Fillip 13 — Spring 2011

The Golden Potlatch
: Study in Mimesis and Capitalist Desire
Candice Hopkins

The docking of two steamships, the Excelsior and the Portland, filled with gold mined from Canada’s Yukon Territory and then-newly rich prospectors, was perhaps the single most significant event to take place on the West Coast during the late 1800s. Immediately boosting the economies of individual cities as well as that of the country as a whole, it brought the intricate relationships between belief (in this instance belief in the potential for economic prosperity), capitalist desire, and wealth into public consciousness. When the Excelsior arrived in San Francisco’s harbour on July 15, 1897, it caused a media frenzy; photos of individuals hauling sacks and suitcases off the ship, some cargo so full with the precious metal that it required more than one person to lift it, quickly circulated. But it was the Portland’s arrival in Seattle two days later, containing even more gold, over two tons of loot, 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 from the United States, abandoned their previous lives to become prospectors, suppliers, and showgirls, and to pursue numerous other vernacular vocations in an environment utterly foreign to them.1 (While the rush seemingly started over night, gold was found and mined in the Yukon for nearly a quarter of a century prior to the big strike.)2 Because of its harsh climate, the Klondike presented far more personal risk to its prospectors than any of the previous gold rushes.3 Many never made it beyond the first leg of the ridiculously gruelling journey across the Chilkoot Pass, one of the only ways to reach the mineral-rich Yukon.4

The Portland and the Excelsior arrived at a fortuitous moment. They docked just following a period of severe economic depression in the United States. The first depression, the Panic of 1873, was precipitated by an over-investment in railroads—an economy with slow returns—as well as the switch from bimetallism to a monometallic de facto gold standard brought about by the introduction of the United States Coinage Act of 1873. The act introduced a new monetary system whereby the standard economic unit was based on the fixed weight of gold.5 The (over)emphasis on one metal almost immediately resulted in its being perceived as scarce. The perception was somewhat justified by the disparity between the increased demand for the metal and its rate of extraction. With the introduction of the gold standard, by law 40% gold bullion was required to back the US Federal Reserve, capping economic expansion at the level of available reserves.6 The speed at which many European countries also adapted to the gold standard further contributed to the crisis that, initially, was largely imagined. Between 1873 and 1897, Germany, Belgium, Italy, Switzerland, France, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Finland, and the Austrian Empire made the switch (following Britain, Canada adopted the gold standard much earlier, in 1853). The belief in gold’s scarcity and its rapid increase in value, combined with feverish demand, had a deep effect on US citizens. Gold was quickly hoarded in “socks, sugar bowls, and under floorboards, and in personal safes.”7 Savings were withdrawn from banks, causing bank runs, and a series of economically devastating bank failures followed. The number of gold coins and gold certificates in active circulation was also rapidly reduced, and by 1892 “only one hundred and ninety million in gold coin and gold certificates out of a total of seven hundred and thirty million” remained in the US Treasury.8 Recognizing this as a state of emergency, then-President Cleveland borrowed $65 million in gold from J. P. Morgan and Associates, the Wall Street bank, to shore up reserves in the US Treasury.9 An estimated 15,000 companies and 500 banks failed (many in the Western United States) during this period. At its peak, between 17% and 19% of the workforce was unemployed. The slump morphed into outright panic in 1893 when foreign governments lost faith that the US government could maintain its payments in gold. This was the bleakest economic period yet experienced in the United States.10

It is not surprising, then, that when the two ships docked, loaded with the coveted metal, the event immediately took on mythical dimensions. Images and stories of the public spectacle that surrounded this moment were widely circulated in news media, providing the very boost the economy needed. The event was read, locally and abroad, as a sign of the United States’ newfound economic prosperity. (While the Klondike is in Canada, most of the gold tapped was brought to markets in the United States; because of geographic proximity and infrastructure established during previous gold rushes, the US was better equipped to handle this new influx of gold.) It is arguably this very belief in economic prosperity, stoked by the widely circulated “signs”—the images of two gold-filled ships—rather than the influx of real monetary resources, that had the most impact in transforming the US 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.11

