The idea of reciprocity expresses balanced and mutual exchanges. In natural systems, such exchanges take place at the most basic energetic level–an essential law of physics states that, for every action, there will be an equal and opposite reaction. Indigenous characteristically model their economic and social exchanges, as well as their relationships with the natural world, on the reciprocity in natural systems. Importantly, this sense of reciprocity is very different from that of “an eye for an eye”. Indeed, a larger sense of reciprocity makes the vengeance exacted in an “eye for an eye” a self-defeating gesture—since one who demands vengeance can only expect vengeance in return. The compassion modeled in many world folktales suggests an alternative. In acting with compassion, we gather allies rather than multiplying enemies.
The model of reciprocity is expressed, among some African First Peoples and in Afro-American communities today, as “what goes around comes around.” In Hindu philosophy, reciprocity is expressed in the idea of karma.
In the economic realm, the natural model of reciprocity leads to “redistributive” systems, as Karl Polanyi noted in his analysis of Polynesian and Melanesian economic systems. He contrasted these systems with accumulative ones, in which individuals accumulate as many goods for themselves as possible. The systems Polanyi studied entailed trading cycles that spanned hundreds of miles between islands. The individual in this system did not conduct trade as simple barter with a set return. Instead, they simply gave things away, setting their goods into the flow of the system– with the understanding that something else would return to them because of the cyclical nature of the whole system.
In interdependent systems such as the Melanesian one, the behavior of one person affects all others. In line with this, in many indigenous worldviews, a reciprocal return on one’s actions is not limited to an individual. Instead, there are consequences for a whole family or group. In many folktales warning about disrespectful behavior toward the environment, the resulting consequences come to a whole people—who may lose their ability to live on the land as a result.
The redistributive economic system makes the Hawaiian hierarchies described in Callicott different from Western social hierarchy (and certainly industrial economic “success” in amassing wealth). Those higher up in the Hawaiian societies had as many obligations as they had privileges. In fact, any “king” or “queen” who did not use their position to redistribute goods would be removed from office.
Similar dynamics prevail among the traditional social systems of peoples of the Northwest Coast: the higher a person’s “class”, the more obligations they had to serve their people. A high-class person must work extremely hard to gather and give away goods to others if he or she wanted to keep their status. In addition to their spiritual dimensions, the well-known Northwest potlatches were re-distributive mechanisms, which affirmed the status of particular individuals according to how much they gave away. The giveaways also strengthened community in another way, since one’s friends and relatives would help amass goods for the potlatch.
The link between authority and service is characteristic of the worldview of indigenous societies. It was not easy to be a leader in such circumstances: among the Plains Indians, the chief’s teepee was the place of refuge in disputes; his was the first house to give away goods in economic hard times. There are stories that sometimes the position of “chief” went wanting— as no one was able or willing to assume so many obligations.
All worldviews that incorporate the natural model of reciprocity emphasize the ways that the natural world gives us the precious gift of life —a gift on which we must make a return. In the Hawaiian system, the natural world has the highest status in the social pyramid built on reciprocal giving—since the natural world gives to the people the priceless gift of life itself. The utmost respect is consequently due to the authority of natural systems, which comprise our generous life-giving “elder”. Contemporary Wintu artist Frank LaPena (from Northern California) sums up this idea in his essay: “The World is a Gift”. The idea of the world as a gift, in turn, implies an environmental value of gratefulness. Gratefulness is a key value in the Blue Mountain Lake statement of values and Hannover Principles in our appendix. Matthew Fox has termed this idea (from his Christian perspective) that of cosmic hospitality: the idea that we are on this earth as the guests of Life and should act accordingly. Many traditional stories from the Northwest Coast indicate the importance of being a good guest in this sense.
Indigenous cultures have characteristically built their social structures on the passing on of gifts to one another—modeling their societies after the giving qualities of the natural world. The early anthropologist Marcel Mauss wrote a classic work, The Gift, describing the exchange of gifts as the essential organizing principle of human societies.
The notion of reciprocity thus leads to important social and environmental ethics. Lewis Hyde has written a detailed book on the idea of the gift among both indigenous peoples and European peasants, in which he concludes, “the gift must always move.” In this view it is not accumulation or holding on to our property that gives us personal, social, economic (and certainly spiritual) power, but passing it on. Further, we should not give with an expectation of a return, but with the sense that what we give the world, whether it be in material goods or right action, will come back to us or our children in another form.
