Someone asked me how I felt about gift giving and if such a thing existed and occurred among Neshnabek. This was my answer to them….
These Neshnabék people who lived long ago understood something about the nature of giving and receiving gifts that has been forgotten in this modern world of commerce and silver and gold economics.
Consider a gift given to you. Something extravagant, perhaps a pricy birthday gift. It would make you feel great, special, bring a great big smile to your face…until that person’s birthday came around. Do you give an equally extravagant gift? Can you afford to? Would it make you feel bad if you couldn’t?
The idea that a gift is freely given is somewhat of a myth. Gifts are given to strengthen bonds of friendship, family, and community. If these gifts are given only one way, how is that bond strengthened? No, gifts were meant to be EXCHANGED, gifts were meant to be RECIPROCATED.
The Spirit of Life has given us many gifts. Life, this world in which we enjoy our Life, and all of the Spiritual Gifts that enhance our Life and pave the way back home to our Real Life. So it is that our Creator is creating a relationship with us. The Spirit has given us our Free Will and does not command our loyalty; instead, Creator gives us the choice of having a relationship with him/her. It is through these Gifts that The Spirit offers us the opportunity of a relationship. To continue that relationship, it behooves us to RECIPROCATE THE GIFT!!
Among the Neshnabék, it is still customary to give a gift to someone when they enter your home for the first time. I have seen my husband do this many times, and I myself received a gift from my husband’s mother upon entering her home. I had brought a gift for her, and we exchanged gifts, but I didn’t know at the time that I was participating in a ceremony of welcome and acceptance. What is often forgotten is that a welcome gift received is supposed to be reciprocated, it is supposed to be exchanged. Within a reasonable amount of time you are supposed to give a gift in exchange for the one you were given. To not do so is an insult to the giver, a rejection of their hospitality and offer of friendship. For the giver to request a gift in exchange is an insult as well. Many a misunderstanding has occurred because the gift EXCHANGE was overlooked, and today, such gift giving is completely overlooked by some people.
This is the nature of Neshnabék giving: A man approached another man at a powwow. After exchanging pleasantries, the first man told the second man how much he admired his belt. The second man smiled, thanked the man, and took off the belt right there on the spot and handed it to the man. The first man was not taken aback, he simply smiled, thanked the man, and took the expensive cowboy hat off his head and handed it to the second man, who smiled and thanked the first man. THAT is giving.
Consider this…You cannot out-give Mamogosnan. It is said among the ones who know, What you give in the name of the Pipe will come back to you four times.
So how does one give to the Spirit? By giving to the people, especially to those through whom the gifts flow.
Spiritual Gifts are Gifts from the Spirit. A Name, A Language, A Teaching, A Song, A Doctoring, A Sweat, A Prayer, all are gifts of the Spirit. When the Spirit gives these to a person, he/she waits to see if the gift is accepted and reciprocated. He/she waits to be told Thank You.
For years there have been rumors among the young ones that the “Medicine People” of the Nations do not “Charge” for doctoring. And this has been taken to mean that doctoring and other spiritual ceremonies are free. This has been a tragic misconception that has prevented many a person from receiving the full realization of the Gifts of the Spirit. When the Spirit gives a gift, especially the gift of Mno Bmadzewen – Life and Good Health, he/she waits to see if his/her Gift is accepted, respected, and appreciated. If the gift is not exchanged, the full blessing of the original gift may not come to pass. The Spirit waits for the exchange, and then returns the exchange by four times.
THE MEDICINE PEOPLE DIDN’T CHARGE BECAUSE CULTURALLY IT WAS KNOWN, ACCEPTED, AND EXPECTED THAT A GIFT WOULD BE RECIPROCATED. THEY DIDN’T HAVE TO ASK. IT WAS GIVEN WITHOUT QUESTION.
If a medicine person had to ask for the gift that was supposed to be given, it was considered an insult all the way around. And that’s why even today, many Spiritual Leaders will not ask for gifts, but will simply let it go rather than insult themselves, the person requesting the ceremony, and the Spirit Him/Herself. Others will disguise the request for a gift as a “Charge”, perhaps charging for a Language Lesson, a Book or Manual, or a Speaking Engagement, in order to protect the people from insulting themselves and the Spirit by giving nothing.
