THE great occasion in the life of a Northwest Indian, before the turn of the century, was the potlatch. A ceremonial extravaganza that began with gargantuan meals of fish oil and sea food, progressed to bouts of boasting, the potlatch roared to a climax with a prodigious distribution of goods. For a less arrogant, less competitive people, this might have been only a pleasant custom, but for the tribes living an easy life in the mild, rich country between Vancouver and Yakutat Bay, Alaska, the feasts turned into mad giveaway races. Each "gift" was...

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