A new feature of Ideals and Identities will be contributions by guest authors. Below is an intriguing contribution by Renee Littlebird, who was my student in a course called: “The Architecture of Identity Formation” at the King’s University in Edmonton. In the essay, she explores the deep ideals of what is commonly known as the Potluck, an indigenous tradition, and how these ideals connect to the highest aspiration of Canadian national unity and our democratic identity.
WHY FEAST?: CHARLES TAYLOR CALLS US TO DEEP DEMOCRATIC DIALOGUE:
I have observed a challenge to the federal ethic of deep diversity that Taylor proposes. It is not one invisible to him that individualism and capitalism have driven people apart. Like Taylor, Joseph Naytowhow (2021) and Elder Oleman (2021) believe that Canadian identity is about coming together. While Taylor expresses ways to address separation, it is still on the individual to engage. Naytowhow and Oleman, in their varied Indigenous ways of knowing, challenge us to abandon individualistic approaches and ask: “What are we doing to deserve to live in such a beautiful place? Beyond our roots, we belong to a village, a people.” We have to start out as a village, even if we have yet to develop a united Canadian identity. While this is not Charles Taylor’s approach, he has a lot to offer us in the formation of that identity.
On his eightieth birthday, Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor’s friends and colleagues at McGill University recognized his contributions to Canadian society. James Tully described in detail the language of deep diversity, which Taylor contributed to a better articulation of identity and ways to interact in our unique society. By evolving his federal civic ethic, Taylor has instructed each generation to move forward with mutual recognition and respect. He is perhaps most famous for depicting Canadian identity and dual diversity as follows: “To build a country for everyone, Canada would have to allow for a second level of deep diversity, in which a plurality of ways of belonging would also be acknowledged and accepted. At that first level, someone of, say, Italian extraction, in Toronto or Ukrainian extraction, in Edmonton might indeed feel Canadian. As a bearer of individual rights in a multicultural mosaic, his or her belonging would not pass through some other community, although ethnic identity might be very important to him or her in various ways. But this person might nevertheless accept that a Quebecois or a Cree or a Dene person might belong in a very different way to Canada. That these persons are Canadian through being members of a national community. Reciprocally Quebecois, Cree, and Dene would accept the perfect legitimacy of the mosaics person’s identity” (Tully, Quoting Taylor, 2012). Taylor being celebrated in this way was not really in keeping with his understanding of recognition. Still, to appease him, we will point out that these individuals could be categorized as his significant others. Though he has said that “honour is intrinsically a matter of preferences.” I found James Tully’s doting on a man, whom he obviously admires, extremely concise and helpful.
Taylor’s jumping-off point is that inherent dignity and equal recognition are better ways to understand human status. But he doesn’t want us to be lazy about that assumption; he requires deep understanding to be a part of true equity. We look to Taylor for a framework to address our differences and guidance in understanding one another’s perspectives when interacting in our multicultural, multinational democratic dialogue (Taylor, 1992). I have only one observation and a single suggestion to further Taylor’s methodology. People, in general, stretch themselves further into echo chambers of relationality, which encourages continued polarization. So, how do we call people back into a democratic dialectic of deep diversity? Outside of academia, law, education, and politics, where can we encounter this crucial dialogue that Taylor states are how we can come to peacefully and productively live in a diverse society? It is no longer natural for people to seek uncomfortable confrontation, debate used to be what was expected. My observation is that Taylor asks us to engage in deep understanding. However, our “politically correct concerned” society fails to provide new avenues for intellectual dialogue outside traditional intellectual engagement; so where can we find such opportunities?
