This is part 1 of a 3-part essay exploring the nature of gifts and the transformative potential of entering into a gift relationship with the ecological world.
“We do not own our intellect, our creativity, or our skills. We have received them as a gift and grace. We pass them on as a gift and grace; it is like a river which keeps flowing…we are the tributaries adding to the great river of time and culture; the river of humanity.”
– Satish Kumar
If you were a member of the Kwakiutl tribe of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest 300 years ago, the annual return of the salmon to their inland spawning grounds was of great significance to you. For your tribe, the salmon were a primary source of food and natural wealth and thus, their abundance was essential to your survival and flourishing.
However, there was also a deeper social and spiritual significance to their return each year. For the Kwakiutl and many other Native American tribes of this region, the salmon, and all other animal beings, were seen as brothers who lived in human form in large tribes under the sea. According to this mythology, each year the salmon-people would don fish skin and swim inland so as to give themselves to their land brothers in the form of food. It was a selfless act of sacrifice that had to be honored and reciprocated by the Kwakiutl people for the salmon to return the following year.
Accordingly, the Kwakiutl evolved an elaborate welcome ceremony to honor and participate in a gift relationship with the natural world. In effect, this ‘first-fruits rite’ (common to many tribal and indigenous peoples) was an essential part of receiving the gifts of nature and keeping the ‘spirit of the gift’ alive. In this world, the relationship between all beings – and particularly between humans and the more-than-human world – was most fully expressed in the form of a cyclical gift relationship: the physical, social, and spiritual necessities of life were all provided by means of gift exchange.
This series of essays aims to synthesize the theories of socio-economic gift exchange elaborated by Lewis Hyde, Charles Eisenstein and others with our emerging scientific understanding of Gaia theory, planetary boundaries, and systems theory. In so doing, I hope to uncover insights into a particular way of being in the ecological world that humanity may use to respond to the converging crises of social, spiritual, economic, and ecological collapse. Building on the Deep Ecology framework of the ecological self and the phenomenology of perception, we will explore how participating in a gift relationship with Gaia may offer humanity a way of radically re-experiencing ourselves as part of a larger whole and the implications this may have for transitioning to a life sustaining socio-economic system based on the gift ethic.
The Spirit of the Gift: Towards a theory of gift exchange
In order to adequately demonstrate the gift relationship underlying the ecological world, we must first understand the nature of gifts. In the gift society of the Kwakiutl, the first salmon to be caught was always given an elaborate welcoming ceremony to acknowledge the gift of his life: a formal speech was made receiving him as a visiting chief from another tribe and he was adorned with sacred objects and placed on an altar. The chief of the Kwakiutl then distributed a piece of the honored salmon to every member of the tribe, in essence passing this gift from the sea on to the entire tribe. Finally, the intact bones of the salmon were returned to the river from whence he came, so that he could reanimate and return to his lodge under the sea (Hyde 1999). This final and most essential act completed the cycle, or spiral, of gifts, thus ensuring that the salmon would return in abundance the following year.
From this example, as well as many others from both modern and indigenous gift societies (Hyde 1999; Mauss 2011; Eisenstein 2010), we can distill several fundamental characteristics of gift exchange. To preserve the essence of a gift, the gift itself must remain in motion. The Kwakiutl recognized this by ceremonially giving a piece of the honorary salmon to each member of the tribe and ultimately, returning the bones of the salmon to the river. The gift is not accumulated or converted to private property, an important distinction between gifts and capital that we shall return to later. The gift is thus given in a circle as it is kept in motion. It is not a strictly reciprocal exchange between two subjects, and it is certainly not a barter exchange where two objects of equal value are exchanged for one another. As the gift moves from river to chief to tribe members back to river, it completes a cycle and thus brings into existence a gift system. Gifts, then, create networks of relationships as they flow.
However, the essential quality of the gift does not end there. In fact, as the gift moves, it transforms at each node of the network of giving. It is first received as a living, breathing salmon. It is then broken into pieces and distributed as food to each member of the tribe. To complete the first round of the cycle, the remaining bones are transferred back to the river. Though it appears that the physical gift is diminished at each stage, in reality the gift, or the ‘spirit of the gift’, actually increases with each movement. The momentum of the gift gives it increasing value as it passes hands (in the form of a tribal identity, a connection to the natural world, participation in the mythology of the tribe, etc.), highlighting another important characteristic: the power of the gift is contained in the interaction between giver and receiver, not in the physical manifestation of the gift. It is in the spaces in between, not in the objects themselves, that gifts release their transformational power.
Gift systems are created by the very nature of the gift. In this context, gift circles function as positive feedback loops: the spirit of the gift – contained not in the quantitative abundance of salmon, for example, but in the community cohesion of the tribe and its relationship to nature – has the potential for unlimited increase and unlimited decrease since it manifests in qualities such as satisfaction, intimacy, coherence, and love that are inherently opposed to exact quantification. The story of the Kwakiutl and their neighboring tribes furnishes us with a perfect example of decrease as well: when white settlers moved onto their lands and commercialized the salmon fisheries by the end of the 19th century, the fisheries were eventually overexploited and tribal cohesion gradually eroded as the Native Americans were forced to rely on market exchange for access to once-free salmon. As gifts were converted into commodities by whites, nature stopped giving and every member of the gift network suffered.
Gifts, then, represent a powerful force for creating and maintaining community, since they operate at the level of the relationship, not the object. Thus, as Hyde states, ‘any exchange, be it of ideas or of goats, will tend toward gift if it is intended to recognize, establish, and maintain community’ (1999: 78). With this understanding of the dynamics of gift exchange in mind, we will next turn towards an exploration of gift systems at the planetary scale.