Posted by: terrapraeta | April 23, 2009

Gifting Life

Dizzy dizzy dizzy
As I speak
Like a tumbling cat
I watch in fascination
Like a vampire bat
Don’t do it don’t do it
Don’t do it don’t do it
Don’t give it away
We’ll use it up tomorrow
If we don’t use it today

The Cure, The Dream

I began reading Martin Pretchel’s The Toe Bone and Tooth this weekend. I had no idea when I picked it up that it would be so on point with some of the issues I planned to write about this week.

Martin is an artist and writer who spent a significant part of his life living in Guatamala in a small Mayan mountain town, learning their stories, participating in their rituals and answering his own call to shamanism as practiced by the Maya. I have not finished the book, yet, but I am beginning to understand the scope of his life and calling, and I am enchanted by the way he has of telling his story.

“After the second world war and with increasing frequency ever after, Northern New Mexico became a place where a particular version of this application [machine dependent civilization] came with its supporting economy, to rehearse its policies and experiments for the Third and Forth Worlds without having to leave the political boundaries of the U.S.

“Well away from the controversial messes it had made elsewhere in the country and would here foreseeably install, it advertised itself as an economic boost for our state which it claimed was unemployed because people ranched, farmed and worked for themselves, under-populated because there was still 80% open public land upon which they ranched and farmed, uneducated because New Mexicans spoke many languages besides English, and poverty stricken because every family had an outhouse, a milk cow and didn’t owe the bank.

“Once this clumsy, post-war machine culture was in place a new so-called science-based education system was established throughout, ostensibly designed to train local individuals for the good jobs the machine people said they were offering, which would bring them cash, give them credit to get them installed with lots of mass-produced stuff into the American dream and thereby raise their standard of living. But whose standard was it? In the end, it all disguised a kind of internal colonialism.”(p 111)

And then later:

“That’s when New Mexico became impoverished. Instead of jobs, honor, work and cash, they simply found out they were poor and were going to stay there. Up until the grey sky people [outsiders] imported poverty, New Mexicans maybe didn’t have a lot of stuff but they knew themselves to be proud, ornery, able and rich because the land itself made them so and because of the rituals that each of their cultures kept alive, ensuring that the holy earth was fertile and giving. This was what New Mexico’s people had cherished and maintained. But now all this was trivialized and overlooked, eroded by the children of the smoke stack civilization who declared it all unprofitable, impractical, unmodern and even backwards while some of them sold what their presence was destroying to tourists as being quaint reminders of bygone days.”(p113-114)

So why am I quoting Martin? He grew up watching his community change from one fundamental type of economy into another fundamental type. Where once there was a Gift Economy, a gift economy tainted by commerce, but nonetheless, into a full blown Market Economy. Whether he thinks about economics, himself, he recognized what that difference made to his people, his land and his community. Where once, transactions occurred based upon relationship and support, now transactions occur based upon quid pro quo. Where once it was about people, now it has become about products.

This seems like the perfect time of year to look at gifting versus commerce: more and more people every year express dissatisfaction at the increasing commodification of Christmas. Every year, in my own family, we do less and less gift buying and try to focus more on the feeling of Christmas. Not being Christian, I cannot say that we focus on the ‘true’ meaning of the Holiday, yet even I see that the teachings ascribed to Jesus the Nazarene are far more relevant in the context of relationship than in the context of commerce.

History courses have taught us about the so-called ‘Barter Economy’ that existed before our own market economy supplanted it. However, it seems that more recently, anthropologists have been considering the possibility that there never was such a thing. That, in fact, what has been called the barter economy was in fact, a Gift Economy. So what’s the difference? In a gift economy, there is no exchange and there is no accounting for value. Gifts are given freely, with no expectation of direct or ‘fair’ recompense. When, on the other hand, quid pro quo is the primary motivator, individuals must remove their emotions and relationships from the transaction to ensure fair exchange and recompense.

“Instead of viewing the gift as a form of exchange or having only an economic function, the gift in indigenous societies is a reflection of a particular world view characterized by a perception of the natural environment as a living entity which gives itsgifts and abundance to people if it is treated with respect and gratitude (i.e., if certain responsibilities are observed).[2] Central to this perception is that the world as a whole is constituted of an infinite web of relationships extended to and incorporated into the entire social condition of the individual”


“gifts are given back and shared with the larger cosmos as a means of recognizing and thanking the land and cosmos for its gifts. Through the act of giving, the kinship or relationships are actively recognized, not taken for granted or ignored. This creates a collective sense of respect, reciprocity and responsibility. In short, it could be suggested that in indigenous societies, the gift is one of the most important organizing principles around which values and perceptions of the world are attached.” (link)

Of course, as is the case with so many other systems I have discussed, Dunbar’s Number once more takes on an important role. Without knowledge of one another, without the foundation of reputation, relationship and emotion, the gift economy cannot function. So once more, we find another arena of human endeavor that can be structured quite differently, if only we find ways of living in communities that fall within the scale of our human capabilities.

(Originally Posted December 19, 2006)


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