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The Power of Potluck...and Potlatch.

The Seneca Treehouse Project hosts potluck dinners on the first Saturday of the month. These are very good opportunities to tour the property, meet lots of interesting people, and share in our communal abundance. There’s great organic and local food with plenty of vegetarian and vegan options, great home-brewed beer and craft wine (depending on who’s there, and if you’re into that sort of thing), and always great conversation.

Full disclosure: the concept of the regular potluck was about as foreign to me at first as the concept of permaculture. Growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, where an ever-growing density of nuclear families spend their days commuting to and from the city, and their nights and weekends sequestered inside houses with moats of lawns and asphalt, I almost never shared meals with anyone who didn’t share my last name.

And yet I’ve come to value the open-door (in Atlanta, we always locked our doors), open-invite, open-hearted coming together to eat and talk as a central part of the practice of permaculture at the Treehouse. Come and share your food, share your stories, share what you make and what you do, and enjoy yourself not as a break from, but as an essential part of what Gary Snyder once called the Real Work. It’s a welcome pause and communion from busyness. There are, appropriately I think, 12 a year, just like there are 12 principles in permaculture. It’s a cycle of gift and gathering that mimics the pattern of the lunar cycle, and, I think, also resonates with a rhythm built into all of us.

I got to thinking about the word “potluck.” As part of my profession (English teacher) I look at words as a botanist might look at leaves: as the latest growth of an ages-old development that reaches down so deep into the soil of history, we only dimly fathom the end of the roots. My curiosity about “potluck” led me to a discovery—actually to a correction of a bad assumption on my part—that I thought I’d share. You see, I’d always assumed that “potluck” and “potlatch” were more or less the same thing. Maybe dialectic variations of some original concept. Happily, I was quite wrong. They both have something to do with communal feasts, it’s true, but that and the fact they both begin with the sound “pot-“ are about all they share.

The word “Potluck” means exactly what it looks like, the luck of the pot. A writer named Thomas Nashe, an older friend of Shakespeare, used the words in that meaning in 1592, when it had a negative connotation, like “I hope you’re not so poor you have to rely on potluck.” Like Forest Gump’s chocolate box, you never know what you’re going to get from it, because everyone brings something different to the table. Namely, whatever they can srounge up. But what a fitting metaphor for community! A table of food as diverse as the people who come together around it. But if a potluck is the luck of the pot, what is potlatch? the latch of the pot?

Nope. The word “Potlatch,” comes from an entirely different world. Literally. It is credited to a word in what was known as Chinook Jargon, a patois used by traders in the Northwest States in the early days of European-Native American commerce. Potlatch, according to A Dictionary of the Chinook Jargon from 1863, meant “a gift; to give.” The word derives from a Nootka (Nuučaan̓uł) word that refers to a gift-giving ceremony practiced among NW Native American tribes. Large gatherings of sometimes rival groups at marriages or accessions, always with gifts. Lots of gifts. Competitive gift-giving! So much extravagant economic disruption, in fact, that the Canadian government banned the events as part of the 1894 Indian Act, on the grounds that they were a “worse than useless custom.” The ban in no way stopped the practice; it just pushed it underground, like roots, where it thrived in secret until the ban was lifted in 1951.

Why was the potlatch so important that it continued even when it was outlawed? Why so dangerous to European progressivism that it was forbidden? Perhaps because, as the great anthropologist Franz Boas wrote in 1888, “The so-called potlatch of all these tribes hinders the single families from accumulating wealth.”

Where Boas describes a problem, I’m seeing a solution. I’m remembering the endless nights of single family dinners in the seclusion of the suburban houses tucked away behind strip-malls from which the food was often bought, and I thinking, “Right on, potlatch!”

Because the potlatch, not unlike the potluck, is like a direct and intentional rejection of the economy of the nuclear family. It seems to me that, at least at the Seneca Treehouse potlucks, the two notions of potluck and potlatch, born worlds apart but cousins in both sound and spirit, come together in the undergrowth of a celebration of hope, abundance, and community. A perfect way to celebrate, in other words, the promise of Permaculture.

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