Kwakwaka'wakw. Go ahead, try it.
Margaret Blackman effortlessly pronounced it in the beginning of her April 5 lecture, and it was immediately clear that she knew her stuff.
The word represents a group of people indigenous to the northwestern regions of North America. The Kwakwaka'wakw, as well as several other groups in the Northwest, undergo a special ceremony called "potlatch." This ceremony, particularly its expression by the Haida, another indigenous group, was Blackman's focus.
Blackman is a professor emeritus in the anthropology department at SUNY Brockport, who said she became interested in Native American culture at an early age. Blackman recalled playing childhood games, saying, "It was very funny … when I was a kid I was always an Indian." After seeing a photograph of a Haida dwelling, she said she was hooked.
Blackman conducted her graduate fieldwork with the Haida, spending a significant amount of time with them. She witnessed many of their customs and traditions, including potlatch.
So, what is it? Potlatch is a ceremony commemorating a significant event, like the raising of a house or totem pole, a child's coming of age or in memory of a deceased member of the community. At the ceremony, witnessing guests are given pieces of wealth from the hosting family. This giving of gifts ensures that all will remember the event. A feast, dancing and singing also mark the occasion. It is a ceremony that happens nowhere else in the world.
Potlatches are also used to ensure embarrassing moments are forgotten. The Haida is divided into different groups, depending on ancestral lineage. So, say you're a Haida and you cut down a tree for firewood. It falls on your house. Someone from another Haida group sees you and, needless to say, revels in your embarrassment. You now host a potlatch, invite members of the other group, give away wealth and, in their acceptance of wealth, they commit to never bring up the tree incident again.
The potlatch that seemed most memorable to Blackman was the memorial of a Haida woman named Florence Davidson. Blackman stayed with Davidson during her fieldwork and the two formed a close bond. "She really became my adopted grandmother," Blackman said. Davidson gave her a window inside the culture, as well as a profound friendship.
Blackman's lecture, which was held in Newton 201, precedes the Third Annual Geneseo Potlatch hosted by the Geneseo Anthropological Association. The event set to take place on Friday, April 9 at 10 p.m. as a Late Knight event in the Union Lobby. It will include food, crafts, door prizes and a clothing swap, in which some of the collected items will be donated to charity.