Thursday, May 28


As an undergraduate student of anthropology I could not grasp the concept of the potlatch ceremony. Potlatch, or "give away," is a grand ceremony which generates much praise and prestige for the party giver. This concept is still shared by many indigenous cultures in which family leaders host a feast that takes them most of the previous year to create. This feast is then shared with the rest of the community.

I'm reminded of Gatsby, a man who threw lavish parties and expected nothing in return, a concept very much like a potlatch. However, he was seen as weak, as nouveau-riche. He was taken advantage of by insouciant yet arrogant old-money guests until he lost his life in a case of mistaken identity. Ah, such is life in a culture that prizes accumulation of wealth over its redistribution and reciprocation.

I remember the pictures in my anthropology textbook of piles and piles of bear skins, of drums, endless baskets of food, goods, clothing, and the ethnographic stories of countless dances and shows. Sometimes these ceremonies were highly competitive contests where the recipient destroyed the gifts being exchanged. I could not wrap my head around the idea that redistributing the wealth would make a person appear more wealthy and prestigious in their community. How much faith does a person have to have in the abundance of all things to give away so freely?

In our culture, "give away," is associated with fear, with lack. One hundred and eighty degrees from potlatch is attach -- where wealth & status are based on what we accumulate. We have learned from our ancestors before us to give away the things we least desire, things no longer useful and call it "charity." We give away our trash and our scraps, yet we expect abundance in return. I have never realized how incongruent that way of thinking is until this moment.

For the last week I have connected more to my garden, to the vibrancy of life in the spring. Life moves very fast in the garden. It is a great place to connect to the flow of life. When a plant such as a zucchini fruits, you must pluck it and eat it. If not, it will rot on the vine, or rot in your refrigerator. The garden never stops growing. It grows, bears fruit, dies, comes back, bears fruit again in an endless cycle.

Last year I had a beautiful crop of lettuces. It was my first crop, very abundant. I prospered, overflowed with lettuce. I did not pick it. Every day for a week I stared at it wondering, "Do it pluck the leaves, or pull the whole plant? I don't know." So I left it, (probably went to the grocery store and bought lettuce). When I came back it had flowered, which I found out makes the leaves bitter. Still not plucking or pulling, I came back even later to a bed of lettuce covered with bugs. They had waited for me long enough.

In previous centuries, indigenous tribes lived within the vibrant cycle of life which we are now removed from in the abundance and prosperity of our wealth of goods, shops and access. I've always thought of faith as something very ethereal. However, when I consider the garden, faith becomes very nurturing because I know the plants are coming back, I know the sun will shine tomorrow. If not tomorrow, then the next day.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this and for all your recent posts. I read them with hungry interest having shared in the NM retreat with you last weekend. It already feels like a long time ago. But all your ruminations on exchange are working on me, especially this one. The Potlatch. I am going to think on this a lot.