If Taylor is to be trusted here, establishing and renewing “Canada” through personal relationships is essential for each subsequent generation. For example, learning to listen to Cree people in Cree ways is a crucial part of that understanding. (Tully, 2012) “Technological society impose(s) on us an ever-deepening hegemony of instrumental reason. – (And) it is now evident that hopes [to escape it] are illusory.- but the absence of effective common action throws people back on themselves” (Taylor 1991). Taylor insists that we embrace our deep democratic diversity and let it be our roadmap to creating and recreating Canadian identity through lived experiences shared, fusions of horizons, mutual recognition, and personal understandings of one another (Tully 2012). In Beerbohm’s first chapter of “In Our Name,” he explains that democracy isn’t truly a democracy without autonomy, equity, dialogue, and integrity. Pursuing justice must play a role in equity. “Moral integrity is a well-worn, Socratic value. When I conceive myself as playing a role in co-authoring the most basic terms of interaction, I am acutely sensitive to what I owe each and every person who is liable to this imposed order. A concern for moral integrity, properly understood, is hardly solipsistic. It demands that I govern myself – managing my convictions about the justifiability of the social order – in personal recognition of each and every person I relate to” (Beerbohm, 2012).
So if democracy is not democracy without dialogue, then it is not the responsibility of politicians alone, and requires us to escape our enclaves and engage with diversity, how can we go about this? Maybe it is through a story, at least in part, so here goes: I recall bumping into George Bear and having an intense conversation of deep understanding regarding our multicultural society one afternoon after we had both separately come to visit Mrs. Sanderson at the hospital in my then community of LaRonge, Saskatchewan. I can remember how he looked and even smelled and how we talked until we noticed the sun was setting. We both felt very human, and though we were worlds apart and had come from different backgrounds, our care for this unrelated ninety-five-year-old blind woman made us family somehow.
A similar thing happened to me once when waiting in a hospital across from an African man named Mohamed at the Royal Alec here in Edmonton. He saw the scars on my face, and I saw the binding marks on his head, and we got talking about living with scars. Specifically about his cleft-lipped daughter, until my husband and his brother were both out of surgery. We must have talked for six or seven hours. I found myself feeling a deep sense of kinship and empathy for that baby and Mohamed’s wife; we had dinner together and really got to know one another. I’ve been blessed to experience family with strangers everywhere in my fifty years, but I get that all Canadians don’t feel that close to one another. My kids find it irritating and embarrassing when the lady in line at the supermarket starts showing me her c-section scars and the like. My sisters say it’s because people are too polite to shut down my intrusive curiosity. Still, I do actually think people just want to tell their stories. I’ve been told it’s part of being neurodivergent, but I wish everybody had this odd gift. So maybe my lack of experiencing stranger danger has something to teach in this particular situation around engaging diversity.
Obviously, I don’t have an issue talking deeply with strangers, but some do. And when people are from very different walks of life, it can be even more challenging. Taylor isn’t just asking us to engage in small talk either; he calls us to openly layout our prejudices and assumptions and work for that connection (Taylor 1991). Finding common space and common ground can feel threatening. Too often, it seems that the “minority” members of Canadian society are expected to take social risks when it comes to inclusion. When the “majority” Canadians take that leap, it is usually in charitable settings, not in places of equity at all. If colonial damage-centered paradigms are the foundation, that is no place to build real friendships. Friendship, or at least partnership, is what both Taylor and Oleman want us to do; they explain that we can’t count on the politicians to create Canada’s reconciliation plan; we as Canadians have to have dialogue that creates deep understanding.
So to my idea: protocol-based equity feasting is the perfect setting and metaphor for the ways that Charles Taylor calls us to critically and respectfully encounter one another. It leaves room for engaging in ways that each separate and distinct cultural mosaic or nation member attending can still participate in their own way of being; because everybody eats. And food is very closely tied to culture. The very foundation of equity feasting is curiosity, sharing stories, listening, as well as tasting. Here I will discuss different social forms of equity feasting. This kind of feasting has been known as a “potluck” in many parts of the Americas since the depression. I will also bring this concept into the context of Potlatch and other diverse global traditions and origins around equity feasting.
