VIEWPOINT: Learning to ask for meaning
by Fr. George Silides, St. Ambrose Episcopal Church
Prior to becoming the lead pastor at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church in Claremont, I was fortunate to have the great privilege of pastoring in Alaska for 13 years, along the Yukon River above the Arctic Circle in Fairbanks and, finally, in the state capital, Juneau.
As inspiration for my ‘Speaking Inter-faithfully’ column, it was suggested that some form of the remarks I made at last year’s interfaith Thanksgiving service at Temple Beth Israel might be fun to share. My wife Hunter is also an Episcopal priest, and together we were a missionary team invited in 1999 to pastor among the Gwich’in Athabaskan people of Ft. Yukon and surrounding villages.
Normally, there would have been more intensive training and orientation than my wife and I received but, as I had been born and raised to my early teens in Fairbanks and had visited some of these villages, it was thought we could do without. Not so.
Over the next months and years, we were to understand over and over again that we just didn’t understand. Our eyes did not see with Native eyes and, therefore, the world and social constructs we looked at appeared different in purpose, value and meaning than they actually were. In short, what looked like a duck, quacked like a duck and walked like a duck was not, in any form, a duck. We can apply this understanding to inter-religious dialogue a hundred times over.
One must learn to ask for meaning, not assume one can extrapolate, interpolate or analogize. How much simpler and more respectful just to ask, “What do you mean by X, by Y, by Z?”
Our own experience mirrored a larger experience of the English crown representatives and their contact with the First Nation peoples of Canada; especially the Tsimshian, the Nisga’a and the Nuxalk. From time immemorial, these peoples had held potlatch as a way to honor and mark critical events in the lives of their tribes and among individual families.
The great cost of hosting the potlatch was that literally the entire fortunes of families and sometimes the fruit of years of labor in the case of a memorial potlatch were sacrificed. Blankets, guns, knives, sheets of beaten copper, furs, dried food were distributed to all in attendance, with some special gifts reserved for persons chosen by the host. Non-Native employers complained that too many Native persons would work for pay only as long as it took to accumulate what they needed to host such a potlatch, and then not return to work. They were called shiftless, lazy, irresponsible and un-Christian. How were people to provide for themselves if they kept giving away their possessions? How were they ever to make something of themselves, get ahead, become a success in this world, if they did not accumulate material wealth and guard it with great care?
At the urging of missionaries largely and government agents, the potlatch was outlawed—to little effect—in 1884. Those who pressed for the banning to potlatch had failed to understand that wealth was unimportant to the First Nations people. What mattered most was how wealth was measured.
More deeply, and sadly, was that these missionaries and government agents failed to understand why First Nations people felt free to give away such wealth of material goods—that they were part of a circle, part of a cycle, a closed loop of giving and receiving that they could trust. Their turn to be recipient of gift-giving at potlatch would come in time. Probably more often than being host to the more elaborate and costly kind. It is in giving that they received. I remember a Christian saint said such a thing once. If the Western eye only had the humility to ask, “What does this mean? It looks to me to mean thus and so. Am I correct or no?”
Ft. Yukon, where my wife and I were pastors, has 500 inhabitants and is located eight miles north of the Arctic Circle, accessible only by small aircraft and, in the summer, by long boat ride. There are 61 cash jobs in Ft. Yukon. Mail clerk, store employees, freight operators for the airlines, tribal council members, city council members, diesel oil generator operators for the village electrical plant, etc. As I observed the ways of village life, it appeared people were a lot more interested in hunting and fishing, visiting, snowmobile riding and boat-driving than they were coming into their job every day. Who could blame them? But didn’t they have a responsibility to their employer? Didn’t they want to get ahead?
There was no potlatch wealth accumulation going on here, people were just working for a season, then quitting. It took me a couple of seasons, a couple of cycles, to be hit square in the face with the truth: There were not enough jobs for everyone, so everyone took a turn working. Duh! And since all the employers were part of the system, it was expected that someone who quit one job could, without penalty, apply for another. Or even the same job when their turn came round again. There is enough if we share, there is never enough if we don’t.
Confidence in our place in the community gives us courage. Betrayal of that trust destroys the system, and not just the individual, but the community. How are we to know who looks in from outside? Watch. Ask. Admit ignorance. Rejoice in the renewing of your mind. Thanks for listening.