You do it. I do it. Everybody does it.
According to anthropologist Terry Y. Le Vine, the practice of giving and receiving gifts is so universal "it is part of what it means to be human."
As a visiting curator at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History, Le Vine is organizing an exhibit of the roles gifts play in five cultures, including our own. "It's something everyone can relate to," explains Le Vine, who has been exchanging gifts all her life and scrutinizing the practice professionally for 15 years.
Many gifts are quite beautiful (they do reflect the taste of the giver, after all), which makes them an obvious choice for display. But gifts are much more than art objects, according to Le Vine. In virtually every culture, gifts and the events at which they are exchanged are a crucial part of the essential process of creating and maintaining social relationships, she says. Presents help glue societies together. And even in societies such as ours that maintain that giving is better than receiving, gifts are frequently given with the understanding that the recipient will reciprocate in time.
The exhibit Le Vine is organizing will open in 1993 at the Fowler Museum, then travel to four other cities. It will feature gifts favored by five societies: the !Kung of Southwest Africa, the Kwakiutl Indians of the Pacific Northwest, the Trobriand Islanders of the South Pacific, the people of modern Japan, and contemporary North America. Le Vine is also coordinating the writing of a book on gift-giving that will bring together the work of experts in anthropology, sociology and law.
Le Vine hopes that visitors to the exhibit will share the experience she had the first time she looked at UCLA's extensive collection of !Kung artifacts and realized, "Hey, all these things on all these storage shelves represent people. " Although the objects given and received vary from culture to culture, gifts are almost always important social tools, she says.
Among the !Kung, for instance, newborns are given a gift that "introduces the baby to the idea of giving and receiving." As Le Vine explains, the newborn is given necklaces by his or her grandparents. At 6 months or so, the necklaces are taken from the child, taken apart and incorporated into new necklaces that are then given to people with whom the mother thinks the child should have a gift-exchanging relationship. This process of exchanging necklaces and other gifts continues throughout the child's lifetime.
The gifts exchanged by the !Kung may be evidence of the generosity of the giver, the prestige of the recipient or affection between the two, but they represent something even more basic as well. As Le Vine points out, the !Kung are people whose very lives depend on the uncertain bounty of the Kalahari Desert. Relationships with fellow tribesmen in other areas, relationships cemented with gifts, are a kind of insurance against the day when your own garden fails to bloom and your survival hinges on the hospitality of others. Not surprisingly, the first gift was probably food, says Le Vine, citing the classic study of gift-giving, Marcel Mauss' "The Gift."
One of the issues that Le Vine and her consultants have been grappling with is the difference between a gift and a bribe. The definition is culturally relative. "In many cultures, what we would call a bribe is just a way of doing business," she says. The Japanese, for instance, often give gifts in circumstances Americans would consider inappropriate. It is common practice in Japan, for example, to give your surgeon a gift before you go under the knife. Among the artifacts Le Vine hopes to include in the exhibit are examples of the gorgeous envelopes, in different colors for different occasions, in which the Japanese give gifts of money.
Cultures also vary in what they regard as the ultimate gift. "Often it is something hard to get," Le Vine says. The relative scarcity of diamonds may explain why Americans value them for such important occasions as betrothals and anniversaries. Among the Kwakiutl, or Kwakwaka'waka, as members of the Northwest tribe prefer to be called, copper was the premier gift after contact with Western culture (grease continued to be an important gift as well).
In the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea, the Rolls-Royce of presents is a green stone called beku. In Trobriand society, Le Vine explains, a young man gives gifts to an older, more powerful man in the hopes of winning his support. Such patronage will eventually mean the young man can use land held by the clan to raise yams, another important gift among the Trobriand Islanders. This process, which proceeds according to a prescribed timetable, typically begins with the giving of such relatively modest gifts as fish and culminates in the giving of a beku ax blade. "That usually gets to them," she says.
"The gift that travels" is another worldwide phenomenon, according to Le Vine. One example common in mainstream American culture is the gift that is handed down from one generation to the next. A family quilt or a string of pearls that passes from mother to daughter functions as an "identity marker," she says. "They carry messages of identification with those who have gone before. They tell us who we are."
One of the experts involved in the project is Gloria Cranmer Webster, a Kwakwaka'waka from British Columbia. She is providing an insider's perspective on one of the world's most famous gift-giving rituals, the potlatch. A festive occasion at which enormous numbers of gifts are given and sometimes destroyed, potlatch has entered the English language as a synonym for excess. But, as Le Vine notes, potlatches were, and are, ceremonies that reinforce the social hierarchy that is so important to the Northwestern Indian nation. As gifts so often do, the number and quality of potlatch goods carry information about the underlying status of the giver and the recipient, Le Vine says.
"Don't think of us in the past," Webster told Le Vine. "We're still here. We're still doing potlatching. We've been doing it all along."
Some of the gifts presented at potlatches are non-material, such as the right to use certain family crests or sing a family song or dramatize family myths (symbols of such gifts are often included in "privilege boxes," passed between father-in-law and son-in-law in potlatches occasioned by marriages). But material things have always been a vital part of the tradition. When Le Vine made a recent visit to British Columbia, Webster showed her the upstairs room in which the Indian woman was collecting boxes of linens, glassware, dishes and other gifts for an upcoming potlatch.
Potlatching was outlawed by the Canadian government in 1884 and not legalized until 1951. During that time, it went underground, Webster told Le Vine. Webster's father, Daniel, a chief of the Nimpkish tribe, was arrested for potlatching in 1921, and the goods he had collected to give, including masks and other ceremonial objects, were confiscated. The Canadian government has been returning such objects to the Indians if they can show that they will provide safe, museum-like places for their preservation.
The giving of gifts proved too close to the heart of being Kwakwaka'waka to give up, no matter what the civil law. As a result, one winter during the bad old days of the ban, Webster's father and fellow tribesmen "pretended they were celebrating Christmas when they were really holding a potlatch."