I am trying to be conscious of what Taylor warns us about a “liberalism of equal rights,” and that it does not always take into account that “rights might apply differently in one cultural context than they do in another, their application might have to take account of different collective goals, that can be considered quite unacceptable. The issue, then, is whether this restrictive view of equal rights is the only possible interpretation” (Taylor 1992). Likewise, when I talk about, for example, choosing protocol around equity feasting, the participants all need to be comfortable with those protocols coming from whatever cultural context they come from. So if this paper inspires you to “host” an equity feast, please don’t invite fasting guests. Please, don’t adhere to any suggested protocol or treat them as unchangeable if they are insensitive to your guests’ cultural differences or personal needs. I feel that there is enough common ground to make some clear choices of protocols for equity feasting and enough evidence to support the idea that feasting is a way to fulfill every Canadian’s call to Reconciliation. Since Equity is a crucial component of the adapted potluck, I only use these other traditions as a guideline. They are there to create comfortable, safe spaces for dialogue, decolonization, and shared “stories” of lived experience.
I specifically hope to address how non-Indigenous, or mosaic Canadians could find guidance by looking at the models that some Indigenous Nation’s customs and belief systems suggest. I am not speaking as someone who has particular knowledge of these, only someone who sees wisdom in what I have learned growing up in Canada alongside these many nations. I think we can use the models of Indigenous resurgence to walk us closer to Reconciliation. These methods have been used to begin to rebuild a future and the processes of a resurgence as part of their own healing process and in building community and authentic identity in this Post-Covid Era.
Taylor would be the first to tell you, I think, that his concepts are not his alone but are compiled from decades of experience and research. My concepts, too, do not spring from my own imaginings, but here I stand on the shoulders of giants. I have tried to pluck out many sources, unable to give credit to everyone for these things, not the least of whom have been my many inspiring and generous teachers. I gratefully assure you that it has taken more than a village to raise me. I have attended so many equity feasts that I can not count them all, both in Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities. I can tell you from experience that it has not just been me experiencing deep connections with strangers at equity feasts. From my observation, intense dialogue and diversity are almost a given in these experiences.
WHERE DO EQUITY FEASTING TRADITIONS COME FROM AND TAKE PLACE?:
Let us start by raising multiple generations of equity feasters by teaching them how to feast and how easy it can be. An equity feast happens whenever people or even animals participate in providing food for one another in a shared, generous, and fully participatory manner. Feasts, where everyone in attendance contributes, have gone by many names; but have existed on almost every continent throughout time. Each guest or group brings what they have to offer, not to trade but to share. Regardless of how large or small the contribution is, every guest is invited to take what they require of the feast. The result is a feast that allows every guest to feast abundantly. Common advice is to wear stretchy pants.
As a young child, I heard the story of “stone soup,” which dates back to the middle ages and depicts a Eurasian version of equity feasting. In one version of it, a poor religious man comes to a community of starving strangers; he, too, is in need of food. He offers up a stone and says that it has mysterious properties; in some versions, it is a shoe or a piece of wood. Each person in the community brings one vegetable to add to the stone soup, and eventually, the entire group, which alone would have gone hungry, can feast together. This story has multiple versions, and in some, the man is considered a con artist and not a hero; regardless, the result is an equity feast.
I recall learning a new perspective on an old familiar story in my mid-twenties. It was one from a university textbook that I can no longer find, but I am pretty sure was called “Herstory.” In it, the Gospel feast of loaves and fishes turned out to be an equity feast. At the time, I only sort of believed this new perspective, but now I get it, after raising children myself and carrying a diaper bag full of snacks! There were a great number of people in attendance, “not counting women and children.” And perhaps the miracle was that everyone only took what they needed and shared all they had. There was even enough for leftovers.
