Wirtschaftsethnologie und Politische Anthropologie - Staatenbildung und die Ökonomie von Kula und Potlatch

Potlatch and Slaves

Copper Shields

Their form did not change throughout the ages: a shieldlike plate divided into two parts. On the lower part there is a relief in the form of a T. The size of the plates varied and the larger objects were of course more valuable than the smaller ones.

Certain plates are decorated in the upper part with carvings and paintings, representing animals which are similar to those on houses and other objects and which symbolize their owners’ crest. According to the complex Indian cosmology, men descended from animals and, as a consequence, each family had a unique kinship bond with a specific animal. This bond entitled them to engrave these animals on their objects.

The coppers, which are still used today, experienced a real golden age in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Due to contacts with western explorers and merchants their production increased substantially. However, there are several indications that suggest they were already in use before the first contacts with the West, about 1790.

The coppers were an exceptionally important symbol in the northwestern societies of the American continent. Apart from being a means of payment in a complex system of transactions, they were also a symbol of wealth and prestige.

Blankets, Chilkat Blankets and Slaves

The value of a large copper e.g. can be compared to ten slaves or The countervalue of coppers could be expressed in a number of slaves or blankets, another forty to eighty blankets. Moreover, the last transaction the copper was involved in determined its value. Furthermore, all supplementary transactions raised its value.

"Secondly, as mentioned before, the coppers also had a special meaning regarding the slaves during the ceremonial: they could be part of the goods that were distributed or they could be killed during the ritual to demonstrate their owner’s wealth. Fortunately, the slaves were sometimes replaced by the coppers, that were destroyed instead. "

Quelle: © Museum of the National Bank of Belgium