One of the most intriguing traditions of the First Peoples of the Pacific Northwest coast is the Potlatch. Otherwise known throughout Native American traditions as the Giveaway, a prosperous member of the village would put on a feast for all, and give away everything he owned. Dwelling, canoe, tools, goods… everything considered personal property, all was given away to sit around in sackcloth and ashes for a few days, then start all over again. Prominent chieftains of the Pacific Northwest did this 3 and 4 times in their lifetimes, each Potlatch earning another circular ring on their ceremonial hats.
My first direct encounter with this tradition was with a Haida family in the Queen Charlotte Islands of British Columbia. Emerging out of the fog on a dreary morning and facing a seemingly uncrossable tidal estuary, a number of people appeared out of a shoreline cabin and began gesturing in my direction. A little uneasy, I sat down on a driftwood log to eat a few smoked alewives and see what would happen. A young man purposely strode in my direction, got into a small skiff and, standing up as he rowed, came across the river. Still unsure of exactly what might be happening, I shouldered my pack and came down to the waters edge. “Get in” he said with no emotion, “Grandfather wants to talk to you.”
As he ferried me across the river my mind whirled… ‘Oh no’ I thought, ‘I’m done for..trespassing on tribal turf, poaching minnows, who knows’. The Haida had an old tradition that suggested some form of “cannibalism”, this only added further dread.
Alighting on the other side there were several other men and women who looked me over intently without saying anything to me directly, only speaking amongst themselves in their own tongue as I was led by the boatman up the weathered beach steps to the cabin. Entering, I am confronted by an elderly jet-black haired man seated on a large wooden chair upon a low dais at the far wall of the cabin. Staring intently at me, he suddenly broke into a wide toothy grin and said “Sit down, I want to hear all about it”.
The other family members all filed in, laughing and chattering now at the minor act of terrorism they had played on the unsuspecting wanderer, they began to ply me with smoked salmon, ‘ghow’ (delicious died kelp encrusted with herring roe) and with more mirth, a jar of clear amber oil with a spoon in it. “Here, try this!” the Grandmother said with a twinkle in her eye.
Not being totally clueless, I was aware this must be the infamous eulachon (candlefish) oil, their most prized condiment and, determined to not grimace I ladled a spoonful onto my ghow. “Oh this is good” I exclaimed, and sincerely… it was. The room burst out laughing, “You’re OK!” they said.
Overwhelmed by their hospitality as I related to all my travels over the past year and how I came to arrive on their desolate ocean beach, I gave the Grandmother a cedar bark basket I had woven a few weeks before. And so it began, for the next three days there was an endless exchange of gifts, neither I nor the Haida willing to be outdone. By the time I left, half of my possessions were new. New sweater, new knife, new pot, bowl and spoon, all sorts of miscellaneous trinkets, and a 30 pound piece of argillite, the black slate stone the Haida carve their signature stone works from.
As I got out of the minivan at the ferry dock to resume my travel, Grandmother got the last one in… “Here”, she laughed, handing me over the front seat a finely engraved silver canoe paddle pendant.
I carved a raven from the argillite and sent it to the grandfather within a year, and got a brief letter back after another year from a son who said Grandfather had received the carving and was pleased. One of Grandfather’s parting comments to me was “Come back when you have a kayak, that’s the way to see the islands”.
30 years have passed since this encounter. The Queen Charlotte Islands are now known as Haida G’waii, a Native Peoples and Marine Ecosystem Preserve, and a mecca for sea-kayakers.
After 3 decades of further perambulations across the continent, I’m now within reach of the ferry docks on Puget Sound that will embark me and my dream boat on it’s travois-poled cart up the inside passages to pay that return visit. When this will happen I know not yet, that doesn’t matter, the intent is there. The Grandfather will not be there in the physical, but somehow his collective spirit will know of my return.
What does any of this have to do with leaving a piece of stone carving under a small waterfall on the beach in Oregon? It’s a giveaway, a token potlatch. Barely beyond reach of the high tides, it will certainly not survive the coming winter storms before being claimed by the beach cobbles and the surf, before then I have hopes that a beachcomber will realize it is there as a gift and give it a space in the rock garden.
Giving away, with no thought of return, is a marvelously empowering act. It lightens the load, in my case about 20 pounds, and it certainly tosses a bit of mystery out into the world. Letting go of possessions has the power of opening up new horizons and new adventures whose magic soon erases all memory of what was left behind.