The Puyallup Tribe’s Potlatch Tradition Is the Original Thanksgiving

It won’t come as a surprise to anyone that the real story of Thanksgiving is somewhat more complex than the version most of us are taught in school. This isn’t going to be a deep dive into American history but there are some connections to local traditions that are worth exploring.

The Puyallup Tribe officially recognizes tomorrow and the day after as Potlatch Days. The potlatch tradition originated in the Pacific Northwest but specifics differ from tribe to tribe.

The word “potlatch” comes from the same root as “potluck.” According to “Potlatch in Anthropology” by Neil J. Smelser and Paul B. Baltes, the word comes from a Chinook Jargon word meaning “to give away” or “a gift”; originally from the Nootka word paɬaˑč. The Lushootseed word for potlatch is gʷigʷi and is still used among the Puyallup Tribe today.

One of the common themes among tribes was bringing people together to give gifts and share food. This often happened in the fall after the harvest when there was plenty to give. It was an opportunity to strengthen ties among families and neighboring tribes.

Sound familiar?

George Washington technically proclaimed the first Thanksgiving Day in 1789 but it was kind of a one-off until Lincoln got it going again in 1863. Now consider that, as part of the ongoing effort of oppressive assimilation, potlatches were banned by the federal government in the 1880s. The ban wasn’t lifted until 1934.

(Read more about how the Puyallup Fair is actually a spinoff of the annual Tribal Potlatch)

This isn’t even getting into the fact that the “First Thanksgiving” in 1621 signaled the beginning of the end for many indigenous cultures throughout the Americas.

Reading this, a lot of people will be nodding their heads in agreement. A few people will take this as a personal attack on their closely held family traditions. Please believe me when I say this isn’t meant to shame anyone. We’re not trying to make you feel bad for enjoying a big turkey dinner with family. This is a hard time of year for a lot of people and many of us are still spending it away from family.

We’re simply presenting another piece of an incomplete story you’ve likely been told all your life with the hope that it will inspire conversation and curiosity. There is a huge amount of information out there about the culture and traditions of the Puyallup Tribe as well as other local and regional tribes. 

An easy place to start is to follow these accounts on social media: 

Instagram:

@puyalluptribeofindians

@twulshootseed

Facebook:

Puyallup Tribe of Indians Historic Preservation Department

Twulshootseed Language Program

Photos courtesy of Tacoma Public Library’s Northwest Room

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