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The Potlatch Feast

My husband and I visited Vancouver before an Alaskan cruise. We learned much about the culture of the First Nation peoples through their art. Serving food to large gatherings of people was central to many ceremonial gatherings for the Tlingit, Haida and other groups that live in the northwest. These feasts could last for days and guests could number in the hundreds. The ceremonies surrounding the Potlatch reinforced the social structure of the community through storytelling, dancing, totem pole raising, feasting, gift giving and teaching the young to preserve the identity of a particular clan or family. A Potlatch could take years to prepare and include people who traveled great distances.

Favorite family recipes were served in “house dishes” that could hold immense quantities of food. Canoes and large serving dishes were carved with the names and histories of the clan. These serving vessels are translated as “feasting on the floor of the house.” The placement of these dishes and the manner in which the chiefs were served from its various parts would reflect the rank of each tribe. There were images of whales, sea lions, wolfs, ravens, crows and other supernatural beings. These containers for food were among the most valued possessions passed on through marriage and inheritance.

Gathering together as family and friends for a shared meal is central to every culture. Our own Thanksgiving traditions are founded in the relationships nurtured between the Native Americans and the colonists who came to this new land. As we prepare for Thanksgiving and the many other “feasts” during this holiday season, may we take time to really listen to each other’s stories, hopes and dreams. May we recognize our connectedness to those gathered around our tables and to all of humanity.

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