On a 2005 trip to Haida Gwaii, a.k.a. the Queen Charlotte Islands, I learned that the potlatch, an ancient, intriguing ritual of wealth redistribution among Pacific Northwest Coast First Nations, had survived. Memories of intro to anthro in student days: a culture where prestige came from giving, not acquiring. The subversive French situationists, who staged happenings in the ’50s, named their journal Potlatch, and gave it away to make a point about their commodified society. American author Lewis Hyde argued that all art embodies the potlatch spirit. As for me, in the face of a braying, globalizing capitalism I clung to the potlatch as an alternate economic model. And here at the top of one of Canada’s most remote archipelagos, amid amazing vegetation and a Haida majority, it lived. I wangled an invitation to one. Or so I thought.
The day before I leave home, I get an email from one of the Haida. “I don’t think it’s a potlatch,” he says, “just a deceased chief’s headstone dedication.” I don’t want to hear it. I’ve bought my ticket, spoken with the chief’s family, booked a guide named Dick Bellis, the late chief’s son-in-law. I’m hot on the trail of the elusive potlatch. But when I arrive there the next day, a Thursday, there’s another email saying that, as he thought, it isn’t a potlatch. Shit.
I call a friend, someone who lives there and who helped me arrange this botch. She is reassuring. She visited Alma Bellis, the chief’s daughter, whose house is crammed with preserves of smoked salmon—for the potlatch after the headstone ceremony, Alma told her. You should write about this, says my friend: how things in Haida culture are sometimes complicated. Hmm. On the flight in, I read a memoir by Florence Edenshaw Davidson, a Haida woman who had a potlatch for her first period. An Indian agent said they could range from “an invitation to dinner, up to a frenzied carouse leaving the hosts absolutely penniless.” Sometimes they called it a memorial, or “memorial potlatch.” It was a thing in flux, not a definition to memorize for the course final. I say potlatch, you say notlatch.
Later, at one of two Chinese restaurants in tiny Queen Charlotte “City,” just up the highway from the Haida reserve of Skidegate, I stare at the harbour, the mountains, the ever-present mist. I haven’t reached my guide, Dick, Alma’s husband. He said to call when I arrived, and I did. Is this “Indian time”? I fret. Gaze again at the sea, the sky, those ravens. The Haida have been here 10,000 years, in harmony with all this; why wouldn’t they have a different time sense? At nine, Dick phones, apologetic. He says everyone has been busy getting the potlatch ready. Whew, he used the word. Or was that because he knows I’m primed, like the Samoans humouring Margaret Mead? “Here comes the anthropologist—let’s tell her some good ones about sex.” I ask if I can come see.
Dick whizzes over in his pickup, and we head back to Skidegate. He says he talked to the chiefs; they say I can hang around, though outsiders usually just attend the event, still two days off. The matriarch is a problem, he adds, but luckily she isn’t matriarch yet. I wonder if he’s using the title in quotes, as I might, but there are matriarchs here. It’s a matrilineal society: women aren’t chiefs but make major decisions. The matriarch he means is Barb Wilson, the daughter of the late chief’s oldest sister; the next chief will be her brother. I’ve always found these kinship networks a headache in books or courses, but they’re clearly clearer in real life.
We enter an old hall with a stage, like the rec hall at summer camp. It’s bursting with stuff, and people preparing the potlatch. “Ever see anything like this? ” asks Dick. Yeah, I think, the Hadassah bazaar. Rows of tables groan under gifts, the artful (carvings and crocheted doilies) and the luxurious (blankets and towels) alongside dollar store fodder like deodorant and back-scratchers. There are colour-coded plastic bags for men, women, kids; tall woven baskets for the chiefs. Ever since Charlie Wesley, Alma’s dad and Dick’s father-in-law, died nearly two years ago, his family and friends have been busy. They’ve made, bought, and brought what they could; now they’re assembling the loot bags, as it were. Not quite as I pictured. What did they think when I said I wanted to write about a potlatch as an alternative to capitalism?
In the kitchen are huge pots of soups and stews, 150 pies, sixty cakes. This won’t be catered—it would depersonalize the gifting. This is super-personal; each stew has its crew. They’ll continue cooking tomorrow, then move everything to the new hall where the potlatch will be held. There are buckets of takeout Chinese. Dick says the matriarch ordered in for everyone. The giving is pervasive. She gains prestige from hosting the feast, and gives food to the helpers. No doubt about it, I got myself a potlatch.
