Tips from the Potlatch — NYTs

From the NYTs:

Now that hard times have arrived, now that we’re being punished for our great credit binge, what are we supposed to do for the holidays? The logical answer is to cut out the useless and the lavish, but I have it on the highest authority that it’s just not that simple.

The authority is Bill Cranmer, whom I consulted for holiday tips because he is a hereditary chief and elected leader of the Kwakwaka’wakw Indians, the world’s most experienced gift-givers. They’ve learned that exchanging presents is too important to be discontinued in any kind of economy.

These Indians on the Pacific coast of British Columbia are famous for their potlatches, which are feasts and gift-giving ceremonies that serve a variety of functions: creating alliances, promoting altruism, redistributing wealth, vanquishing rivals and, not least, showing off. The events, particularly at their most extreme in the 19th century, became a staple of anthropology textbooks (which referred to the Indians as the Kwakiutl) and helped inspire Thorstein Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption.

When Chief Cranmer’s ancestors hosted a potlatch, they displayed stacks of blankets and mountains of flour to be handed out to the masses, and singled out important guests for expensive silver bracelets and boats. A chief sometimes flaunted his affluence by tossing his own canoes into the fire or cutting up pieces of copper currency worth thousands of dollars.

Missionaries denounced the potlatch as “wasteful” and “heathen.” Canadian authorities outlawed the ceremonies and sent Indians to prison after raiding a potlatch in 1921 hosted by Chief Cranmer’s father. (For details, see TierneyLab.) But nothing, not even the Great Depression, could stop the potlatchers.

They went on holding underground ceremonies, sometimes in remote villages, sometimes by exchanging gifts under the guise of giving Christmas presents. In the 1950s, when the authorities finally gave up and lifted the ban, it was clear that the missionaries’ hopes of reforming the Indians were futile. Instead, the rest of society was assimilating the Indians’ ways by turning the holidays into a gift-giving extravaganza. Shoppers may try to restrain themselves this year, but gift-giving serves too many purposes for it to be abandoned, as Chief Cranmer understands.

“Even in hard economic times, the potlatch has always been the structure that enables people in our society to work together,” he says. Although the Indians’ traditional fishing industry has been devastated in recent decades, they’re still holding potlatches that typically cost the host chief and his extended family at least $30,000, sometimes $100,000.

What can the Kwakwaka’wakw teach us in our hard times? Here, courtesy of some of their elders and the anthropologists who have studied the potlatch, are some lessons for dealing with the holiday crunch:

Simplify and economize. For his next potlatch, Chief Cranmer will be shopping for 1,000 guests, but he makes it sound easy. He buys in bulk (“They look at you funny at the department store when you order 500 blankets”) and goes for a lot of basic items like glassware, dishes and towels. And he’s not afraid to regift.

“In my basement I have a room pretty near full of stuff that I’ve gotten at potlatches,” he says. “We’ll give some of it away again.” He plans to give cash and special gifts to some fellow chiefs, like the one who gave him a stereo system at a recent potlatch, but he doesn’t plan to go into debt. “The thing is not to go overboard and buy really expensive gifts. But enough to show people that you care for them and are thinking about them.”

Control your animosity. If your family’s holiday exchanges have turned into warfare, don’t give up hope. Although one-upmanship is inherent in gift-giving, the history of the potlatch suggests that viciousness is not inevitable.

In the 19th-century potlatches, chiefs one-upped each other by cutting off a piece of an engraved copper shield and either throwing it into the fire or giving it to the other chief. Because these “coppers” were a form of currency, it was a bit like cutting up $100 bills, except the coppers could be worth far more. A 1934 textbook, “Patterns of Culture,” quotes a chief talking about a prized copper named Dandalayu:

“Furthermore such is my pride that I will kill on this fire my copper Dandalayu, which is groaning in my house. You all know how much I paid for it. I bought it for 4,000 blankets. Now I will break it in order to vanquish my rival. I will make my house a fighting place for you, my tribe.” Today, though, potlatch scholars say that those extravagant copper fights were a historical anomaly caused by the arrival of white fur traders, which upended the Indians’ social structure and created a class of nouveau riche leaders vying for prestige.

After that 19th-century economic boom passed, the potlatches became less ostentatious, and today the chiefs play up the cooperative aspects of the ceremonies. Chief Cranmer and the other leaders in Alert Bay, his home on an island northwest of Vancouver, have toned down the hostility by agreeing not to break up coppers anymore. Now that the bubble has burst on Wall Street’s nouveau riche, maybe they will become less competitive. Maybe.

But a little showing off is still fine. Today’s potlatchers still engage in some conspicuous destruction. After the dancing was finished at a potlatch several years ago, the chief impressed the crowd by tossing the dancers’ masks into the fire. The tradition of pouring fish oil into the fire continues, although there are no longer carved figures called “vomiters” that spew a continuous flow. Now that this eulachon oil costs $500 per gallon, potlatchers show more restraint.

Could this destructive tradition work elsewhere? The gratuitous burning of oil would be an environmental faux pas — I can’t see many people proudly letting their SUVs idle during holiday feasts — but there’s something to be said for this form of display: it lets you demonstrate your wealth without going shopping or inflicting more clutter on someone’s else closets. The ceremonial burning of a Santa Claus tie or “World’s Greatest Mom” apron would send the same message — and would acquire even more meaning if the donor of the gift were present.

Turnabout is fair play. There’s no reason to spend precious time and money shopping for the aunt who surprised you last year with the programmable breadmaker. It’s still in the box. Rewrap it and give it back to her.

Returning a gift was done routinely in the old potlatches; the donors didn’t object as long as it was accompanied by an interest payment that might be 100 percent per year.

“In the old days, if a chief gave away 200 blankets to another chief, the next year or when the other chief next held his potlatch it was likely he’d get back 400 blankets or more,” says Andrea Sanborn, the director of the U’mista Cultural Center in Alert Bay, which houses the collection of potlatch regalia seized in the 1921 raid. “But today it is not expected that it be double anymore.”

So there’s certainly no need to buy Auntie a second breadmaker. A book of Amish bread recipes would do fine.

Don’t forget your enemies. “A lot of attention has been paid to the competitive side of the old potlatches, but they also helped people avoid conflicts,” says Aldona Jonaitis, an anthropologist at the University of Alaska. “Besides strengthening the bonds within a family, potlatching enabled people to establish bonds and obligations with potential enemies outside the family.” Today, with families becoming smaller and more dispersed, giving gifts to outsiders — even ones you don’t like — is a better self-preservation strategy than ever.

Share the wealth. The missionaries who railed against the potlatch didn’t understand its larger social function. In return for recognizing the greatness of the host chief, the low-status guests were given food and gifts without any expectation of repayment. It might be seen as a successful example of “trickle-down economics,” says Aaron Glass, a potlatch scholar at the American Museum of Natural History.

“Even though the elite chiefs controlled the fishing grounds and the trade networks,” Dr. Glass says, “the potlatch functioned to make sure everyone had enough fish and that the excess trading wealth was redistributed to the entire community.” In hard times that function is especially important, so remember the neediest this year.

Ignore the Scrooges. For more than a century, the potlatchers in Chief Cranmer’s family have been rebuffing their critics with a simple explanation. “Outsiders may think we’re dumb for giving away our money when everyone else is trying to save, but we do it because we feel good,” Chief Cranmer says. “After you give away everything and are pretty broke, you’re supposed to be happy.” And he swears that’s just how he felt after his last potlatch.