Pacific Northwest First Nations enjoyed a relatively easy lifestyle, with food readily available from the nearby sea and forest. This comparative wealth gave rise to a sophisticated society with four distinct classes. The highest class consisted of the village chief and his family — the nobility. After this came the aristocracy, which, like the nobility, enjoyed wealth and privileges associated with their rank. The bulk of society consisted of commoners who enjoyed a freedom and rights but little privileges. At the bottom were the slaves, who had no rights.
Everyone knew his place in the hierarchy, which was reflected in a person’s name and title. Birthrights went so far as to permit (or refuse) the use of certain designs and emblems, and even certain songs.
The potlatch was a chance to show high social standing. Potlatches were celebrations held in honour of a clan, in which the hosts gave out lavish gifts to show their social status. Potlatches were organized by the richest inhabitants of a village. The ability to be extravagantly generous was taken as proof of authority. The potlatch — a word that means “giving” — ensured that property was redistributed in the village, and not concentrated in the hands of the rich. Commoners could benefit from the potlatch ceremony. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, the potlatch had become an outlet for rivalry. Having invited rivals or enemies to the gathering, the host distributed the gifts in ways that were sure to humiliate them — for example, giving out rare and costly items to establish dominance, or burning or destroying valuables in a showy manner.