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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.

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