The Norman Transcript

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December 1, 2013

The potlatch returns

NORMAN — Some celebrate Christmas, some Hanukkah and some Kwanzaa, but to me the coming holiday time is potlatch season, and it’s starting earlier every year.

A potlatch was a festival of the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest during which the host distributed property and gifts as a way to demonstrate wealth, generosity and social standing. Guests would reciprocate at a later time with items that matched or exceeded the value of the original gifts, or risk being humiliated.

Although births and marriages were sometimes acknowledged at a potlatch, the main purpose was the reciprocal redistribution of wealth. The more one gave away, the greater one’s power. In some tribes’ celebrations, the goods were destroyed, in what might be called the ultimate act of conspicuous consumption.

In the late 1800s, Canada and the United States banned potlatch ceremonies at the urging of Christian missionaries and government agents, who saw the custom as wasteful, unproductive and contrary to civilized values. These bans were clearly discriminatory, but were also a way of assimilating the native peoples into Western traditions of displaying power by accumulating and keeping wealth rather than by giving it away. The potlatch bans were eventually repealed.

Fast-forward 125 years, and one wonders whether modern American society has adopted the potlatch traditions. As “Black Friday” morphs in one direction to interfere with the celebration of Thanksgiving and in the other toward Cyber Monday, people continue to buy one another things just because they “have to get someone a gift,” even if it may be re-gifted, returned or never used. Our society’s barely restrained annual celebration of blatant commercialism approaches the seemingly needless exchanges and even destructiveness of the potlatch.

Maybe this year, we can work toward ending the potlatch season. Let’s stop buying and giving things people don’t want and don’t need.

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