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.12

There was no consensus between newcomers and local Native people in the Yukon regarding the value of gold when the rush first started. Although gold was highly valued among many Native societies throughout the Americas as a material and resource, it had no existing function or value for Tagish and Tlingit people of the Yukon. In Meso-America, 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.”13 Once the opportunity to trade the resource arose within the micro-economies of the Klondike Gold Rush, it was also quickly brought into circulation among local Native people. Prospectors came in search of a material whose value accrued only at a distance, once removed from the land and brought to markets in the United States, Europe, and to a lesser degree, Canada. But the prospectors weren’t the only ones looking to capitalize. Local Native populations had already been trading with Russians, Spaniards, and British for nearly one hundred years, and with other Indigenous tribes since time immemorial. They saw the situation and shrewdly took it for what it was: an economic opportunity. 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.14 Those heading with their supplies over the Chilkoot and White Passes (the two main routes to enter the mineral-rich gold fields) had to rely on the high-priced services of Tagish and Tlingit men and women, often the only people physically capable of carrying the prospectors’ heavy supplies into the interior Yukon. 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 tapped from the ground.15 Gold attained its “real” market value only outside of its local context, and much of the Klondike’s economic impact asserted itself outside the Yukon. Canada was also not in a position to benefit economically from its own resources. The US, having already experienced other rushes, had developed an infrastructure enabling the country to immediately profit from the Klondike. This was accentuated by geographic conditions: the most direct route to get gold out of the Yukon was to exit back over the passes and onto ships destined for US ports. Once at those ports, the gold was weighed, processed, and sold to enter local and global markets.

Unlike at the beginnings of previous gold rushes, early rumours as well as published reports on the Yukon’s burgeoning mineral wealth initially had little impact in 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 point to is the degree to which magic, belief, and luck remains 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.”16 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.”17 In many ways then, money still possesses the magical power that Mauss first observed.18 It is this understanding of magical power, ritual, and ceremony attached to systems of exchange that four prominent Seattle businessmen drew 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 operating at the heart of the “potlatch” ceremony customary among certain Native North American societies. 

Following its first iteration in 1911, the Golden Potlatch took place annually for three years (it was briefly resuscitated between 1935 and 1941 and continues today, in a much different form, as the Seafair Celebrations). 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. The organizers—in combining the optimism and promise of wealth associated with the gold rush along with the communal gifting and redistribution of wealth characteristic of the potlatch—were perhaps ignorant of the fact that potlatch ceremonies in the United States and Canada were illegal at the time and that this ban was rigorously enforced by missionaries and Indian agents as a part of assimilationist policies in both countries.19 (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.20) 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.21 The tag line promised a “Hot Time in a Cool Place.” 

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.22 The parade, an unabashed advertising gesture intended to boost the city’s economy, was a form of social narration. A demonstration of power through public spectacle, parades assist in solidifying connections with their audiences; as a form of tableau they rely on an elaborate symbolism that “tells” spectators a particular story about society as they pass by. The story of the Golden Potlatch was one of “organized optimism.”23 During the parade, different ethnic groups were displayed and celebrated through dedicated floats. One image shows a float with a large banner reading “Afro-Americans,”24 while others honoured technical advancements in transportation, burgeoning car culture, and local clubs including the Rotary.25 Westward expansion and settlement were promoted with a float dedicated to “The First Cabin,” (presumably the home of the first settler in the region). While parades commemorate history in the present moment, the Golden Potlatch also conjured a very specific idea of the future: one linked to economic prosperity and to the will for a collective redistribution of wealth offered by the purposefully borrowed idea of the potlatch.

Unlike traditional potlatch ceremonies, in the festivities associated with the Golden Potlatch no goods, materials, or other tokens were gifted or exchanged. In customary potlatch ceremonies, goods in the form of material and non-material “wealth” are 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 honour ancestors, give names, repay debts, share resources, settle disputes, and instil social values. Peter Lamborn Wilson puts forth that “spiritual anarchy,” arising from the appropriation of Native traditions and beliefs, is in fact America’s oldest heritage.26 Relative to the Golden Potlatch, this perhaps points to both a desire for economic prosperity along with the obligatory and ceremonial sharing 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 brand new Seattle Advertising Club—the Golden Potlatch was a self-declared “advertising stunt.”27 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.”28

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.29 During the event as it is practiced now, 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 to be given to specific individuals. The most sacred of objects, the at.óow are not displayed publicly, but are instead kept in decorated chests out of sight until they are actively used as part of 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, which are considered the “masterless or ownerless things.” Clan groups collectively act as their stewards in perpetuity.30 Currency, in the form of paper money, has also entered the ceremonial realm through its integration into the koo.éex’. Small amounts are exchanged as a symbolic gesture of support rather than as a display of competitive 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).31 The names of those who have given are later publicly acknowledged.32