To stop the flow of life’s gifts is to create poverty rather than abundance in the social and ecological systems—as well as in one’s own spirit. According to the natural model of reciprocity, the gift of life necessitates both a respect for that gift and a return. We see an expression of this in the respectful return of parts of the animal to its habitat (Ojibwa, Callicott), as well as in the African ideas in our appendix. There is another implication to the view of the natural model of reciprocity—and that is, how dangerous it is to take too much. If the natural world operates reciprocally, what we give will return to us—and what we take will exact a price. In this sense, the model of reciprocity is a conservative one in terms of the use of natural resources—and a sharing one in terms of the human use of those resources. The Inuit elder interviewed by Knud Rasmussen (in our text) put it this way: the most “dangerous” thing about human beings is that we live off of “souls” (since the Inuit considered all natural beings to have souls, as do human persons). The only thing one can do to alleviate this danger is to respect and to pass on the invaluable gift of life itself that animals share with us through their own sacrifice on our behalf.
In this context, hunters, gatherers or cultivators in indigenous culture, characteristically share whatever largess they take from the natural world in this world. As Chief Patrick Munyariari, the South African elder (in our appendix) puts it: If “another person is eating while others are not eating…the land cannot smile at us”. “We never asked, ‘are you hungry’”, the Humptulips elder Henry Cultee told me, “We just brought out the food.” The implication was that by asking “are you hungry” (he said this in a whiney, begrudging tone), we are asserting that we somehow have the right to dole out food that belongs by rights to all as a gift from the natural world. Paul Radin, who spent twenty years learning the language and ways of the traditional Winnebago, writes that not to share food, shelter, and clothing with any member of their culture was tantamount to “declaring that person dead”.
M. Kat Anderson sees similar cultural dynamics as absolutely essential in the development of the non-exploitative relationship native Californians developed with their land. In her words,
…wealth-spreading devices…along with the lack of strong economic hierarchies discouraged hoarding of resources and encouraged cooperation. The chiefs divided important harvests among families so that no one went hungry… These formal cultural rules acted to ensure broad community access to staples… and prevent food sources from being raided and exhausted by a few families or powerful individuals. (Tending the Wild, p. 362).
Such ethics continue among indigenous peoples throughout the world today. In the Pacific Northwest, sharing, cooperation—and reciprocity itself—are traditional values emphasized in contemporary longhouse ceremonies on the Columbia River.
The natural model of reciprocity is also linked with the cyclical view of time. The cyclical flow of time through seasons and solar energy through ecological systems, expresses the inescapable reciprocity of the natural world. Indeed, in the largest sense, the cyclical worldview indicates that all time is one, since nothing ever totally “disappears”— it will always return again in another way. By contrast, the worldview that sees time as linear carries no notion of reciprocity with it. If time consists of points on a unidirectional “arrow,” then the past is left behind, and things do not come around again. This leads to the assumption we can leave behind the consequences of our past actions. All we have to do is move on in order to escape the personal, cultural or material “waste” we create.
The natural model of reciprocity also helps us understand the limits of the natural world—since it indicates we must make a return on everything we take from that world. The linear view of the arrow of time moving forward, by contrast, implies no limits to our thrust into the future. In the book, Natural Capitalism, by Paul Hawken and Amory Lovins, the authors emphasize that we are making a tragic mistake in using up natural resources as if they were limitless and we never have to make a balanced return on our usage. Instead, they suggest that what is limitless is human energy and the capacity for learning, and that is where we should focus our sense of growth. Interestingly, this is very much in line with indigenous systems like that of the San people of the Kalahari, who traditionally spent a small percentage of their time (a few hours a few days a week) harvesting the resources necessary to sustain themselves—and the bulk of their time telling stories and practicing ceremonies that taught them how to get along with one another.
How important is reciprocity? In answer to a question from a student about the current environmental crisis, Kalapuya (Willamette Valley) elder Esther Stutzman put it this way: “This is what I think will save us. Always thank the earth. Thank everything, living and non-living, and sometimes pay the earth”. Stutzman said her granddaughter gives the earth pennies in return for items collected from it. She continued, “If you take food or basket materials, say thank you. If you swim in the river, say thank you. Respect everything, living and non-living”. Stutzman joked that she even tells the weeds as she pulls them from her garden, “You are going to a better place”. This attitude of respect and thanksgiving makes you a “better-spirited person. You feel better about yourself inside, and when you feel better about yourself, you treat others in a better way”.
For a more detailed illustration of reciprocity and Native American ecological understanding, see Winona La Duke’s statement here:
https://holdenma.wordpress.com/culture-and-environment/reciprocity/ (the first part of this page is from your class; scroll down to LaDuke’s statement).
Related essays for discussion: