The coppers of north-west America, an extraordinary means of payment!  Share

The coppers originate from the north-west of the United States and Canada. They were used by five groups of Indians: the Haidas, Tlinglits, Timishians, Kwakiutls and Bella Collas.

coppers used by groups of Indians from the north-westof the US & Canada

coppers used by groups of Indians from the north-westof the US & Canada

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

blankets

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

The coppers were more than mere means of payment, they were attributed several other symbolic functions and meanings, which will be explained in the following paragraphs. To grasp these functions one should clearly understand the social hierarchy of these Indian societies was rigidly organized into three social groups: the chieftains, the common people and the slaves. The coppers were property of chieftains but they were mythologically connected to the shamans, who belonged to the common people. Some high-status persons were also given a reference to copper in their names, such as “he who makes copper”. Finally, the slaves were sometimes used as a substitute for coppers during the Potlatch.

Potlatch, ritual ceremonials organised by chieftains © 1999 Don Macnaughtan

Potlatch, ritual ceremonials organised by chieftains © 1999 Don Macnaughtan

The Potlatch were ritual ceremonials organised by chieftains who represented their social group and distributed large numbers of goods during the ceremony to confirm their social position and title. In this way a change in social status of a chieftain or a successor was ratified. The guests were considered to be witnesses of this change and were ‘paid’ with gifts in order to determine this change in social rank.

Obviously, the coppers, which were a symbol of wealth and power, played a key role during the Potlatch ceremonies. The history of the circulation of a specific copper traces for example special events and transactions in the life of current and past owners. 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.

Furthermore, the coppers played an important role during the succession rites as they allowed the successor to accumulate enough riches to attain the position of chieftain. They were also used in memorials for deceased chieftains, in wedding ceremonies and in battles of prestige between competing chiefs. If one chief wanted to overpower a rival, he broke a piece of the upper part of the copper and gave it together with the remaining part of the copper to his competitor. This one had to respond by breaking one of his own pieces of copper with a similar value and giving all fragments back to the first chief. This would go on until one of the chiefs ran out of coppers and had to admit his humiliating defeat. This story explains why the plate in our museum is broken. Surprisingly, the worth of the copper increased when it was broken.

The choice of copper as a means of payment can be explained by the strong symbolic connotation that this metal carried for north-west coast Indians. In fact, they attributed a supernatural origin to copper in their myths. The Indians believed that the accidental discovery of copper demonstrated its bond with the supernatural world; hence, copper became a symbol of power and wealth. Finally, the coppers were ascribed medicinal qualities, such as the ability to cure certain diseases and its use as a contraceptive when it was put under a woman’s bed.

Marie Pasteger
Museum guide

Source:

  • Jopling C.F., The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians: Their Origin, Development, and Possible Antecedents, The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1989.