American potlatch.

April 27, 2012 § 9 Comments

In the Potlatch, a traditional ceremony common to the tribes of the Pacific Northwest, guests were given gifts.

The more lavish the gifts, the more the status of the gift-giver was enhanced.

Gifts were not distributed equally. The gift received was a graphic appraisal of the recipient’s worth, kind of like Aunt Martha getting a pair of socks for Christmas while the boss gets tickets to the opera.

Sometimes, in these public displays of opulence, the gifts were destroyed as part of the ceremony. What better way to demonstrate excessive wealth?

We humans have always viewed our “stuff”as important for reasons other than utility. Like the tribes of the Pacific Northwest we derive status from what we own.

We drive, and live in, and wear our opinion of ourselves. You can buy a watch at Walmart for ten bucks or a TAG Heuer Formula One watch for a thousand bucks plus. Both tell time. Only one will enhance your status and require a jeweler to change the battery.

The destruction of Potlatch gifts grew more common with the introduction of trade goods brought in by Europeans. Having lots of “stuff” made that stuff less valuable, not more.

In modern America stuff is cheap and plentiful and having enough is never enough. Constant advertising keeps us in a state of gotta-have-it hunger. But the “it” we desire never satisfies because what we seek is beyond the limits of any material object: prestige, happiness, a sense of belonging.

The advertisers and manufacturers who fuel this constant yearning long ago realized they don’t even need to deliver a reliable product, just promises. Things break more easily than they used to and they can’t be repaired. I sometimes think that what we buy today is not the real thing, just a visual representation.

A bicycle or a hammer or a pair of shoes, things which once lasted, don’t last anymore. Even if they could be repaired few of us know how to fix anything or care about an object long enough to make the effort.

We do not burn this bounteous supply of shoddy merchandise in a public ceremony, but when we dump it at the curb or in the garbage can the effect is the same.

In Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic novel “The Road” two characters known only as the man and the boy wander a devastated landscape, scavenging. For them the difference between survival and death is a shopping cart filled with useable odds and ends gleaned from the dead civilization of which they were once a part.

For days after reading this book I picked things up along the road as I took my walk, every nail and screw; anything that could be reused.

If we could see and value the objects in our lives for what they can do we wouldn’t walk past the stainless steel carriage bolt lying in the dust at the end of a neighbor’s driveway. We’d stick it in a pocket. We’d use it.

Seeing material objects as useful but limited, we would look inward for our sense of worth, not wear it on our wrists; the ten-dollar watch would do us fine

And wildflowers, not trash heaps, would bloom beside the curb.

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§ 9 Responses to American potlatch.

  • craig reeder says:

    I concur! as a wise man once said, “consider the lillies…”


  • ammaponders says:

    Ah, stuff. A continuing struggle for me. I know less stuff is easier, but the sorting/purging/doing-something-with-what’s-purged process continues to overwhelm me. Maybe I could have a party and give stuff to my friends as potlatch!


  • deb reilly says:

    There’s a lot of food for thought here. If I flash my money around by wasting it on unnecessary stuff, do I believe my hungry ego must be fed before I help someone who is starving? Ugh.

    Excellent writing, Adrian.


    • I know that’s not what’s going on! Only Mother Teresa made that connection in her daily life. Now, if she had spent money on herself for, say, a snazzy new head scarf, that would have been a sin. The rest of us are acquiring what we feel we really need. (Although MT would have been quick to point out that we are wrong).


  • A., You certainly have my number!

    While living in Brazil (8 years) I discovered that Brasileiros didn’t do “garage sales”. What? Buy somebody else’s used stuff?

    Therefore, as I prepared to move back to the States to get married, I couldn’t decide what to do with all my stuff. I couldn’t take it all home! What to do?

    My my Brazilian friends solved my problem. One asked if I would sell my American Singer sewing machine. Another wanted my loveseat-rocker (most comfortable chair I owned!), and another loved my ‘melmac’ dishes.

    I sold my north American mattress/spring sets to a missionary colleague; gave my ‘ham’ radio rig to another (it had been given to me, after all); and left my piano, all my music, and three translated (by me) vocal pedagogy textbooks to the two young women I had shepherded through the first ever Master of Church Music degrees given by the seminary where I had been teaching – they took my place and have tought there for the past 26 years (one retired this last December).

    Wonder of wonders, I sold everything I wanted to sell, and gave away a ton of stuff to my day maid (she may have started a new business with it!).

    Great! Now I could load up my crate with the Brazilian ‘stuff’ I wanted to take home – lace, paintings, geodes (amythist is the most beautiful) …



    • It sounds as if what you buy is either useful, beautiful or evokes memory, and when you leave somethng behind you pass it to someone else. I’d say you are handling the stuff in your life very well.


  • Sue Cronkite says:

    Some of you must have seen my back porch — which I am trying to clean up.


  • KM Huber says:

    We grow fat on the promises we purchase; ever empty, we seek more.

    Thank you for this one, Adrian.


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