Beware of Ojibways bearing gifts

Urbane 2

By Drew Hayden Taylor

Originally published in October 2013

Let me share with you several tales of trans-cultural gifts.

In my journeys to far off lands, I have given and received many gifts. Sometimes I have proudly given one or two of my books as gifts. Occasionally it would be a unique Native themed t-shirt somebody took a fancy to, or something as unique as wild rice I had specifically brought for just such a situation.

Reciprocally, I have been frequently honoured with gifts by those I have visited. This includes one of the most unique collections of water bottles, pens, mugs and carrying bags most could only dream of. If these weren’t honoured gifts, I’d be a garage sale waiting to happen.

Gift giving, on a personal or cultural level, is no secret to Native communities. In fact, some like many West Coast Native people, have turned it into an art form. There’s protocol, tradition and all sorts of engrained social practice involved. It’s like Christmas on steroids.

What is interesting to me is the gifts you don’t expect, and don’t really have a practical use for. But regardless of their origins, the respect with which they are given and their unique nature make them extremely unlikely to find their way into that great garage sale that practicality demands you have, but sentiment will not let you. In other words, re-gifting would be a sin.

When I was in China, I was visiting a university in the Szechuan province of the country. Yes, the food is as spicy as their reputation indicates. But it was the university that was truly interesting. It catered specifically to the several dozen minorities that exist within the vast country. In fact, there was a huge statue in front of the main building, highlighting just a handful of the varied people’s attending, including Tibetans and Mongolians.

One night, about midnight after a festival, I was invited to attend a cultural dance in the middle of some huge sports field. In the darkness, there were several bonfires scattered about, and around those flames about 60 or 80 people were dancing, following an invisible line that wound around and in between the fires.

So there I was, dancing with as much rhythm as my white half could muster, when a gentleman who had attended my earlier lecture came up to me and gave me two lovely white scarves. He said they were Tibetan prayer scarves. They were amazing and beautiful, and still hang in my bedroom. I don’t get a lot of Tibetan prayer scarves.

Flash forward half a decade, and I am at my own community’s powwow.  I think I was half way through a tasty Indian taco, looking for more hot sauce, when this lovely woman approached me.  She was from Africa and had studied some of my work while at a Canadian university and thought some of the themes I covered were very familiar to her and her people.

So, in thanks, she presented what appeared to be a bolt of cloth or a very fat scarf.  In reality, it was a wrap-around skirt worn by men in the Sudan. Earthy brown with a delicate design near the bottom – the wrap/skirt, not me.

While Curve Lake First Nation is not a place men wear a lot of skirts, it was beautiful and original and I was honored to accept it. I still have it and show it frequently to guests. If and when I go to Sudan, I’ll have something to wear.

But my favourite story of international gift giving happened when I was lecturing at the British Museum in London, England. The gentleman who runs the North American department told me of a discussion he had some time ago with Buckingham Palace; specifically, the people who handle the Queen.

Evidently, on one of her trips to Canada she had been given a rather elaborate dreamcatcher, and the Palace was investigating the possibility of donating it to the museum.  The department head was delighted, and as with any object or article that makes its way into the museum, they needed extensive background and information about the gift, i.e. where it came from, who gave it, when it was made, etc.

Not possible, they were told. It was a gift to the Queen, therefore it fell under some official privacy and secrecy protocol. It was above the museum official’s pay grade. The origin of the dreamcatcher was a state secret.

But not the dreamcatcher itself. If it was to hang in the museum, it would just say “Dreamcatcher. Canada.” The great Canadian secret that must not be revealed to the public.

A small Native community somewhere in Canada, once visited by royalty, is probably laughing its head off right now.