Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest coast of the United States and Canada had a long tradition known as potlatch. Hosts would invite other tribal members and family to a grand celebration that marked milestones such as births and marriages. Typical activities included singing, dancing and eating, not unlike festive occasions we celebrate in our own lives.
But most interestingly, the host of these get-togethers also chose those times to give away significant portions of his possessions and holdings, perhaps corn, blankets, jewelry, money, livestock or hides. It was not unknown for the host to give away everything he owned, ending up with nothing. An individual’s status was based on the amount of wealth he gave away, not what he had to start with. He could only begin to recoup any holdings by attending a potlatch given by another tribal member and become a recipient of another’s largesse.
A friend shared the story of the potlatch with me several years ago, as recounted by the DailyOm. Therein it was described in these words: “It is a tradition that values generosity above all else...a potlatch validates generosity and encourages the flow of resources in a community, while at the same time continually reaffirming the importance of community ties.”
Despite its historical and cultural significance in the lives of these Native Americans, both the U.S. and Canadian governments outlawed the practice in the late 1800s. It became a misdemeanor to attend a potlatch or even to encourage one, punishable by two to six months in jail. The tradition was seen as harmful to the goal of assimilating tribes into the prevailing culture and seeing them converted into Christians.
I’ve read another story that speaks to the value of generosity to an entire community. It seems a Midwest corn farmer was known for growing corn that won the blue ribbon every year at the fair. A reporter interviewing the farmer learned that the farmer regularly shared his best seed corn with his neighbors.
Astounded, he asked why the man would so readily share his prize-winning corn with potential competitors. So the farmer sat down to explain the science of pollination to the reporter. The wind, he said, blows the pollen from field to field, and if his neighbors were growing corn not as good as his, his crop would suffer a steady decline in quality. “If I am to grow good corn, I must help my neighbors grow good corn,” he summed it up in the story I read.
Both these stories came to mind this week when the local United Way announced grants totaling $400,000 or so to 21 local nonprofits. One-third of those grants are five figures, the rest four figures. Every organization that applied for a grant was funded. A committee of 15-20 decided the allocations of funds raised from employees at 10 local employers that include local industries, the Board of Education and Newton Medical Center, among others. Representatives of each participating employer are included on the committee.
United Way executive director Doris Strickland said the $400,000 raised met the goal for the year, the same goal as last year. And in the economic climate we’ve suffered and when the county’s average salary (less than $50,000) is considered, she said she is extremely pleased to see the goal met. Newton County, she adds, has a strong tradition of “giving back.”
Generosity — with one’s time, possessions and wealth, whether great or less so — is a tenet of all the world’s great religions and spiritual paths. St. Francis of Assisi said, “For it is in giving that we receive.” Lao Tzu taught something very similar: “The wise man does not lay up his own treasures. The more he gives, the more he has.”
Islam directs that a portion of one’s holdings be distributed to the poor annually to encourage compassion.
Writers and poets have long pondered the act of generosity. John Bunyan, author of “A Pilgrim’s Progress,” wrote: “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” And Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote this: “Give what you have. To someone, it may be better than you dare to think.”
In the New Testament Book of Galatians, we read that a man will reap what he sows. That is not dissimilar to the Hindu concept of karma that says what we do — the good and the not so good — will come back to us. I interpret that to mean that unkindness, for example, returns unkindness in full measure. And in the same light, our generous dealings with our fellow human beings should return generosity to us when we are most in need.
Barbara Morgan is a Covington resident with a background in newspaper journalism, state government and politics. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.