The hosts begin the ceremony with the Gáax or “Cry Section,” one of four mourning songs normally performed. This is followed by the 
L S’aatí Sháa Gaaxí, or the “Widow’s Cry,” a song performed by the opposite moiety (the guests). Its purpose is to respond “to remove the grief of the hosts.”33 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.34

This ceremony is an example of complex relationships of balance and reciprocity central to Tlingit society.35 These relationships form the “underlying philosophy of Tlingit tradition and social structure.”36 The emphasis on economy in this context is based on symbolic and spiritual support and the exchange of actual goods for community members. When given and received, this wealth (material and otherwise) is weighted 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.”37 The koo.éex’ then is a permanent form of contractual morality brought about through “total social phenomena,” where the necessity for healing generates an economic act. 

It is this ceremony, emptied of its spiritual dimensions and specific cultural context, from which the Golden Potlatch liberally borrows. 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 to create 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 once again conjure 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 is the very thing that mobilized this narrative. In a moment of genius marketing, the men behind the Golden Potlatch created the perfect mascot for their event. Called the Potlatch Bug, it emerged in 1912 during the second iteration of the summer festival as the event’s emblem and highly recognizable “brand.” Represented in a style now typical of the aesthetics of Northwest Coast Native art, with its face painted in red and white with black form lines, the Bug was more human than insect-like. 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” (italics mine).38 They even went so far as to invent a “Bug High Priest,” a figure who merged religion 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.” With what one can imagine was a combination of religious zeal and the focus of ritual, this injection was “administrated by an Ad Club member who attended the meeting in full regalia.”39 Pierre Berton similarly describes the effects of the Klondike Gold Rush (the event the Golden Potlatch attempted to conjure) as a malady. In his words: “So infectious was the Klondike epidemic that that flimsiest rumour served to send hundreds dashing to the farthest corners of the northern hemisphere.”40 The Golden Potlatch, with its performative rhetoric of the “sickness” associated with 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 the 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 the 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, succinctly described as “a set of relationships marked by an imbalance of power that is the crossing point of divergent needs.”41 Orientalism, “in its central operation, [is characterized by] a dominant narrator [who] idealizes a [perceivably] passive subject to produce images that illustrate or embody possibilities the dominant narrator desires but can not tolerate in itself.”42 These desires (to be healed, for economic prosperity, and the communal distribution of wealth) were 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” (italics mine).43 A compelling image from the Golden Potlatch shows the four progenitors of the festival dressed in stunning authentic woven Tlingit raven’s tail ceremonial robes with traditional headdresses and 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, and demonstrates how objecthood (and, by extension, culture) is increasingly fetishized under capitalism.44 Within the context of modernity, this fetishization emerges at the point where contact between people is displaced by contact between people and commodities.45 One of the characteristics of modernity is the bringing forth of “a sudden re-juxtaposition of the very old with the very new,” and with this the re-emergence of the mimetic faculty.46

It is not useful to simply deem the appropriative act of the Golden Potlatch “good” or “bad,” but instead to consider what can be gleaned from this act. What Michael Taussig terms “mimetic excess” is also at work in the Golden Potlatch festivities—this excess is what oscillates out from the original mimetic act, an excess or spillage that, at its most generative, creates a “reflective awareness as to the mimetic faculty.”47 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.”48 Perhaps the re-emergence of the koo.éex’ in Tlingit society after legislation banning the ceremony was lifted is but one manifestation of this opportunity, where a rupture is created. Here Tlingit ceremonial culture, at once repressed, bastardized, and appropriated, breaks free from its association with (only) the past; the ongoing practice of the koo.éex’, and the integration of Euro-American monetary systems and goods within this ceremony, for example, brings other systems of economic exchange and value to bear on contemporary society.

