Coming Home to Potlatch
By Judith Gayle | Political Waves
Turkey Day is behind us, although there are probably leftovers in your fridge. That’s the best perk of the holiday, to my mind, except for the gathering of family, but I suppose that depends on whether you like your family or not. One of my favorite sleeper movies is Home For The Holidays, which takes a warm poke at generational issues and family dysfunction at Thanksgiving homecoming, and makes me laugh every time. Millions of us take to the road every year for just such an occasion. As with most annual holidays, we have expectations of everyone getting along as cozily as clams piled atop one another. The table will be perfect, the children spotless and polite, the family members civil and well-meaning, the meal scrumptious, and the hostess calmly welcoming while as ruthlessly in charge of every detail as the chef in a 5-star restaurant.
Not. There never was a Mrs. Cleaver, hovering over the table in pearls and heels while never breaking a sweat, although my own mother came damn close. Her constant comeuppance was my Uncle Frank, appearing at every requisite gathering, one too many cocktails under his belt and an argument brewing in his brain. After he’d polished off several courses and the topic of politics, he’d move on to religion. As a practicing atheist, he made my Baptist mother twitch and amused my Aunt Ethel, a great old dame who started drinking before she left home and who laughed maniacally when the conversation got hot at the table. She’s been gone a dozen years, but I can still hear that laugh. I also remember Mom’s tight lips and furrowed brow; no doubt her ulcer was killing her, teaching me at an early age that the guest list at a dinner party was every bit as critical as the menu and place settings. With family, of course, we don’t get a choice.
As my favorite childhood holiday, and occasional birthday, Thanksgiving was a day when the house smelled like heaven, yummy surprises just kept coming and there were no obligations to attend to: no buying, no gifting, no thanking, yadda. Just sharing and being glad. By the time I reached adulthood, I understood that the buying and gifting came from the pocket of the host/ess and the thanking came with gratitude that the table was cleared, the food put up and the dishes finally done. The agenda after that included reclining in front of the television in the kind of stupor a python swallowing a water buffalo endures, watching football teams scramble the brains of their opponents, and getting to bed early enough to hit the deck for pre-Christmas sales the next day. All very American, don’t you think? And far from the essential meaning of that first Thanksgiving, hundreds of years ago. We need to own this uniquely American holiday as well as what we’ve made of it, and recognize ourselves in both our family dynamics and our attitude about gratitude.
2009 gave us a somewhat lethargic Thanksgiving. Scaling down a decadent feast to an adequate if heartfelt dinner isn’t what did it — the instability of the times makes us nervous and tentative. It’s been a while since the American public has had to face an uncertain future. Throwing ourselves into overindulgence seems not only foolhardy, but for those of us struggling to put food on the table, an almost insurmountable challenge. Still, when the legal system has declared you’ll be thankful on the 4th Thursday in November, and the PR people go to work on us, it’s tough to object. For those without means, this wasn’t a good year. Food banks are overwhelmed, donations are down and all this while close to 50 million Americans are ‘food insecure.’ That means hungry. A whopping one-third of America’s Caucasian kids will qualify for food assistance before they’re grown, as will 90% of African-American children. The fruited plains and amber waves of grain America is known for feel much like a travel poster to some exotic destination these days. We have been schooled to be consumers; tightening our belts is uncomfortable and confusing behavior.
Thanksgiving itself is pivotal in our national mythology, one of the first memorable things we did when we settled in North America. It’s morphed since then into a feeding and football frenzy on a day off, with pay. It was originally a nod to the British tradition of Harvest Home, a kind of Fall festival. Our Pilgrims were celebrating having survived a cruel winter and accomplishing enough of a harvest to forestall the next. Nothing religious here, it should be noted. Actual days of Thanksgiving were somber Puritan events, full of worship, supplication and penance. This first event was more a party, and the Wampanoag Indians that were invited to the three-day celebration, casting a skeptical eye at the collection of birds the Pilgrims had snared, supplemented the festivities with five deer. Essentially, this was a remarkable gathering and an example of the largess of our Native peoples. The occupiers had trampled on their land, stolen from their winter stores, desecrated their graves and generally done what occupiers always do: misunderstood the invaded country’s culture entirely, dismissing it as trivial and primitive. That first shared Thanksgiving was highly unlikely and set a pattern for community tolerance that we’ve long ignored.