We drive to Dick’s house. He says he’s tired and tense and wishes it were over—like anyone having a big “affair,” or simcha among my tribe. Outside there are two carvings, of a raven and a Haida-looking Virgin Mary that eyes you eerily from every angle. Dick is a carver. He took it up late in life, as he did guiding, after a career as a heavy-duty mechanic in logging camps. The house is crowded with gifts, including the preserved salmon and jam, and traditional button blankets Alma has made. There’s hardly room to move. She comes in with an air of exhaustion and crisis, saying, “We need more gifts for the men.” They sigh.
Driving me back, Dick says that in the old days, after the white man came, the Haida were rich. They’d have a potlatch with a Singer sewing machine for everyone, like Oprah giving cars to her audience. I’ve read accounts of one—canoes, pool tables, powerboats, dresses, sweaters, bracelets, blankets, gaslights, violins, guitars, basins, washtubs, teapots, trunks, gramophones, bedsteads, bureaus, flour—that lasted days. It happened after 1885, during the six and a half decades when the practice was criminalized. Several people were jailed; everyone had to surrender etched “coppers” and other regalia that went to places like Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. “You could give away everything but your wife and family,” says Dick. “We made war in summer and potlatched all winter.”
So it’s a verb as well as a noun, with a range of uses. In her memoir, Florence Edenshaw Davidson says one of her sister’s names was “Lots of Things for the Potlatch.” People here acquire names lifelong, which makes more sense than being stuck with the one given before you’re born by someone who didn’t know you yet. Her dad had ten potlatches, and the last name he received was “They Gave Ten Potlatches for Him.”
When potlatches were banned, they themselves received other names: “feasts,” “memorials,” “doings” (as in “affairs,” but different from our affairs). The ceremonies aren’t just familial; they’re communal and historic. They represent the nation (“The potlatch is our government,” said one potlatcher) and link it to its past. It’s not really like the Hadassah bazaar. There, it’s all for sale. Stuff here is not meant to be sold. And the focus is on gifts for the guests, who bring no gifts for the hosts, though reciprocal obligations are incurred for future potlatches. This was once the basis of the Haida economy and society. Outsiders have often puzzled about whether it was giving or exchanging, social or economic. But maybe it’s a different kind of exchange or gift, in which each implies the other. You can give, and not worry about loss, since you know you’ll get it back, not because of economic calculation or legal compulsion, but due to a sense of trust on both sides, which releases the innate, human giving-and-sharing impulse.
“Alma spent last night worrying about the men’s presents,” says Dick on Friday morning. “I said, ‘I think I remember something in the crawl space.’ We found five boxes, but none were men’s. So the matriarchs are meeting to decide what to get.” He says it can be almost anything, as long as it’s useful. “It can’t be totally junk.” I wonder if potlatchers were as flexible and philosophical before the colonizers came. Maybe. Why not?
As we drive along the shore of Rooney Bay, Dick explains that every Haida is a Raven or an Eagle. Ravens can’t marry Ravens, and Eagles can’t marry Eagles. I ask whether it happens anyway, and he chortles at the thought. They can marry outsiders, though; his mother was a Raven, and his father was a Welshman from Cardiff.
He pulls over by a clearing with wood sculptures of ravens, eagles, and other animals. The bush spreads before us. Behind is a vast, littered beach; the tide is out. Dick says artists command vast respect among the Haida. The leader of their national council, who negotiates with governments, is Guujaw, a master carver. I ask, why such prestige? “We didn’t have to scrounge for anything,” he says. “Clams, crabs, fish, most vegetation is edible. The forests are thick; we cut them down for houses. So there was time for art.” There’s an abundant quality in the air itself, all mist and rain. Everything grows, and regrows. Due to this absence of scarcity, status wasn’t associated with acquisition, but with giving. Who would demand respect for accumulation when it came so easily?
Our next stop is the home of Dick’s friend Eric Ross. He is about eighty, white, and a widower. Dick says it’s panic time at the hall, and Eric offers the food trolleys in his garage. Eric’s late wife was a native from down the coast. He says his father-in-law was one of the native leaders who supported the ban on potlatches, because they led to destructive competition; some chiefs would impoverish their people “to build their name,” as they still say. I knew natives supported the ban, but I’d read they had been manipulated by missionaries or government. This sounds plausible, too. Any institution can take contradictory shapes over time. In 1883, some chiefs petitioned against potlatches. Then, in 1885, Sir John A. Macdonald, who was his own Indian Affairs minister, introduced a law saying, “Every Indian or person who engages in, or assists in, celebrating the Indian festival known as the ‘potlatch’ is liable to imprisonment.”
