In this season when people seemed to be obsessed with gifts and kids are encouraged to makes lists for Santa Claus demanding all the things they want, an event last weekend showed me the joy of giving and receiving in a whole other way.
The occasion was my friend and fellow author Dorothy Blackcrow’s 80th birthday party. She had what she called a peschelt, more commonly known to us white folk as a potlatch. Instead of receiving lots of gifts, the honoree gives gifts to her guests.
We gathered at the Newport Visual Arts Center. As I walked in, I saw Dorothy in a black sweater with a big red sun in the middle, a long black skirt and bright red socks. A red bandanna barely held back her waist-long hair. The guests, a mix of Native American friends, poets, artists, quilters, and family from all over Oregon and across the country, stood in line to hug Dorothy.
Chairs were arranged in a circle around the room. Framed William Stafford poems sat on the edges of the windows, which overlooked Nye Beach. The ocean was wild and frothy from recent storms.
Stretched across the room were blankets covered with brightly colored scarves, tablecloths, pillows, and more blankets. White candles flickered in the middle. Clearly Dorothy had been doing a lot of sewing.
Tables were laden with all kinds of food, including fry bread, dips, salmon, beef, salads, desserts, rice, puff pastry and more.
Spiritual leader Johnny Moses blessed the food and burst into song. Others joined him. They banged drums and rang bells. This first of many songs was repetitive and easy to catch the melody if not the words. It went on a while, sometimes very soft, sometimes surprisingly loud, with a hypnotic feeling. A woman across from me raised her hands up like they do in some Christian churches and rocked, eyes closed as she sang.
After we ate, the giveaway began. Dorothy and chosen people distributed the gifts to everyone. You could not refuse. Soon we were all sitting with stacks of pillows, tablecloths, scarves, oranges and chocolates.
When they got down to the blankets, Dorothy picked up one end of the first one and mutual friend Teresa Wisner picked up the other. Several people fell in line behind them. They paraded around the room three times before wrapping the blanket around a chosen person. Music played the whole time, the drums, the chanting, the bells. After each awarding of a blanket, the men roared in a low voice, and the women answered in a high yipping call. They did this many times, I’d guess 10, until the blankets were gone. I received the final blanket, gray, brown, and white striped. I felt honored with a connection that needed more than words to express.
Several people were chosen as “witnesses.” A $20 bill was pinned to their shirts. They got up and talked about Dorothy. Meanwhile, Dorothy held a basket. We all lined up and circled the room to drop money in the basket for Dorothy. I wish I had known to bring more cash.
It was a reverent, loving occasion that made my Mass at Sacred Heart afterward feel flat and mechanical. People sit in their pews and do nothing. At the peschelt, everyone was singing, dancing, and giving. No one was allowed to just watch. No one demanded what they wanted. They accepted what they were given with gratitude.
I never felt so white. Back in San Jose, I went to a lot of Mexican and Portuguese fiestas, but that was a whole different thing. I’m beginning to realize that my heritage may be Latina and Iberian, but I was raised fully in the Anglo culture. It takes more than knowing a few words of the language.
It occurred to me that I was descended from the people who took the Native Americans’ lands and lives. Yet here I was sitting with a pile of gifts on my lap. So much love.
Dorothy is a gringa by birth, but she married a Lakota medicine man and lived on a reservation for many years. She adopted the culture as her own. As a sister writer, she has been my teacher and critique partner for a long time. Her novel The Handless Maiden: A Lakota Mystery came out this year. It is so good, and there are more books to come. People like Dorothy are a gift to us all.
I feel like I already had my Christmas.
Dear readers, I wish you a wonderful Christmas and a new year full of blessings. As always, I welcome your comments.