Essay: Attending My First Tlingit Memorial Potlatch

First posted in July, 2003

Last Friday night I attended the payback party/potlatch for Johnny Anthony. He was a relative of a coworker of mine, and he died of cancer just shy of his 21st birthday a couple of years ago. I didn't know him, but Amanda invited me to the potlatch, and, after multiple pleas to make sure that it wasn't inappropriate for me to attend, I agreed to go.

I should back up a bit. For the uninitiated, I live in a community of 650 or so souls in the northern stretch of southeastern Alaska. The village is 52% Tlingit Indian, and the culture is very much omnipresent here. All Tlingits belong to a clan, and there are basically five clans in Yakutat. Each clan is part of one of two moieties (or super clans), called Eagle and Raven. These two moieties serve a few purposes. For one, it creates a needed social barrier; eagles can only marry ravens, and vice versa. Marrying within your moiety is very much looked down upon, even if you are distantly related (or not related at all) in Anglo-American terms. Until this century, marrying within your moiety could get you exiled or killed.

The other very wonderful thing that moieties do is that they provide a basis and protocol for social interaction. If an eagle dies, the ravens step in and take care of everything during the family's time of mourning. They make the arrangements for the memorial service, dig the grave, provide food, etc, etc.

Forty days after someone has died, the spirit can finally depart the earth, and the clans have a Forty Day Party, more generally termed a potlatch, to celebrate that event. This potlatch is also put on by the ravens for the deceased eagle and his/her moiety/clan/house, who are still in mourning. At this potlatch, everyone gathers, a bit of food is burned to feed the spirit of the deceased, and in that way the clan shares a last meal with the deceased before s/he departs the earth.

The eagles, understandably, are appreciative of the help of the ravens in this, and have what's called a Payback Party (also a specific type of potlatch). The payback party can happen after a year or however long it takes for the eagles to save up for such an event. There is another grand feast, during which there are again burnt food offerings, but this time the food feeds not only the deceased but all the other descendants in that line. Gifts and money are given to all the ravens that helped during the initial period after the death.

You have to be invited to a potlatch, and its somewhat rare to be invited if you're not a member of a clan, so I was rather amazed that I was invited, especially since I had never met Johnny. But I was happy I attended, and I received some very positive feedback for attending. People are happy that I've given Johnny's relative some good career/growth opportunities, taught her more about the land, and counseled her a bit in preparing for college. When the paybacks were distributed, I actually received a small gift of food and a few dollars, which shocked me.

The evening was fantastic. We enjoyed a wonderful meal of many traditional Yakutat/Tlingit dishes, some old and traditional, such as red seaweed, seal oil, baked salmon and dried salmon. Other foods were newer on the scene, such as moose stew (moose have only lived her for about 50 years), corn, rice, fry bread, and herring eggs (a delicacy always available in Yakutat but only introduced to Tlingit by the Japanese nearly a century ago). It was my first time trying seal oil, and despite its rather heavy smell found it to be very pleasant and a wonderful addition to herring eggs and dried fish. Erin, another coworker who was also in attendance, was not so impressed with the seal oil, however. To each their own.

In addition to the meal, a few people were adopted into the tribe. I learned how this is done and watched as they gave Tlingit names to a few very fortunate people and adopted them into clans. That must truly be an honor.

I'm probably leaving things out, but in short it was a wonderful evening of fellowship. I feel very blessed to have been invited and I had a fantastic time. It was the celebration of a life, with love and friendship, smiles and tears.