The potlatching tribes resisted, but cagily. They asked to hold just a few more potlatches so they could pay what was owing from the last ones. Twenty years later, a government report said the natives were “still so wrapped up in this deplorable custom that they give no heed to any advice for the betterment of their condition.” They circumvented the ban for half a century. In the 1920s, an Indian agent wrote his boss in Ottawa: “The potlatch is killed.” Then, in 1931, “I am sorry to say I have reason to believe it has broken out again.”
This effort to suppress potlatching may seem odd, a bit like outlawing bridal showers, someone said to me. But official policy was to bring Indians “under the sway of civilization, as far as is practicable with any of their race.” Duncan Campbell Scott, one of the “Confederation poets,” who worked at Indian Affairs for fifty-two years, wrote, “Our objective is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic, and there is no Indian question and no Indian department.” Bureaucrats and politicians viewed the potlatch as a major obstacle to assimilation. Introducing orderly habits was “utterly useless” where the potlatch existed, Sir John A. was quoted as saying. Opposition leader Edward Blake called it “an insane exuberance of generosity.” To the press, it was “the evil potlatch.” The question is, why the potlatch? One can at least speculate.
Capitalism and Christianity were the key components of the civilization being imposed, and the potlatch was an anti-capitalist scandal, “a distribution that renounces every profit,” wrote one scholar. The 1880s, when the ban was enacted, were full of challenges to capitalism. Marxism, anarchism, a “revolutionary” labour movement—all emerged during western expansion, and the resulting clashes with native peoples, including the Riel Rebellion of 1885. Nor were potlatchers woolly-minded, unmenacing dreamers: the Haida were war makers and slave takers. Their potlatches embodied intense, even vicious, competition. They disdained capitalism while embodying the very traits capitalists admired. By the end of World War I, capitalism’s stock had reached low ebb. The Bolsheviks created a communist society in Russia. Uprisings in Europe mimicked it. A Canadian Communist party had been formed. In 1919, the Winnipeg General Strike, full of anti-capitalist rhetoric, broke out in the West. That’s when Duncan Campbell Scott ordered the first serious attempt to enforce the ban.
Back in the truck, I ask Dick if there are still competitive potlatches of the sort Eric mentioned. He says they’re all competitive, including the one we’re going to tomorrow. Everybody wants his to be the greatest. Up in Masset recently, they gave out utensils that people kept. Normally guests bring their own; it used to be that they got a spoon at birth and used it all their lives. “Remember that one in Masset with the cutlery? ” people now say.
The boxes in the crawl space are on Dick’s mind, so we return to load them onto his truck. “Moving potlatch gifts—about as hands on as you can get,” he says, watching me lift. He worries Alma will be mad he wasn’t around, but we don’t run into her. Someone says she went to the dollar store in Masset, ninety minutes away, since, as everyone seems to know, there aren’t enough gifts for the men. We swing by the old hall, where Eric’s food trolleys have arrived and the stew is stewing on the porch. Then we go to the cemetery.
This is where they’ll have the headstone “turning” before the potlatch. In the old days, they put up a totem, or mortuary, pole. Gravestones are among the accommodations to Christianity that worked better than outright rejection—like “accepting” an anti-potlatch law but saying you needed to hold a few more. By 1910, the majority of Haida had converted, and the potlatch, renamed “doings,” went underground, its elements dispersed. By the ’20s, covert potlatchers might have simply distributed movie tickets. It persisted tactfully.
The cemetery is plain, fenced, beside the ocean. A sign says Only Natives Allowed. Dick explains that a smallpox epidemic (as if there was only one, and all its victims are before us) devastated the Haida a century ago: “We went from 10,000 to 600.” The survivors fled into the woods, abandoning the dozen or so settlements that had thrived, including Cumshewa, where Charlie Wesley’s clan lived. Eventually, missionaries convinced them to return, but only to mission sites in Masset and Skidegate; now some former settlements are being reinhabited. Research says there were numerous smallpox outbreaks, starting in the late eighteenth century, reducing the population from a pre-contact level of over 10,000 to 588 by 1915. Today it has recovered to about 2,500.