I usually mention my seven forebears that made their way across the ocean on the Mayflower during this season. There are literally millions of us — you might be one — who are descended from those few who arrived on that little ship, but not many of us have done the genealogy to recognize it. I’ve met distant cousins (Hi, Sonia!) writing about Greatest-Grandma Elizabeth Tilley, one of only four young women of marriageable age after that initial Plymouth winter culled the herd; she, a Pilgrim but pragmatic, let her standards slip to marry Greatest-Grandpa John Howland, who wasn’t. Perhaps that explains my favorite ancestor, Slip Shod John Sherwood who went native a few generations later, living and marrying in the Mohawk Nation. A woodsman, John was a colorful character and an accomplished one, if early documents are accurate.
In application for an Old Soldier’s Pension for services in the Revolutionary War, John Sherwood was described thus: “Slip Shod John the Mohawk was … naturally skillful at any handicraft with which he came in contact, ever resourceful and undaunted in the presence of greatest dangers yet withal so improvident and fickle in his manner of living as to often be reduced to most penurious circumstances.” There’s a bit of romance in the description and a heavy dose of judgment. Do you hear the ring of Puritanism? The innate snobbery against race and the jab at status? Oral records of his adventures show him to be cut from the stuff of our most daring frontier heroes. Slip Shod John was a force of nature, a man so revered for his bravery and ability that his (Caucasian, married late in life) widow was granted a war pension by the new nation even though John was a scout and spy for the British. Yet because he did not accumulate riches he was deemed improvident and fickle. And there, once again, is a very American attitude, just a chromosome away from the British classism that we pride ourselves on having put behind us.
I mention John because of Turkey. Not the country, the bird, and not really the bird so much as the energy it represents. I relate most affectionately to Mohawk John because he bridged the gap between the austere Pilgrim sensibility and opportunistic adventurism of the British culture, and the natural world of the Native Americans he preferred. Now, with the exception of kindergarten plays, the honor due their portion of this process is lost to us. And between our growing sensitivity to all that Native people lost at our hands and sympathy for the millions of turkeys sacrificed for our holiday pleasure, Thanksgiving has become a bit of a political football. I surely empathize with that, but it seems to me that if we’re going to peel the onion of this national tradition, we need to pare down additional layers. A truer American appreciation than our own for all that this new world provided was within the fabric of the forests that John Sherwood wandered with his adopted family, and the collective philosophy that informed them. Native Americans understood their place within nature and their community, while practicing respect for each individual and reverence of the whole. They were not separated from one another nor the material world in terms we now consider ‘civilized.’ And within their society we find the practice of potlatch.
One of the tools for divination I’ve found useful and accurate over the years has been Medicine Cards, subtitled The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals, published in the late 1980s by Jamie Sams and David Carson. Using a compilation of Native American and Mayan teachings, the energy of individual animals has been interpreted symbolically, much as were the Sabian Symbols divined for astrological degrees. Each has an equivalency to the Tarot. The graphic illustration for each animal is so well done that three of my dear ones have chosen their animal totems for tattoos. In my own personal spread, Turkey is to be found. My initial response was, “Oh, great. Dumbest bird alive.” Its actual significance caught me by surprise, years ago — perhaps it will intrigue you as well.
Turkey is actually thought to be the Give-Away Eagle or South Eagle of many native peoples. The philosophy of give-away was practiced by many tribes. Simply stated, it is the deep and abiding recognition of the sacrifices of both self and others. People in modern-day society, who have many times more than they need, should study the noble turkey who sacrifices itself so that we may live. In Turkey’s death we have our life. Honor Turkey.
Spectators unfamiliar with the cultural phenomenon of the potlatch or give-away ceremony are often mystified by it. A tribal member may gladly give away all he or she owns, and do without in order to help the People. In present-day urban life, we are taught to acquire and get ahead. The person with the most toys wins the game. In some cultures, no one can win the game unless the whole [italics] of the People’s needs are met. A person who claims more than his or her share is looked upon as selfish or crazy or both. The poor, the aged, and the feeble have honor. The person who gives away the most and carries the burdens of the People is one of the most respected.
