Potlatch

potlatch

 

Wow, how deep, subtle, and unconscious is the attachment to each and every possession we have. We are learning that it’s not just the logistical process of letting go that is the difficulty; it is the quantum threads that literally stretch from the smallest possession to the synapses of our brains. For some things that thread is quite weak and breaks easily; but for most things the attachment is through multiple threads, thin and unseen, but like the web spun by a spider, stronger than steel. Why else is that vase still sitting in the corner of the room when I have already decided I don’t need it anymore.

As we prepared for an “Estate Sale” this past Saturday, we began to feel a growing sense of freedom within us. The day before the sale, however, a neighbor visited us with a conversation of well-meaning advice on how to make the most money from such a sale. By the time the visit was over, our confidence and freedom had faded. We found ourselves caught in the cultural myth of “trying to get all we can” while the customer “is trying to pay as little as possible.” Thus goes the economic dance that fuels our culture. The morning of the sale, however, a wonderful message came to us in the form of thoughts about the “Potlatch” tradition of the Original Peoples of the Pacific Northwest, Canadian, and Alaskan areas.

For centuries the potlatch was the economic foundation of these peoples. It was a deeply spiritual celebration of equality and generosity in which each family presented all of its possessions for neighbors in the community to take. It was a true “redistribution of wealth” built into the spiritual fabric of the people and celebrated with dance and ceremony that lasted for days. To accumulate more than one’s neighbors was seen as disrespectful of the Spirits and the potlatch was developed as a way to commemorate this principle. It was not a “yard sale” in which unneeded items were sold. It was not the dumping of junk at the nearest “Thrift Store.” It was a true giving of prized possessions with no return whatsoever, except for the continued strengthening of the bonds of the community.

The Canadian government, however, saw the potlatch as a threat to its policy of “assimilation” and in 1884 passed an amendment to the Indian Act which made the potlatch illegal. This was done largely at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it “a worse than useless custom” that was seen as wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to ‘civilized values’ of accumulation. Missionary William Duncan wrote in 1875 that the potlatch was “by far the most formidable of all obstacles in the way of Indians becoming Christians, or even civilized”. It was not easy to enforce such a ban. Communities were scattered and could usually operate “under the radar” of the Indian Agency. The ban itself was not lifted until 1951 and the celebration has gradually gained a renewed place among the Original Peoples of Canada.

The Spirit of the potlatch came to us the morning of the “sale” and totally transformed our experience. As people came we welcomed them as neighbors and friends. If someone seemed to want an item, we made sure they left with it. We abandoned the “economic value” of everything and, though we did not have a true potlatch because we did take money for some items, we did not ask anything near the “value” of each item. If we sensed a person was mired in the “how little will they take for this,” we simply let the item go to them for a few dollars rather than do the bargaining dance. Often we had the joy of saying, “Please, take it. It’s yours,” and seeing the delight spread over the countenance of a child or older person.

Items that had been weighted with the cultural idea of “possessions,” were transformed, not into money, but into the energy of release. It felt like the threads of attachment fell away and a Spirit filled the atmosphere with freedom and joy. Now we sit in a much emptier house. There are still items that will find their way to transformation, but we trust that process will continue to be in the spirit of the potlatch. I tell you, friends, it is freedom!

 

7 thoughts on “Potlatch”

  1. When I did a similar “sale” a few years back, I didn’t have a name for this. Thank you.
    The material articles are gone but the memories of the persons receiving, are still etched in my mind.

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    1. Yes, Linda. we found it also worked like that for “sentimental” items that for years had been tied by voices saying, “You can’t let go of that! Aunt Clair gave that to you for your twenty-first birthday!” Well, it turns out that Clara’s memory of giving the gift and my memory of the pleasure of receiving it are the important thing. The gift itself simply facilitated the formation of loving memories which no longer need to be tied to the gift itself. Let it go on and create new memories in new people.

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  2. My heart jumped for joy to hear of this wonderful custom! It reminded me of the Year of Jubilee mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, and in fact mentioned in the New Testament as the disciples began the early church (Acts 2:45). I love watching this transition unfold in your lives. Every step you take is encouragement and enlightenment to all of us. Thank you SO much for sharing your journey with all of us.

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  3. I am afraid yesterday’s comment to Nancy’s blog was off the mark. This lead to introspection that brought to a conclusion about capitalism and socialism.
    Capitalism works well, even brilliantly, on a grand scale. National and International economies thrive on the efficiency of capitalism. Everyone makes some money.
    Socialism on a grand scale tends to fail. Many have tried, yes success on a national, let alone international, scale remains elusive. Too few decision makers motivated primarily by politics leads to bad economic outcomes.
    On a COMMUNITY level, I believe socialism, small caps, can be a wonderful way for us to live together. No mandates, just those in natural communities doing what they believe to be right for one another.
    Thus, the beauty of the Potlatch. Nothing was mine, everything was ours. Character means more than personal inventory.
    I know this seems strange coming from me, but there it is. Godspeed

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    1. Interesting observation. I find myself wondering if humanity can survive grand scale economies. Will we find ourselves, of necessity, returning to smaller scales? Don’t know.

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  4. I am about to make my fifth and final planned move in 15 years. Each move was a downsizing with friends often carting off furniture, plants from my garden and little stuff. Habitat Restore and Hospice were primary beneficiaries of the leftovers. Only with my first move did I have yard sale. My motto then was “everything goes!” I made $300. My more experienced friends said I could have done better (that would have required a greater energy investment). My futon recently came back to me after being well used for 3 years but will again be sent to a new home. My final destination is 500 square feet with tiny bath and kitchen. I am already sorting things currently occupying cupboards, closets and drawers, mostly by identifying things I am ready to let go of. Mentally, the furniture has been sorted. I like the idea of giving away my well-loved, well-used things and that is already underway in a piecemeal fashion. Moving date is 10 months away. I am enjoying this lovely process of letting go.

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