest daughter Kikisoblu, known as “Princess Angeline,” were local celebrities. See-atch is best known for a speech attributed to him given in December 1854 during the Treaty Proposals in Seattle. The authenticity of the speech is suspect and is known to have been embellished. It was first translated thirty-three years later by the local poet and settler Dr. Henry A. Smith, who, curiously, was not fluent in the language in which the original speech was delivered. Kikisoblu was among the first Native subjects of photographer Edward S. Curtis. Like the Golden Potlatch, the identities of Chief Seattle and Princess Angeline were largely creations of the public imagination. However, the association of these figures with the Golden Potlatch was likely another means of adding legitimacy to the event. See Bruce Trigger and Wilcomb Washburn, eds., The Cambridge History of Native People’s of the Americas, University of Cambridge, Cambridge 1996.

  • 19 Lorraine McConaghy, “Seattle’s Potlatch Bug, 1912,” Historylink,, accessed 14 Feb. 2019.
  • 20 Ibid.
  • 21 The celebration of different races and classes as part of the Golden Potlatch mirrors the permutations of assumed hierarchies and divisions between race, class, and gender that took place during the Klondike and previous gold rushes. (This was perhaps one of the first instances when cross-dressing was not only tolerated but encouraged in North American culture, Calamity Jane being but one example). The singular focus on one resource, and the (nearly) irreducible power attributed to whoever had it in his or her possession, brought forth intriguing instances of hierarchies being challenged or even flipped on their heads. Relationships and business partnerships between people of different races previously considered unacceptable were normalized, as were partnerships, sexual relations, and marriages between the very rich and the (formerly) very poor. The existence of gold radically levelled the playing field: everyone, regardless of background, had the potential to strike it rich, and this potential nearly trumped all former divisions. During this time moral codes, values, and ethics were hybridized and in some cases invented anew; with these came vernacular forms of law and social justice. See, for example, Gates, Gold at Fortymile Creek, 1994, pp. 83–87, and Mary E. Hitchcock, Two Women in the Frontier, University of Calgary Press, Calgary 2005.

  • 22 Peter Lamborn Wilson, “Caliban’s Masque: Spiritual Anarchy and the Wild Man in Colonial America,” in: Ron Sakolsky and James Koehnline (Eds.), Gone to Croatan: Origins of North American Dropout Culture, Autonomedia/AK Press, Edinburgh 1993, p. 112.

  • 23 McConaghy, “Seattle’s Potlatch Bug, 1912.”

  • 24 Ibid.
  • 25 Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, Haa Tuwunaagu Yís, for Healing our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory, University of Washington Press with the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, Seattle 1990, p. 38.
  • 26 Ibid., pp. 41–43.
  • 27 The two kinship groups for Tlingit are the Raven and Wolf moieties.
  • 28 Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, Haa Tuwunàagu Yís, 1990, p. 43.

  • 29 Ibid., p. 44.

  • 30 Ibid., pp. 47–48.

  • 31 Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer provide a specific example of this sense of balance as follows: The message of consolation is first expressed immediately after someone’s death, and culminates later in the Cry ceremony. First in word and then in ritual action, the guests are saying, “put your spirit against mine.” (…) This is another example of (…) reciprocity through the “bracing” or mutual supporting of each other and of spiritual forces. Haa Tuwunàagu Yís, p. 49.

  • 32 Ibid., pp. 47–48.
  • 33 Mauss, The Gift, 1990, p. 3.

  • 34 McConaghy, “Seattle’s Potlatch Bug, 1912.”

  • 35 Ibid.
  • 36 Berton, Klondike, 1972, p. 107.
  • 37 Matthew Stadler, “Just Here to Help: Global Art Production and Local Meanings,” in: Fillip 8, Fall 2008, pp. 8–19.
  • 38 Ibid.
  • 39 Walter Benjamin, quoted in Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, Routledge, New York 1993, p. xviii.

  • 40 Taussig, Ibid., p. xviii. In Tlingit societies, the understanding that the most sacred of objects “refuse” ownership in turn refuses their fetishization. Here an economy, understood generally as the production and distribution of wealth and systems of exchange, is produced with the well-being of the entire community as its ideological basis.

  • 41 Ibid., p. 22. Also see Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, International Publishers, New York 1967.
  • 42 Ibid., p. 255.

  • 43 Ibid.
  • 44 Ibid., p. 250
  • 45 Mauss, The Gift, 1990, p. 73.
  • 46 I would like to thank Antonia Hirsch for her engaging conversations, close readings, and astute feedback on this essay. She brought forth many ideas and connections between culture and economies that I would not have been able to see on my own.
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