The mimesis brought about by the Golden Potlatch was decidedly imperfect. From the outset its intent, I think, was not to create a perfect copy, but instead to 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’s/settler’s perspective). It was a form of mimetic excess framed by individual desire for wealth and power made possible by the conjuring of modern-day capitalism. Perhaps to fully enter modernity it was necessary for Seattle to perform this mimesis, to experience “the freedom to live reality as really made-up.”49 It was in the moment of creative freedom and a quite liberal bastardization of “other” economic values—fuelled by generalized understandings of the potlatch—that the Golden Potlatch achieved some of Marcel Mauss’s proposition for hybridized economies brought forth in his conclusion to the book 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.”50 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.51

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 that she handled in her own way; the story of Togo, lured to the Yukon’s shores from Japan by presumably the same desires that brought the first prospectors, was 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 better 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 (Toronto: Random House, 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. For an excellent account of the early days of prospecting in the Yukon leading up to the Klondike Gold Rush, see Michael Gates, Gold at Fortymile Creek: Early Days in the Yukon (Vancouver: UBC Press, 1994).
  3. 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. (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 82.
  4. 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 August 6, 2010.
  5. For more information see Barry J. Eichengreen and Marc Flandreau, eds., The Gold Standard in Theory and History (London: Routledge, 1997).

  6. Edward C. Simmons, “The Elasticity of the Federal Reserve,” American Economic Review 26, no. 4 (December 1936), 683–90. 

  7. Pierre Berton, Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896–1899 (Toronto: Random House, 1972), 93.

  8. Ibid., 93.

  9. Jerry W. Markham, “Investment Trusts and the Panic of 1893,” in A Financial History of the United States, vol. 1, From Christopher Columbus to the Robber Barons (1492–1900) (New York: M. E. Sharpe, 2001), 331.

  10. 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,” 331.

  11. Berton, Klondike, 105.

  12. Ibid., 107.

  13. Jimmie Durham, Between the Furniture and the Building (Between a Rock and a Hard Place) (Munich: Kunstverein München, 1998), 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.

  14. Gates, Gold at Fortymile Creek, 9–10.

  15. 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. Gates, Gold at Fortymile Creek, 127.

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

  17. Ibid., 72.

  18. Ibid.

  19. 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 (Vancouver: Douglas and McIntyre, 1990), 15.

  20. 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 (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2006), 224–25 and 285–87.

  21. 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 (Cambridge: University of Cambridge, 1996).

  22. Lorraine McConaghy, “Seattle’s Potlatch Bug, 1912,” Historylink,, accessed June 1, 2010.

  23. Ibid.

  24. 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, 83–87, and Mary E. Hitchcock, Two Women in the Frontier (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2005).

  25. Images are available at,,
  26. 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 (Edinburgh: Autonomedia/AK Press, 1993), 112.

  27. McConaghy, “Seattle’s Potlatch Bug, 1912.”

  28. Ibid.

  29. Nora Marks Dauenhauer and Richard Dauenhauer, Haa Tuwunaagu Yís, for Healing our Spirit: Tlingit Oratory (Seattle: University of Washington Press with the Sealaska Heritage Foundation, 1990), 38. 

  30. Ibid., 41–43. 

  31. The two kinship groups for Tlingit are the Raven and Wolf moieties.

  32. Dauenhauer and Dauenhauer, Haa Tuwunàagu Yís, 43.

  33. Ibid., 44.

  34. Ibid., 47–48.

  35. 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, 49.

  36. Ibid., 47–48.

  37. Mauss, The Gift, 3.

  38. McConaghy, “Seattle’s Potlatch Bug, 1912.”

  39. Ibid.

  40. Berton, Klondike, 107.

  41. Matthew Stadler, “Just Here to Help: Global Art Production and Local Meanings,” Fillip 8 (Fall 2008), 8–19.

  42. Ibid.

  43. Walter Benjamin, quoted in Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993), xviii.

  44. Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, 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.

  45. Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, 22. Also see Karl Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: International Publishers, 1967).

  46. Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity, 20.

  47. Ibid., 255.

  48. Ibid., 255.

  49. Ibid., 250.

  50. Mauss, The Gift, 73.

  51. 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.

Image: Golden Potlatch Parade, 1912. Courtesy of University of Washington.

About the Author

Candice Hopkins is a curator at the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa) and former Director and Curator of Exhibitions at the Western Front (Vancouver). Her writing has been published by MIT Press, Black Dog Publishing, New York University Press, and the National Museum of the American Indian (Washington, DC), among others. She has lectured at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (Rotterdam), Tate Modern and Tate Britain (London), and the 2004 Dakar Biennale, among others. In 2012, she led the residency Trading Post at the Banff Centre, which looked at the relationships between indigenous forms of economy and exchange, and she was a keynote speaker for dOCUMENTA (13)on the topic of sovereign imagination.

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