On the way back, we stop to see Haida master carver Norman Price. I’d met him earlier at the garage where I was renting a car. He was having his Cadillac serviced. His face looks carved. I toy with buying something, till I learn that a little black pole twenty-five centimetres high, made of argillite, a form of slate only found here, costs $12,000. Lewis Hyde calls gifts “models of the creative process”: the artist received his talent gratis, and passes its outcome to others. He has a gift; he makes a gift. Back when I wrote plays, I thought of them as gifts to my friends. It seemed to suit something as concrete as a play (or a carving) more than, say, a novel. Price asks if I know Haida artist Bill Reid’s work. A bit, I say, and ask his opinion. “Too many details,” he replies, like the Emperor Franz Joseph II telling Mozart that he uses too many notes. We go next door to his workshop, which has a shutter to slide the ends of full-sized poles outside. It’s spare and clean, like his work. He’s the Count Basie of carvers.
After dinner, we return to the hall to watch a kids’ dance rehearsal. Dick wants to explain the dances in a way he won’t be able to tomorrow night, when he’s at the head table. The dancers aren’t all Haida. There are also local white kids. A scary figure, the hummia, enters first and chases away evil spirits. A teenager in a wooden raven mask, which clacks as he tilts his head side to side, catches that raven quality and suggests how uncanny these dances once were. There’s also a men’s competition dance, which could have been ferocious in its time. Dick’s grandkids come to have their masks, which he made, adjusted; it’s sweaty under there. These dances were banned, too; same language, same section of the Indian Act. Perhaps they were the cultural component of the challenge to the dominant patterns of the time. As American anarchist Emma Goldman, who visited Canada often in the first half of the twentieth century, liked to say, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Officials like Duncan Campbell Scott denounced the dances’ barbaric, literally bloodthirsty, nature as they claimed to know it (dancers biting into living flesh!)—what anthropologists called its “Dionysian quality.” The bans weren’t repealed until 1951. After that, it was a matter of reclamation, which wasn’t easy, given the decimation of the people, their culture and language, the effects of residential schools.
When the rehearsal is over, we return to Dick’s home to transfer more cases of jam. He’s happy he and Alma are reclaiming their house. Driving back, we pass an outdoor pavilion where war canoes and totem poles are sculpted from giant cedars. It’s late and dark, but someone is there alone, working by a single light, like a mechanic under the hood. Dick says it’s Guujaw, who spends his days negotiating land claims and treaty rights; this is often the only time he gets to carve.
It’s Saturday morning, almost time for the headstone ceremony. I collect my rent-a-wreck and drive to the cemetery. It’s raining hard. As I enter, I’m hailed by George Westwood, a Scot who used to work at ctv in Toronto. He’s been here twenty-five years. He’s the undertaker. He gently suggests I remove my hat. Luckily I have an umbrella. He says it’s a shame I never met Charlie Wesley, and goes on to describe his funeral. There was an open casket with Charlie in full headdress, looking like a pharaoh—a government bureaucrat’s term—on two-and-a-half-metre planks held together by copper rods through the wood that, George explains, will oxidize so the coffin won’t disintegrate. We could have been the Athens of the Northwest Coast, he says—using the same “we” as Dick—if not for the smallpox. Wrapped in a gorgeous button blanket, he says he was close to Charlie and was adopted by the family a few weeks ago. As women of the family ceremoniously wash the headstone, Dick’s son-in-law, a Maori from New Zealand, his face tattooed in the Maori way, joins us. Then everyone heads to the new hall for the potlatch.
I’m apprehensive about passing the hours till it starts. But it’s no problem. People arrive and hang. It’s today’s activity: waiting for the potlatch. There are ranks of tables for 600, though there’s no guest list or seating plan. In the bleachers, kids wait to see if there will be room at the tables.
I meet Robert Russ, a youthful man studying on the mainland, who emcees these events. He was spotted by a “mentor” and groomed for it. He knows the “protocols,” a beloved word here: it concerns tradition and its recovery; it means how things are done, after being suppressed or forgotten. This one is unusual, he says, since it separates the mortuary potlatch, which we’re at, from the chieftainship potlatch, which usually follows immediately but won’t be held until spring. He has a sort of bureaucratic mind, says timing is everything in this rushed society (as people drift in and loll about); in the old days, a potlatch would take days, but he aims to get everyone out by 9:30 p.m. “You need a thick skin for my job,” he says. He gathers protocols and sends them to the chiefs, who add their own clan versions, which vary, like customs, from one First Nation to another along the coast. Once again, I abandon the delusion that they’re calling this a potlatch to suit me.