It’s not so much that we’ve lost our understanding of true Thanksgiving, we Americans, it’s that we never actually had it. We got close perhaps, in that first meeting with the Wampanoag. We came together to befriend and learn from one another, but our intentions were entirely different. I doubt that there was an innate surety amongst the Pilgrims that their needs would be met by the Great Spirit, but rather a momentary reflection on what had been gained while looking to garner more as soon as possible. The ambitious acquisition that we planned was a concept completely foreign to our native-born brothers and sisters. The owning of land, collection of stuff, the separation from one another as individuals and ‘nuclear’ tribes by family would have confounded the Wampanoag, and soon did. Considering the gap between the two cultures that met on that first Thanksgiving day, only a handful of things have survived: the sharing of food, including the turkey which Benjamin Franklin proposed as the National Bird (preferring its moral character to the predatory Eagle) and, improbably, football. The Indians and the newcomers played athletic games of skill as part of those early festivities.
As an example of extraordinary metaphysical understanding, the role of potlatch as a kind of barter system within the community cannot be dismissed. When one has been served by another, the obligation is not necessarily to repay what has been bestowed, but to pass it on. This is the essence of gratitude, largely misinterpreted by our culture and finally outlawed on reservations in the mid-1800s. At the insistence of missionaries, potlatch was made illegal in Canada and the US as an impediment to assimilation and Christianization. It was therefore deemed “a worse than useless custom,” seen as wasteful, unproductive and no part of “civilized” values. I hope, having read this far, you are wondering who the truly civilized were in those bygone days of history, and today as well. Truly, isn’t it time to stop being selfish, crazy, or both?
We are coming into a time when we must embrace the communal understanding of potlatch, to explore the metaphysical power of Turkey medicine. We must turn to one another for cooperation and assistance because surely we can all see that the government is not capable of doing for us what we should have been doing for ourselves all along. A hard lesson, one we’ve put off since — well — since our beginning on this amazing continent. The national shame of hungry children in this country is a direct reflection of our inability to listen to our own hearts, dig into the soil of our own souls and plant the seeds of compassion and service, rather than consume them as did the Pilgrims coming upon a stash of spring seed-corn belonging to their new neighbors. We must stop using everything for our own selfish purpose and begin to nurture, cultivate and coax the good that belongs to all of us out into the open. We must learn to share for sharing’s sake and begin to learn the sure blessing of giving/receiving. We must prepare the ground to experience that exquisite moment of real gratitude, an instant that reconnects us with All That Is in a sublime recognition that can forever shift our consciousness and rebuild our world.
When you move through your life with Holy Spirit as a companion, there are enormous benefits and one of them is that little bits of information are coded into your heart, buried like treasure. Long ago, standing in a check-out line and reading the headlines on the rags, I noticed one from a particularly scurrilous publication announcing that the next 12 Commandments had been found. The one I remember — the one Holy Spirit coded in bold type, not to be discarded — was, “Help your brother get what he wants.” This did not make sense to me at the time, considering what some of my brothers wanted, but it has never left my mind. I have come to understand the trust in life, in path, in Source that such a commandment requires. I’ve come to appreciate its value and wisdom. I’ve come to recognize it as Turkey Medicine.
Help and sustenance is given by Turkey out of the realization that all life is sacred. It is knowing that the Great Spirit resides within all people. It is an acknowledgment that what you do for others you do for yourself. Turkey medicine rests in true ego, in enlightenment. Doing unto others and feeding the people is the message of all true spiritual systems.
I hope you had a worthwhile Thanksgiving this year. If the spread wasn’t lavish, I trust it was produced lovingly and appreciated by all. If the company was less than idyllic, I trust that empathy was learned and newfound wisdom can be brought to your next meeting. If fears were displayed, I hope they were neutralized by faith. And most of all, within all the codified trappings of our Thanksgiving tradition, I hope you found a moment when you were caught up in the arms of Spirit, soothed and comforted and reminded that you are never alone, never unloved, never separate from the whole of life and the infinity of being.
If you were not aware of Turkey medicine this year, then perhaps there is a sandwich in your future you could honor. It’s never too late to be grateful, and truly, if we feed one another out of the sustaining heart energy that reveals our True Self, we will all remain fed. We must be in search of that instant in which we stop seeking to take what we think we need and trust that it will come to us. Perhaps that will be the glimpse of all that is here for us and change us from occupiers of this continent to true Americans, ready to become worthy citizens of our Shifting world.