Historically, it was the misinterpretation of Neshnabék culture by certain missionaries that resulted in this misconception. Catholic Jesuits in particular, were under a vow of Poverty, and were in direct competition with the Spiritual Leadership for the souls of the Neshnabék. They knew that in order to win the hearts, minds, and souls of the people, they had to discredit the Spiritual Leadership in any way possible. One way they did this was to attack the custom of giving a feast and presenting the Spiritual Leader with gifts in exchange for spiritual gifts given. They asserted that they prayed and asked for nothing in return except their attendance in church, as their vow of poverty prevented them from accepting such extravagance. They asserted that these “medicine men” had no business accepting gifts or any other remuneration for the work that they do. (That which they preached was in contrast to the custom of Papal Indulgences, the custom of purchasing, yes, with MONEY, the passage of a relative from Purgatory into Heaven.)
Interesting reading, those Jesuit Relations, the record of the conversion of many Neshnabek nations. They speak of being attacked and burned as witches for spreading smallpox, shortly after the Catholics had terrorized Europe with witch burnings of Jews and midwives. What goes around comes around, eh? Yet another example of the reciprocity of the relationship between Spirit and Man, what we do in the name of our “God” will come back to us, no matter what we call him/her or how we worship him/her.
Why a physical gift? Why not just say “Migwech” and be done? Consider…
“If one gives things and returns them, it is because one is giving and returning “respects” – we still say “courtesies.” Yet is also because by giving one is giving oneself, and if one gives oneself, it is because one “owes” oneself – one’s person and one’s goods – to others.” Marcel Mauss (translated by WD Halls), The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies, 1950.
In other words, the things that we give are imbued with a spirit, both of HE/SHE that made it initially, and he/she the human who refashioned it into a gift. Thus when we give a gift, we are giving a piece of ourselves, and that little piece of ourselves follows that gift wherever it goes. And that is why the Neshnabék rarely refused a gift, for to refuse a piece of someone else is a serious insult.
What is an appropriate gift? Séma? The old time séma, yes. The séma that took a YEAR to collect the appropriate ingredients and combine them in the traditional way, with the songs and prayers. The séma that represented a YEAR’s worth of work. Back then, Séma meant a lot more than a $3 bag of tobacco from the local smoke shop.
These days, séma is available for purchase, and there’s nothing wrong with purchasing a bag of tobacco to give to an elder in exchange for a Spiritual Gift, such as a Name, a Language Lesson, a Spiritual Teaching, Doctoring, Vision Questing, or any other Ceremony. However, the spirit of that tobacco needs to be augmented to reflect the changing world in which we live.
A long time ago, a person could exchange séma for other resources. Not so these days. My husband has never been able to purchase groceries or a gallon of gas with a tobacco tie. Gifts should be meaningful and useful, for long ago, everything was useful, even the most splendidly decorated blanket was still a blanket and used as a blanket. Food, medicines, blankets, cooking and hunting items, clothing, even raw materials like hides, gourds, flint, or shketagen were used as gifts.
For those among you who think that to give money to an Elder for a Spiritual Gift is an insult, you couldn’t be further from the truth. In this modern economic system, money is a substitute for the traditional gifts that would have been given long ago. It is appropriate to give money as an augmentation to the traditional gifts that you give an Elder, because that money represents resources: food, fuel, clothing; the same things that would have been given long ago.
Those old ones who knew, who wanted the Nation to be strong, knew that a healthy nation took care of its Elders and Spiritual Leadership. They knew the Source of the Power of these Leaders was not human, but divine. The Spirit works through his/her servants, he/she uses them, as Grandpa Fools Crow so eloquently stated, as “A Hollow Bone.” By saying thank you through the giving of a feast and gifts, the gift was given back so it could be reciprocated again. In this way, the Gifts of the Spirit were continually flowing to the people, and the people were continually reciprocating to the Spirit. There was a cycle, a circle, a RELATIONSHIP.
It was that RELATIONSHIP that kept the people strong. It is that same RELATIONSHIP that could exist today among the people, if they would only recognize the source of their Spiritual Gifts, including Life, Language, and Culture, and reciprocate appropriately.
Nin se Neaseno.