I find a spot with a good view of the head table. Two women from India sit down; they’ve just arrived as tourists and heard about the potlatch. A couple of grumpy locals join us. They make sarcastic cracks but stick around for the gifts. Somehow the transition to formal event takes place.
The chiefs are drummed in, wearing headdresses. Guujaw is among the drummers, underlining the difference between the political leadership he provides and that of the chiefs, who represent continuity with tradition and the solidarity of the nation. This is a strange distinction for us, but it remains prevalent in places with strong traditional ties, like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Russ takes charge. There’s a blessing you could call semi-Christian, involving the Creator, and the meal is served: finger foods first, followed by the soups and stews, from huge pots on stands. Most people have brought their own bowls and spoons. There are plastic bags for taking home uneaten food. The rule is: nothing shall be left. Then the dances start.
The hummia dances in and clears the hall of evil. The ritual isn’t too ominous, since a kid is performing it. It’s a challenge to attract adolescents to their traditional culture. Historical Haida dances have to compete with hip hop. It takes guts to try to revive ancient traditions in the face of the zeitgeist. When the colonizers no longer have the fleet and the cannon to impose their will, they bring out the cultural artillery, which positions itself inside people’s heads—a dicier battle. (In the ’70s, when a Newfoundland folk-rock band called Figgy Duff played jigs and reels in clubs, the crowds loved it. But toss in a sea shanty or dirge, and the crowd noise would drown them out. “Shut up,” one of them once bellowed. “We’re preserving your fucking culture.”)
After the kids, an adult group from Masset performs. They do a powerful dance called Eagle Spirit, then a haunting new song. Individuals are now writing these traditional pieces, which isn’t as paradoxical as it sounds. I’ve heard aboriginal singers in Toronto chant, Meet me at Tim Hortons. Make it a double-double. It took a while to make out the lyrics.
I run into Astrid Egger, whom I met on my first trip. She’s from Germany; she and her daughter have been adopted into the Cumshewa clan. “Too bad this isn’t a real potlatch,” she says cheerily. Here we go again. Confusion over definitions seems to go with cultural revival. Everyone gets discombobulated after so much time has passed, so much is lost, and reality itself has been skewed. I mean, what am I doing here? Isn’t it because I got hooked by some university courses and books I read? Why did anthropologists like Franz Boas even come here a century ago? What gave them, and me, the right? The whole notion of interest belies detachment, leisure, and advantage. Would a Haida be commissioned by a national magazine to travel to Toronto to write about a bar mitzvah or an Italian wedding? There’s an element of power and privilege indicated by who “takes an interest” in whom. Inuit don’t go on ecotours of Montreal.
Everyone—outsiders, natives, academics—thrashes around, looking for what they hope to find in the remnants and wreckage of these places and cultures. Thorstein Veblen, a sociologist, used the potlatch to exemplify his theory of conspicuous consumption. I knew an academic who claimed the “noble savage” of nineteenth-century anthropologists was a mask for the working class of their own age. They found what they wanted, and she found what she wanted in their findings. I come seeking an alternative to capitalism, after the socialist models of my era are gone. You take and you use. But the closer you get, the less simple it looks. “I know all about [the potlatch]. I know more than you do,” said an Indian agent long ago to a Haida, who replied, “You must be older than I am, because I have lived all my life amongst them and I still don’t know everything about it.” Early social scientists like Boas meant to be sympathetic to their “subjects.” Today the US military hires anthropologists to work in Iraq or Afghanistan. All the outside interest, and the ability to pursue it, ends up as more data for more study; in a better world, everyone would get an equal chance to study everyone else.
“I remember a potlatch similar to this,” says a chief, as the tributes to Charlie Wesley begin. (Charlie was eighteen when he became chief and eighty-seven when he died, so there’s a sense of lostness; no one can recall when he wasn’t there. He was born in 1918, and he lived through the bad years for the potlatch and its revival. Smallpox would have been a vivid memory, and memory here is a theme.) The chief looks around and says happily that the “protocols” are as they were in the past; he knows, because he’s talked to the elders. Another chief, wearing a Metis sash, says, “I want to say howa’a [thank you] to the cooks; it was an awesome feast. I want to say howa’a to the dancers; it was an awesome dance.” Then comes the gifting; verbs generally seem more apt here: they potlatch, they gift. It’s about social interaction.