Weekly Horoscope for Friday, November 27, 2009, #794 – BY ERIC FRANCIS
Dear Friend and Reader:
Mercury is a prominent factor in the sky and in our lives this week. I’ve suggested many times that in our world of communication devices and grannies who twitter and mommies who blog and 13-year-olds who text all their friends about their new boyfriend, Mercury is an incredibly important planet. By that, I mean it’s a concept we need to understand, honor and work with, because we are basically married to this fleeting energy.
Over the next few days, Mercury in Sagittarius makes aspects to Jupiter, Chiron and Neptune — which has the potential to clear the way for many positive developments.
Here is a message from Mercury: When times are tough people tend to want an easy solution, rather than a complex one that requires actual thought or effort. One thing about thought is that it’s sometimes hard work; it’s not as simple as a perfectly smooth iPhone app that works flawlessly because it’s been tested 100 times.
Not everyone thinks so much, or likes to. Actual thinking is an expression of freedom. Freedom is scary to many. There is the implication that one may be wrong; indeed, in any thought process you see that you’re continuously wrong, and then need to make a correction.
We toss the word freedom around, but in truth freedom is of the mind — and that is a dangerous edge. Freedom requires not just that you get in your car and drive anywhere you want, but that you be willing to walk along that cliff, not sure if or when you’re going to fall.
Yours & truly,
Aries (March 20-April 19)
Initiative is one of the keys that unlocks success, and progress, and for most people, happiness. Often it is the single most vital factor. You could say that this concept is the opposite of passivity, the game of ‘see what happens’. Both Mars and Aries contain the potential for a mind to break out of passive mode. Once we succeed at that, we get the experience of, well, of experience itself: which can include success, failure, resistance, pleasure, fear and many forms of encountering The Other. There are times lately when The Other feels like The Many, like you are somehow up against the collective mind, no matter how private of a person you may be. These encounters will go on for many months, and are designed to bring your inner being out of the alcove in which it sometimes hides.
Taurus (April 19- May 20)
You may be recoiling at how sexual people see you as being, though I’m here to tell you that you can be enjoying it thoroughly. However, the real news is that there is a rich place between what we think of as attraction and what we think of as repulsion, which is the zone of exploring the unfamiliar. Most of what we like, we know from the past. Most of what repels us, we’re afraid of or avoiding. Part of what you are exploring is how you think others see you. The presence of Venus and Ceres in your opposite sign Scorpio is a reminder to keep pulling apart the curtains and looking past your mother’s perception of you; of who she thought you were, are or should be — a place you often find yourself trapped. What is on the other side? In sum, you are.
Gemini (May 20- June 21)
Be careful of a tendency these days to generalize or exaggerate. It would be just as easy and advance your cause more effectively if you are precise in your speech and thought. As you focus your mind and your use of language, you will be more discerning what you take in; you will become more concerned about the differences between facts, ideas and beliefs. These are subtleties that are beginning to dissolve into the current environment of ‘say it enough and it must be true’, or ‘if I believe it then it must be true’. If you have not quite awoken to the beauty of ideas, this is a potentially rich moment. As you do this, remember: the specifics matter. One example does not prove the case — your own, or anyone else’s.
Cancer (June 21- July 22)
You may feel like the sole survivor among your peers as the person not willing to sell out your values. Yet there are moments when it’s challenging to put those deeply held principles to work — which is the whole point. It’s not always easy; in fact, it’s usually quite challenging. I would propose one idea. Particularly where your work and reputation are concerned, you must be willing to embrace some inner chaos, and trust that this is the thing that will help you the most. In other words, to have possession of what you know, it’s necessary to encounter many other possibilities, some of which challenge you and some of which challenge who you think you are. Encountering the unknown within yourself is nearly identical to the willingness to change.
Leo (July 22- Aug. 23)
Life is not a war and it’s not a struggle for survival — or at least it does not have to be. Of course, just because you know this doesn’t mean there aren’t many others with a bunker mentality. Here is what: don’t get caught in it. You’re a lot better off reasoning with yourself than you are trying to reason with others who don’t see the point to engaging their creativity. However, if you listen and feel your way carefully through the world, you’re likely to meet one person with a gleaming, open mind. It may be a child and/or may be someone considerably younger than you. From that conversation, you could learn quite a lot, but mainly you will have an example of someone who is simply open to truth, whatever that truth turns out to be.
