Native Americans did gift-giving right

I wrote this column in 2008 for a newspaper at which I worked. I think it’s still relevant:

It’s December, which means my parents are going to ask me what I want for Christmas. I assume they pass my wish list on to Santa Claus.

Santa has yet to bring me most of the things I really want for about a decade now. Has he brought me happiness? Not really. True love? Nada (update: I’m married now). My purpose in life? Still waiting.

When I was a boy, he did bring me oodles of Transformers, plus a Lego pirate ship—not to mention the BB gun I found under the tree one year, a la Ralphie in A Christmas Story (I never did shoot my eye out). I have many wonderful memories of Christmas from my youth, but in my ripe old age, Dec. 25 just isn’t as fun as it used to be. I think it’s because I’m old enough to realize that Transformers don’t buy themselves, and that not every little girl or boy gets to be showered with gifts. In fact, many children here in the Rio Grande Valley will be lucky to get anything at all. And that breaks my heart.

People are in need every day of the year, whether or not it happens to be Christmas. Stomachs go empty, illnesses go untreated and children suffer right in my own back yard. As painful as that reality is, Christmas, to me, only seems to draw even more attention to the enormous chasm between the haves and have-nots, which makes me dread the holiday season every year. As old as the tradition of gift-giving on Christmas is, I think it’s gotten way out of control in modern times—so I have a suggestion: What if we didn’t ask for gifts when many of us already have way too much stuff? What if we were more proud of how much we gave instead of how much we got? Believe it or not, it used to happen.

When I was in Boy Scouts, I learned about a Native American ritual called a potlach. Practiced by tribes in the Pacific Northwest, potlaches were sort of like Christmas and Thanksgiving combined. Finer points of the tradition varied from tribe to tribe, but in general, a potlach is a custom based on giving. The tribe or clan who gave the most to others garnered the most respect. In some potlaches, the wealth of an entire tribe was redistributed. But just like nearly every tradition the Indians had, potlaches were eventually ruined by whites.

Potlaches were officially banned in Canada and the United States as the 1800s came to a close. Some authorities thought the tradition stood in the way of the Indians becoming Christians or at the very least, civilized. I can’t think of a more Christian or civilized act than giving one’s wealth to the less fortunate—which is exactly why I want the tradition of potlaches to be revived.

Could you imagine the CEO of a massive corporation like Wal-Mart or General Motors—assuming GM actually has any money—giving away their multimillion-dollar bonuses to employees or to the community in a modern-day potlach? What if our ridiculously overpaid professional athletes donated the bulk of their earnings to the less fortunate? The New York Yankees just paid two pitchers, CC Sabathia and A.J. Burnett, a combined $243.5 million to throw a little white ball very fast. Many athletes give a great deal to charity, but what if guys like Sabathia or Burnett were required—not by law, but by honor—to give a large chunk of their astronomical salaries back to the community? What if their prestige was based not only on wins and losses, but by how much they gave of themselves?

One doesn’t have to be rich to take part in a potlach. A neighborhood could come together and give a truckload of food and clothing to a fellow resident. Kids could compete to see who gave the most to charity, and not who got the coolest toys. Your own personal potlach could be donating all the clothes you no longer wear to the homeless, or if nothing else, giving your time to the needy.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a shiny new toy for Christmas, but as you unwrap that gift, don’t forget about those who have nothing.

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