My first teachers of Indigenous gift giving were my grandparents. I would visit them regularly as a child and regardless if I had been there the day before or a week prior, it would be the same process. I would start by hugging my grandfather, and this was followed by him tapping my shoulders and head (he was blind and I imagine this was his way of seeing me) and then he would pray over me, and it would be the same procedure when I would leave. My grandmother, who was somewhat less emotive, would not hug me but she would always gift me with a piece of fruit, or sometimes a candy or rolled up dollar bill. The significance of these repetitive demonstrations were mostly lost on me as a child, however the feeling of being loved and the sense of belonging that was created in these exchanges became eternal.
As an adult, I moved away from my home community in Gitxsan Territories to live amongst the Coast Salish people where I have had the good fortune to continue witnessing, learning and feeling the values associated with Indigenous gift giving. I have learned how to create relations with a cedar tree by shaking hands with its branches; how to canoe on the ocean, connecting to the ancestors with each stroke of the paddle, and how to rise each morning with expressions of gratitude. Through all of these experiences, I gain a deeper understanding for the tradition of gift giving and how it is intended to balance relationships and demonstrate respect for our mutual existence. The tradition is not an abstract phenomenon, but one that involves the mind, body, and spirit. In this regard, gifting is less about the material aspect of the gift, but rather the responsibility embedded in the gifting process – to enact our commitment to our sacred laws, our kin and our communities.
In this relatively new space of Indigenous philanthropy and as the Executive Director of the Kw’umut Lelum Foundation, I am encouraged by the opportunity to apply these ancient teachings related to Indigenous gift giving. The paternal and deficit approach to seeing and working with Indigenous peoples is being challenged in settler philanthropy. The dialogue and intent are shifting to consider approaches that move away from charity to redistribution of power and wealth, which is more aligned with an Indigenous worldview, and while this evolution is welcomed and long overdue, I remain cautiously optimistic. My restraint comes from my own struggle to live the values and principles inherent to the practice of gifting that my grandparents first modeled to me. The values of interconnectedness, reciprocity, generosity and hospitality require constant nurturing in a fast-paced capitalistic world that upholds a different set of values that include independence, competition, greed and distrust. However, I do believe that the values located within an Indigenous framework of gift giving, are not exclusive to Indigenous peoples. I see these values resonating across many worldviews and what I would advocate in this space of transition, is to ensure that we create time for conversations where we as Indigenous peoples, first and foremost, center our ancestral laws with our voices and value systems leading the work while inviting allies to explore their relationship to Indigenous worldview from their particular location and lived experiences.
When I think of my Indigenous teachers and mentors, it is fitting to consider their teachings as gifts, but in doing so I would reaffirm that the quantifiable aspect of these gifts is somewhat less significant as is the time spent creating relationships, and the good feelings associated with developing emotional connections. With this in mind, I would respectfully suggest settler philanthropy not be too eager to make an application to a new way of being without taking the time to listen, learn and walk alongside Indigenous peoples. I would also humbly request of myself, and my Indigenous colleagues, that we remain open to new partnerships, and trust that we can be leaders in this space, honoring our ancestors, our lands, and create long-lasting systemic change that benefits all our relations.
My childhood visits with my grandparents and their ritual expressions of gifting, along with the generosity provided to me by the Coast Salish have instilled a life-long desire to give back, to reciprocate the feeling of being cared for and sharing what it is like to be given respect. I firmly believe that the values and principles associated with the tradition of Indigenous gift-giving offers both a visionary and pragmatic guide for policy development, engaging donors, stewardship, and operational practices. It is a tradition that honors, renews and creates good relations and in doing so, can transform our current realities and create more amicable, self-determining, and culturally informed spaces.