Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Five or So Questions on Potlach

I had a great interview with the creators of Potlach: A Game about East Coast Salish Economics! The researchers and creators of Potlach, The N.D.N. Players, are Jeanette Bushnell, PhD; Jonathan S. Tomhave, PhD; and Tylor Prather. We talked about the origins of the game and the meanings that are held in the cards and language of the game. Check out the interview below!


Picture of the Potlach cards on a table - lovely artwork!

Tell me a little about Potlach: A Card Game About Coast Salish Economics. What excites you about it?

Potlach: A Card Game About Coast Salish Economics is a strategic, educational card game based on indigenous philosophies. It is designed to meet K-12 educational standards for teaching about native history, economics, culture, and government. Potlatch was developed as a community effort with local elders and language experts. The game is written in both English and Lushootseed, an indigenous language of the Salish Sea region. Game mechanics are based on sharing resources to
meet other players’ needs for food, materials, technology, and knowledge.

What excites me about our game is that as you play it, you get a shift in your thinking towards valuing sharing within a community rather than accumulating as an individual. Or, as one of our early game testers wrote, “A big change in thinking from other games. I started out thinking about what I was getting and by the end it was more important the way I was sharing.”

Players at a table playing Potlach with great enthusiasm!
What was the impetus for making Potlach into a game?

The impetus to make a game based on indigenous philosophy came after a couple years of analyzing games for our podcasts. For indigenous scholars like ourselves who study systemic oppressions (and live them), analyzing and playing game after game that reproduced these oppression got tedious. One aspect in particular was individual accumulation – a concept often associated with capitalism. So, one night, Tylor said he’d always wanted to develop a board game and we started working on one that used concepts and values from indigenous economic systems rather than those from capitalism. Eventually we decided on looking at the very specific system local to us (Salish Sea region) that redistributed wealth.

The word potlatch comes from Nuu-chah-nulth who live in what is now British Columbia, Canada. The word was altered via the commerce language knows as Chinook Jargon that was used throughout Washington and British Columbia after Europeans settled in the area. Potlach is not a Lushootseed word but has become commonly used to describe events associated with wealth distribution actions.

The "above waterfall" card with the number 3 in a primary color at each corner, and the card name in English and Lushootseed. The style is really easily understood, which I love.
How do the basic mechanics work?

The deck has two types of cards – Resource Cards and House Cards.

Each player has one House Card that indicates the size of their extended family dwelling. Historically, the largest known house was Old Man House at Suquamish, WA. (Link to press release from 2014 about this dwelling.) Our House Cards are sized as having 3, 4, 5, or 6 fires that indicate the amount of resource needs for the people in the house.

Every player is dealt six resource cards of various types and sizes. Players take turns Gifting their Resources to meet the house needs of other players.

With the cards representing resources that are being given gifts, how do players understand the meaning and importance of those concepts - is it through language, symbols, or how the cards can be used, or something else?

Primarily our game is about a sharing-based economic system so what players tend to notice the most is that the play moves them to strategizing ways to insure that every players has all their needs met rather than one player accumulating more of anything.

The game can actually be played without understanding the meaning and concepts of the various cards. The cards are all color-coded and numbered to facilitate play. That said, each card has a picture and the name of the item in both English and Lushootseed (the local indigenous language).

Based on our own experiences of attending potlatches (or giveaways) in Washington, Alaska, and British Columbia we developed four types of giftable resources. Then we talked to some local elders and language experts and finalized the types of resources as: food, gathered materials, crafted technologies, and teachings.

Ideally, players will look at and read the cards while playing. We are working on a Teacher’s Guide to facilitate more teaching about local resources. With the success of the Kickstarter Campaign, we will have some funds to make a podcast with a native Lushootseed speaker so players can hear what the Lushootseed words sound like.

The "clam" card with the number 4 in red at the corner, and the card name in English and Lushootseed.
What are the important parts of the gifting and, to me, ethical caring that are demonstrated in Potlach - to you and from your world perspective?

Our game is about an economic system that very pragmatically assures that all members of society respectfully have their needs met so that they can continue being active and valued participants. From our world perspective, in which all things are interconnected and impact each other in highly complex and nuanced ways, it would be illogical to do anything else. Keeping the system in balance is the ultimate goal.

Gifting is the word we use to represent the reciprocal distribution and redistribution of available resources. The societies that have used this system are highly complex and have many ancillary systems in place.

The N.D.N. Players logo!


Thank you so much to Jeanette, Jonathan, and Tylor for the interview! I hope you all liked the interview and that you'll check out Potlach: A Card Game About East Salish Economics on Kickstarter today!

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