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Journal of World History 10.1 (1999) 246-250

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The Potlatch Papers: A Colonial Case History. By Christopher Bracken. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Pp. xii + 276. $40 (cloth); $16.95 (paper).

In The Potlatch Papers Christopher Bracken gives an English-speaking world a fresh and meticulous study of the evolution of colonial fictions and their deployment against the indigenous inhabitants of terra nullius. Bracken focuses on the correspondence surrounding the 1884 banning of the performance of "potlatch" and "tamanous (medicine or power) dances" among the indigenous peoples of the northwest coast to illustrate "the immense web of communication" (p. 1) knitting together colonizer and colonized. Consequently, both parties may benefit from the reading of this volume, which exposes the double edges of the English language that simultaneously devours the life worlds of non-English speakers and carves out of the "wilderness" of other languages and peoples a "civilized place," just like "home." These double edges are revealed by the examination of mail about the "gifting" practices of the aboriginals of the northwest coast. The keenness of these edges exposes the cannibalizing project of the colonial conquest, foreshadowing the semiotic warfare emanating still from this coast—now out of mouths of transnational business and environmentalists, the twin heirs of the colonial era. Bracken unfolds, for all the world to see, the correspondence of the colonist conversation to make transparent its contradictions, its double standards, and its erasure of the inhabitants by European logic "that enact[s] strategies of conceptual dominance" (p. 25).

This work is organized in the metaphor of pachitchl, which in Nuu-chah-nulth means "gifting" and is contested by the nominalization of the activity, "the potlatch," in which the limit, boundaries, and zone of contradictions are drawn. Nuu-chah-nulth did not have a categorical noun that included all the events at which pachitchl was the custom. The word potlatch evolved in "Chinook," the hybrid trade language of the region, and ultimately categorized aboriginal cultural gatherings at which gifts were given. (A modern homology would be [End Page 246] to term every monetary exchange "banking.") Judge Begbie quipped that it was a term coined by white purveyors to promote their wares. As early as 1897 Boas maintained that potlatch was a means of recordkeeping that would disappear with English literacy (p. 218). These aboriginal gatherings were occasions to enact and mark normative rites of passage (such as weddings, memorials, naming of children) and exceptional social-status transitions (that is, special achievements). Such occasions ranged from family to inter-and multi-tribal gatherings. In their defense, some aboriginals claimed what was called potlatch to be their government, their culture, their everything. The formal cultural work of the elaboration of social status occurred in such public ceremonies of the hierarchical culture of the northwest coast First Nations. These nations feasted with friends and enemies, bestowing honor as well as shame. These official forums culminated with gift giving, which anchored the meanings of the event in the hearts and minds of the witnesses. Although the postcontact potlatch included the distribution and destruction of trade goods in competition for hereditary seats/statuses left empty by disease and conversion to Christianity, the oral record of the event became thus enscripted. To this day, gifts are still given to the witnesses of status transitions in the social gatherings of northwest coast First Nations. Bracken's analysis, influenced by Derrida, brings several generations of theorists to bear on the unreflexive correspondence of colonial administrators, such as Sproat, Duncan, Hall, Powell, Vankoughnet, Trutch, and Scott, who provide the data of their perceptions of the philosophical, economic, psychological, and social zone that existed between their internalization of Europe and their thinking about the northwest coast. Their posts demonstrate the "evanescent yet violent effects of [their] writings," (p. 6) whereby Europe is enfolded back onto itself. In their state of "field dependence," the aboriginal culture could not be apprehended except for the most concrete and generalizable aspect—the "gifting." The setting of the analysis begins more than 100 years after the Royal Proclamation of 1763...