Northwest Coast Ranked Societies

Inherited Rights, Social Position, and Political Power

With their surplus of food to support permanent and densely populated communities, the peoples of the Northwest Coast developed the chiefdom type of political system. Chiefdoms are non-egalitarian societies, in which there is an emphasis on ranked social positions and hereditary rights and ownership of resources. There is a centralized authority -- the chief -- and a hierarchy of authority under the chief. Northwest Coast chiefs, as most chiefs elsewhere, had the right to control and redistribute the surplus economic resources in their communities.

The Potlatch of the Northwest Coast

The potlatch is a great gift-giving ceremony that serves to validate the rights and privileges of the chiefs and their kinship groups.The word potlatch , which means "to give," comes from the Chinook language, out of which developed the primary trade language used in the Northwest Coast area in the historic period.

In aboriginal times a potlatch might last several days and included feasting, speechmaking, ceremonial dancing and singing, the display of valuable objects and symbols, and the ostentatious giving of gifts to all the guests present. A village and its chief would invite neighboring villages to be their guests -- to be witnesses to the announcements and events taking place at the feast and to receive gifts from the host chief. Potlatches were given to name a new chief or heir, to mourn and memoralize a dead chief or other noble, to celebrate the marriage or birth of a high ranking person, and to validate the ownership of rights and privileges or their transfer from one person to another. Examples of such rights include the ownership of specific fishing and hunting locations, the privilege of displaying particular crests and symbols on houses, totem poles, clothing, etc., and the right to dance or sing in a certain way.

During the ceremonial feast, each guest was given a gift, the value of which was determined by that guest's rank and social importance in the society. Chiefs and nobles were given the most valuable gifts, while commoners were given items of lesser value. Everyone received something. When a guest accepted a gift, he/she publicly recognized and validated the rights of the chief and village hosting the potlatch. A chief -- and by extension, his family and entire village -- acquired prestige by the holding of a potlatch and the giving of gifts. The potlatch also served to redistribute wealth among villages and to tie villages to one another socially.

Potlatches are still important ceremonies among contemporary native peoples of the Northwest Coast and are often given for some of the same reasons as in earlier times: the memoralizing of the dead, the marriage of high-ranking individuals, and to validate the transfer of inherited rights and privileges.

In most of the linguistic groups of the Northwest Coastal culture area, social ranking was determined by an individualÕs genealogical ties to the chief. Generally, there were three major ranked groups -- nobles, commoners, and slaves -- within which individuals were further ranked. At the top of the social scale were the nobles: the chiefs and their close relatives. They were the nominal owners of most of the property and resources, inheriting those rights and privileges through their membership in a clan. A clan is a kinship group whose members are all related through their mothers (matrilineal descent) or through their fathers (patrilineal descent) and which traces its ancestry back to some mythological founder in the distant past. Among most of the Northwest Coastal cultures, clans were also ranked with one another. Each clan had a huge, multifamily house in which all members of the group lived. The chief and other nobles had the best places in the house, with commoners and slaves in the less desirable areas. Chiefs and nobles inherited the right to titles and the privilege to display family crests. They wore fine clothes with ornaments and symbols of their rank. They inherited the right to control the spirit power of supernatural beings.They could pass on their honors to heirs, and they were supposed to marry within their rank.They owned and had the privilege of dancing certain dances, singing particular songs, and hosting feasts and potlatches. Nobles did not do menial work such as fetching firewood and water.


Commoners belonged to the same clans as did the nobles, but were those individuals who had more distant kin ties to the chief. They usually did their own work, but might have slaves they had taken in raids to do some of the menial things. Commoners owed tribute to the chief in the form of meat and other foods and resources, and they were responsible for helping to supply the necessary food and gift items a chief would give away in a potlatch. Commoners were ranked according to one another, depending upon the closeness of their kin ties with the chief. Commoners could often be raised in rank and given some minor privileges due to their special skills or heroic acts in war.

Slaves were usually individuals from other villages or tribal groups who had been taken in war and raids. They had no social status, other than being ranked below everyone else. They did all the menial labor and might even be sacrificed on special occasions, such as to accompany a dead chief or noble in death. However, they lived in the same houses as did the other members (commoners and nobles) of the community, and generally were as well fed. It is said that a slave was sometimes set free, if he were particularly skilled at something.


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