Virgo (Aug. 23- Sep. 22)
You’re at one of those moments where you really can decide not to let fear run your life. The challenge is figuring out that this is what’s happening, or starting to happen, before the process takes over. It’s difficult to pull back, in those situations; but I would like to ask a question, or maybe it’s a suggestion, which is to notice the allure that fear has for you. Notice the aspects of life to which you are drawn and by which you are frightened (or made nervous) at the same time. You may think that you’re magnetized by the attractive quality and repelled by the fearsome quality, but have you considered whether this equation works better the other way around? Now for the bold step: allowing the fully conscious experience of pleasure in the fear.
Libra (Sep. 22 – Oct. 23)
One day when I lived in Brussels, I locked myself out of my apartment with the keys left on the inside of the lock. I had an extra key, but the one dangling from the knob on the inside prevented it from working. Then, I leaned on the door to get a sense of how strong it was. I didn’t push or bash it — I simply leaned on it, and with a cracking sound, the door swung open and took out the doorframe with it. I was stunned at how I had believed for so long in what turned out to be a total illusion of security. Every time I had checked whether that door was locked turned out to be meaningless, but then, nothing had gone wrong. So it is right now with the things you think make you safe. So it is with your belief that the key you are holding works.
Scorpio (Oct. 23- Nov. 22)
At this moment you may be identifying with inner qualities that are different than what you normally feel and experience as yourself. This can be disorienting, even to the point where you may be wondering whether you are indeed someone different than you thought. I would propose that any of these experiences of identifying with something you think of as representing your ‘self’ are a kind of shadow play. Who, for example, is the self beneath the concepts or identities that is having the experience of inner perspectives? How you respond to this says a lot about you. Human consciousness has a disturbing tendency to define itself by what it feels different than. Projected outward, it can turn to war, and projected inward, it often appears as the terror of change. But these are merely options. There are many others.
Sagittarius (Nov. 22 – Dec. 22)
Have you considered that what you are responding to in this mind-bending way is a sense of your potential? We are given this idea that we’re supposed to get all excited when confronted with an exciting possibility for ourselves. Yet we all know how often we run from what is new, exciting or positive. And it remains one of the great mysteries of human nature why this is so. I have my ideas, but let’s first apply some cold, clear logic: if we don’t consciously explore our potential, what exactly do we do with our lives? If you choose the seemingly less challenging path, who does this benefit? And if you awaken fully to who you are and allow yourself to choose the more challenging path, who (besides yourself) does this threaten?
Capricorn (Dec. 22- Jan. 20)
You’re not the type to trust your intuition, or rather let’s say that it’s not an everyday occasion. I suggest you make it a habit. Your uncanny sense of the past is an intuitive gift. This gift can be turned toward your perception of the present and of the future. More significantly, you can turn your perception to what is really going on with you, in these times when everyone, particularly yourself, is living under the full stress of enforced change. Think of how much it would help if you had access to an information source that guided you toward making decisions at these crucial moments. There are two aspects to this. One is recognizing that fear is just one of the voices in your mind. The voice of spirit is a still, soft voice. The other is simply trusting yourself. And it is simple.
Aquarius (Jan. 20- Feb. 19)
You are doing a good job of working with those who support you, and what you may be figuring out is that communication is key to the process. Keep the dialog open with everyone, even those you dislike or don’t necessarily trust. Treat the people around you with as close to equal priority as you can, and remember that anyone can present you with an opening that opens the way not just for you but for everyone with whom your life is integrated. This is the concept to work with — integration, or put in another form, integrity. Every viewpoint that you hear or observe can contribute significantly to your own. This will compel you to keep a wide-open mind and enter a process of give-and-take with your own opinions. Over the next few weeks, you will see many times that an open mind is your very best friend.
Pisces (Feb. 19- March 20)
The correct path is often the most difficult. I know there’s a New Agey theory that when you do the right thing, everything happens like magic and with ease. Yet if you look at the world and notice who has persisted at living their truth, and achieving something significant or at least meaningful while facing the world’s many destructive tendencies, you’re likely to see it’s those who are willing to embrace adversity first and ease second. You’re closer to the ease phase than you may recognize. There are long worked-for elements of success close at hand, yet you need to recognize and be responsive to opportunity when you see it, and more to the point, be open to it. Despite the holidays or whatever else may be going on, this is the time to focus on your goals and to pay close attention to everything you do.