Sunday, April 27, 2008

What is a Potlatch?


We love our junk. It doesn’t matter if its deep fried, chrome-plated, fun sized, customized, one-of-a-kind or adult oriented, whatever they’re selling we’re buying. While 37 million Americans live below the poverty line and go hungry, 13 million of which are children, self-storage has grown into a thriving industry. We have more rubbish than space to house it.

We’ve become a nation of pack rats, sleeping on shifting heaps of designer footwear and widgets from Ron Popeil. We’ve been programmed to only experience fun when it includes a money back guarantee. Our culture has been reduced to squirreling away anything that’s not consumed.

But there are other options. Take the Native American festival known as the Potlatch. Celebrated by Indians on the Pacific Northwest, each member of the community would hunt and farm throughout the summer, gathering what they could from the earth. To redistribute this wealth voluntarily tribes met, exchanged gifts, sang, recited poetry and praised the spirits for their blessings. Multi-colored costumes and masks, and energetic dances added to the gala. Those who gave most were held in the highest esteem. The needy received goods and care despite their social status.

We don’t have a cultural equivalent of a potlatch. Nothing quite envelopes the charitable, educational, communal, celebratory and spiritual components of such an event. And maybe that’s intentional. Canada, a country whose history isn’t as innocuous as most believe, outlawed potlatches. One missionary said potlatches were “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized." (source) Anyone found at a potlatch could be jailed for two to six months. A hefty penalty for attending a party.

The functions served by potlatches can best explain why they are so frightening to elites. First, and most obvious, would be economic redistribution. If the needs of every individual in a community are met then crime rates decrease, upholding the security of that neighborhood. Second, it transmits cultural memory. The songs, stories, traditions, dances, beliefs and so forth that compose each community’s idiosyncratic character is passed down from the older to the younger generations. Third, the act of giving reinforces the concept of usufruct. For those who are unfamiliar with the term usufruct refers to owning property for just as long as it’s useful to you. After completing a job or outgrowing an item, pass it along instead of locking it away so it’s no longer productive to anyone. This simple gesture helps improve a community. Lastly, potlatches cultivate bonds of solidarity between community members. Think of how good you feel when somebody gives you a gift. Imagine if your neighbors always pooled their resources to keep your garden growing or gave you the tools to fix your car. Wouldn’t that urge you to reciprocate?

For me, this is what any successful revolution needs: a strong identity, unbendable human relationships and a sensible dispersal of wealth. There might be a future for this type of experience through the internet, but it is up to us to carry this out of the realm of thought into the realm of action.

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