The matriarch-to-be gives out envelopes with cash for individuals who helped. She has a competent air, as if the men get to march in and speechify but the women make the decisions and distribute the bucks. Then they bring out the wicker baskets for the chiefs. They deliver Canadian Tire–type outdoor furniture to special guests. Through it all, there’s drumming and chanting; it’s a bit primal. Russ asks the Raven women to raise their hands until their gifts arrive. Dick hands cartons to people who have a lot to haul. It’s kind of chaotic and acquisitive, a taste of a taste of what the missionaries may have reacted against. Russ is conscientious, an ideal man at the front. He asks anyone who didn’t get a raven print, specially created for this, to raise their hand. I’ve got mine. Someone hands me a bag and says, thank you for coming, a personal touch that feels nice.
Dick comes over and says, with a note of surprise, that the current matriarch has agreed to speak to me. He means nani, Charlie Wesley’s widow, a striking, serene woman at the centre of the head table who’s been deferred to all night. I sit beside her and say I wish I’d known her husband. She says she misses him every day. I maunder a bit about how you think you know someone but there are always new discoveries; she interjects: “There are things I wanted to say that I didn’t get to say.” I suddenly notice that they’re starting the final prayer. I mistimed this. I thought they’d still be distributing gifts to the Eagles, but they’ve moved on. Russ’s efficiency at work. Here I am at the head table with the matriarch at a solemn moment, so I hightail it out, and as I pass George Westwood, the undertaker, on the way back to my seat, he says, “Nice getaway, Rick.” I mop my brow. It feels like a moment in a Bing Crosby–Bob Hope road movie from the ’50s, where the footloose westerners barely escape a scrape with the natives, which they don’t know how they got into. On the Road to Haida Gwaii.
On the plane home, I think back to when I first owned a house, and how I puzzled over whether to thank the tradespeople who came and solved my problems. After all, they got paid. But most people want to be useful and generous in their work, not just compensated. It’s as if money exchanges obscure such normal impulses.
Novelist Joseph Conrad called works of art the signs of a “subtle but invincible conviction of solidarity,” a strange way to describe supposedly individualistic acts of creation. Lewis Hyde said the engraved “coppers” given away at potlatches, sometimes broken into small pieces, expressed the group’s solidarity and perpetuity, the need of all for all. “In the case of the mortuary potlatch,” he wrote, “a material thing symbolizes a biological fact, the survival of the group despite the death of the individual… At some level, biological, social, and spiritual life cannot be differentiated.” Franz Boas, the original potlatch investigator, quoted a potlatcher: “This food is the goodwill of our forefathers. It is all given away.”
The connection to the forefathers is like everything else in human culture (language, agriculture, culture); it contains the accumulated wealth gifted to the future from the entire past. That’s not myth or metaphor; it’s literally true. The social nature of wealth gets cleverly concealed in a market economy, with its commodity exchanges denominated by prices. But no one can truly own wealth if it is social in its essence, even if chunks of it can be, as it were, amputated, isolated, bought, sold, and mystified.
French anthropologist Marcel Mauss said the existence of obligatory gift exchanges like the potlatch among “primitive” peoples proved an “eternal morality” in humans. I’d rather call it evidence for an eternal reality, the reality of unavoidable interconnectedness and mutual need. Due to this dependence on others, past and future as well as present, everyone gives to everyone; it can’t be helped, even if it’s concealed by myths or tales about self-sufficient individuals and private property.
This connectedness is what community is based on; it doesn’t rise from some set of psychological “needs” to “feel” a sense of belonging. It’s grounded on actually belonging to a collectivity, or many—even if you never feel it, and the sense of it becomes attenuated or obscured. In Haida tradition, that reality is unattenuated. The potlatch lays it bare.
The night before I left, I attended a benefit concert on the “white” side of town, to support a community member who needed special care. It was a night of giving. But the Haida put that image in the centre of their society, not at its periphery. As Dick said, they made war in summer and potlatched all winter. It was their central institution, a social practice with many forms, occasions, and sizes. It flowed through life. You prepared for it and reminisced about it. It played a huge role in binding society, and binding time—past, present, and future. It put that social and economic interconnectedness on display, rather than hiding it, as economic theories and explanations in our society tend to. That’s why the early social scientists, and so many since, were attracted by it. Because it revealed, rather than concealed, a central fact that drew them like moths to the flame: the grounding existence of social reality, not just around us and for us, but embedded deep within each of us.