Potlatches were usually held to announce that a new person was taking the position of chief.
Some Native American groups, however, used them to celebrate more personal events, such as a marriage or the naming of a child. Occasionally, a chief might hold a small potlatch if he had been embarrassed in public. For instance, if he fell out of a canoe in front the village, he might distribute gifts as a way of buying back his dignity.
No matter what the occasion, a host family had another reason for holding a potlatch. In Northwest Native American cultures, people’s place in society was not determined by how much wealth they kept, but how much they were willing and able to give away. To maintain the respect of other people in their village, a wealthy family had to host a potlatch from time to time.
Often, families used potlatches to compete with one another for social status. Among the Kwakiutl in the early twentieth century, an elaborate potlatch could cost a family as much as $40,000.
In addition to traditional goods, giveaways at these events might include manufactured items such as sewing machines, pool tables, and outboard motors.