By Gavin Trevelyan
Ojibway giving traditions are based on a cyclical view of reciprocity. Goods are given freely between members of the community, with the expectation that those goods will continue to be given from one individual to the next. In this way, individuals with goods to give can rely on receiving them back in some form or another when they themselves are in need. In this broad view, reciprocity is ensured.
Nomadism in Ojibway culture, in pre-colonial North America inclined this group towards an aversion to acquiring bulky goods. Wealth in goods is not an advantage to nomadic peoples. Giving goods away to other members of the community would increase the connectedness among them and the status of donors.
Status is determined in large part within Ojibway culture by how much an individual gives, not by how much they have. The chief of the tribe is expected to be the largest donor. There is no feeling of being beholden to the chief or other donors when receiving goods. A chief that gives a large amount away is recognised as being a good provider, able to acquire and redistribute resources among the community effectively. Again, this is rooted in nomadism, where wealth is determined by status rather than by possessions. An individual is regarded as a good citizen if they give possessions away.
Young men being groomed for the position of chief are watched by the tribal elders, to see how much they are giving to other members of the tribe. If that young man is not giving an appropriate amount of goods away, the elders may change their mind about his future and choose another to be the future chief.
Some Ojibway ceremonies revolve around gift-giving. Again, reciprocity is important and part of the process. In the name-giving ceremony, where children receive their names from the community elders, gift-giving is evident. In exchange for receiving the child’s name, the parents present them with a gift. Also, four ‘god-parents’ from the four directions must be present, and receive gifts from the parents as well in exchange for their assistance in times of the child’s need. The Potlatch ceremony is in essence a giving occasion. Members will share a feast and make gifts to one another.
Ojibway gift-giving culture differs from Western philanthropy in a number of ways. There is no notion of the ‘deserving poor’ and ‘undeserving poor’ in Ojibway culture. All members of the community give and receive according to their capabilities and needs. There are no strings attached to Ojibway gifts, where a direct response is expected or required, merely the expectation that the gifts will move on to other people when they are no longer needed. This much more cyclical view of reciprocity is different from Western philanthropy, where a donation is given with the expectation that the recipient accommodate the donor’s desires in one form or another.
The major difference between these two systems is the way that individual status is determined. Whereas in Western culture, status is determined by material wealth and power, in Ojibway culture, it is the capacity of a person to give that determines their status. This requirement of the community compels individuals to give, and they are looked down upon if they have the ability to give but do not. This difference may be explained by the nomadic lifestyle of the Ojibway prior to European colonialism, and the more sedentary lifestyle of European cultures that have been in place for many thousands of years. A sedentary way of life in cities or on farms allows individuals to acquire and hold possessions, where with nomadism, excessive possessions are a hindrance.
Modern Western philanthropy has evolved to the point where individuals give for the sake of giving in many cases. In some circles, how much one donates is becoming a status symbol. In this way, our modern Western philanthropy is gradually merging with the same philosophy of giving employed by the Ojibway.
Karen Watts, member of Curve Lake Ojibway Community, and neighbour.