St. Anthony’s Gilded Gaze and the Survivance that is Potlatch: Is our Salvation in Penance or Facing Truths?
There were colonial laws that expressly forbade the practice of the potlatch. As the potlatch was held in ceremonial observance of a tribal member’s passing, it forbade the practice of removing grief and holding space in community to remember and consolidate all the culture that passes with that person – in addition to the practice of gift-debt that beholdens people to be accountable to each other in community. By forbidding the potlatch, the colonizing state effectively breaks community independence and further encouraged the dependence of indigenous communities on the colonizing state.
State sanction helps to frame why colonial aphasia (coined by Ann Laura Stoler, p 239) is almost intractable – it shows directly how enforcement of colonial laws leans on the myths of entitlement to the natural world that too relates an ahistorical context through erasure and impunity. It denies accountability through myth of innocence.
The ceremonial objects of the potlatch is the closest equivalent to gold that the colonizers chased. They are a people’s wealth. The mediums through which practices of interdependence and connection to land and each other are channeled, honored and remembered.
Though the potlatch ceremonies have been greatly compromised, that they are still practiced are indications that indigenous communities are not simply survivors but survivants (as delineated by Anishinaabe scholar Gerald Vizenor): their survival is active resistance (235). Scholar Christopher Green (249) does not have to press deimperialism as a process that must happen for decolonization to be practiced: survivance is fundamentally deimperialist. Indigenous deimperialist pathways are constantly refusing colonizers the narrative of innocence in face of impunity: James Baldwin insists, “it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent” (239). This is the inherent power of any unrepresented community against (illegal or unfair) state sanction. This is why the state has a vested interest in devastating property of indigenous communities even as they dehumanize them as worthy of domination. It is a willfully insidious and tactical act.
The myths generated and encouraged to support state enforcement and encroachment of indigenous land relate natural rights of humans to land (rights naturalized by empire culture long before the colonization of the so-called Americas) both erase indigenous presence and prepares the land for exploit (a blank slate). The perceived scarcity of gold found naturally itself is a myth that leads to inflation by creating a false demand for an element that is itself not a point of value to indigenous communities (the contrast in philosophy cannot be more evident as in this account of the gold rush) (226). It makes patently clear the ultimate goal of the colonizing state to usurp land at point of enforcement but also how fragile that it: as Hopkins frames it: “the link between the economy and belief (and the lack thereof).” Salvation may thus possibly lie in dismantling these belief-myths centering gold and instead redirect belief-myths to recenter the potlatch.
Yet, as observed in St. Anthony’s tale, once the mirage of empire fantasy is broken, “the circle of the rocks is empty”… but evidently not enough. “The stars are glowing in the sky. All is hushed” (267)… yet the Saint turns to vigorous self-flagellation …”sharp prolonged excessive”… to seek penance. So it seems, even once myths are broken, we have to contend with oppressor fragility, rooted in yet another myth: the desire to overcome errors of the mind and temptations of the heart – seen disparagingly as feeble – over the humble work of acknowledgement and committing to redistribute wealth and just do better. In a good way. Quietly. Steadfastly.