I just heard these last two stories a few weeks ago when I was researching land-based learning. It perfectly depicts equity, so I find myself having to tell it to you despite my ignorance. A student had gone with Elders to assist in a land-based learning camp in the north. As part of his job, he helped prepare the fish that the participants had caught as a part of their learning. When he had collected the fish, he went to distribute them to everyone. An Elder stopped him and asked what he was doing. He said that he was handing out the fish. Gently, the Elder explained that he was to take the fish and lay them out on the birch branches so that people could help themselves and take what they needed (Kawagley, 1999). Dignity and autonomy were profoundly experienced in this way, and this was a better way of performing hospitality, the young man explained, having learned. That was an equity feast. Another one I read about in Yerxa’s 2014 article was wild-rice harvesting and how the entire community, even the elderly, participated, and in sharing the bounty, the resurgence was experienced.
Equity feasting has a long international history; whenever people were hungry, they found ways to share what they had. If even a bird feeds a hurt friend, surely we can agree that willingness to share is a natural state. Oral and recorded histories hint at equity feasts in the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Archeological evidence points to the place of equity feasting; Indigenous Americans, Vikings, Pictish, and Hmong traditions illustrate that feasts were traditionally held in a building called a longhouse. It seems that no matter where an equity feast was held, it required a longhouse. This was because many such feasts were and some still are held late in winter when food becomes scarce, and sharing is most necessary. Most longhouses throughout the world are built in similar ways using similar materials, and great community effort would have to be expended to build these buildings. Longhouse stories have fascinated the anthropological community over the past centuries because of their universality. Longhouses can be repurposed as barns and smokehouses. Still, it is important to note that they were never built for that purpose because it is impractical to build such a large and resource-consuming building for simple purposes, which is how we know that they were built specifically for feasts.
Instrumental reasoning would say that the host of such an event has little to gain and far too much to lose. If trade and individualism are a motive, a longhouse is impractical. If feasting is your goal, and sharing and community building are your motivation, a longhouse is a perfect home for such feasts. Militarily a longhouse is a downright foolish building; an enemy would simply have to burn it down and at once could devastate an entire society; it’s shaped like a coffin, an inverted boat, or a womb. Inside a longhouse, a community is completely vulnerable. To build a longhouse is to announce one’s innocent intent, trustworthiness, and humble vulnerability. Everyone is invited, peace has to be made, and there is a door at either end of most longhouses so that no single person can sit at the head. Scottish people call it a darkhouse, and it is dark inside, often a little smoky and crowded. At times hundreds of people attend an equity feast; it is a place to make peace. Internationally longhouses have been the sign on the landscape that reminds us all of feasting in this way. Today though, we are not only looking at ancient times but modern times to learn about equity feasts and the opportunities they provide us for living together and respecting diversity.
In Canada, people often mix up two terms, Potlach and Potluck. A quick history of the term potluck says that in medieval times, not to be wasteful, inn and pub owners would often create a stew of the leftovers and serve it on one particular day. If you happened to land at the inn or pub on that day looking for a meal, they would have an item called potluck on the menu. This meant that you had to try your luck on what had ended up in the pot. When the depression struck North America, people began a practice, similar to stone soup, of getting together, often in church or missionary hostels, and bringing whatever they could, to collect a meal to feed people. This they called potluck. In the postwar era, this became a way for communities to address diversity by each group bringing what meals they had from their culture and introducing them to the community at the same time as other dishes were being introduced to them. This fusion meal was not there to directly address hunger but to address a new challenge in the culture. Now here in Canada, the meal known as potluck is often used to not burden a single host from having to provide a huge meal. This harkens back to the original Eurasian equity feasts. Among other Indigenous traditions, Longhouse feasting was considered a threat to colonial capitalism in the late 1800s (Martinez, 2008).
So let us examine this other specific type of equity feasting. A Potlatch is both a form of governance and a ceremonial practice used by North-Western Indigenous communities in British Columbia. It has a component that may or may not be equity feasting. In Canada, one such practice of the Haida Gwaii was seen as a threat to the colonial model. It was outlawed from 1884 thru 1951. Participating in this ceremonial feast was punishable by imprisonment, but the practice persisted until it was seen as important. Potlatch ceremonies involved much more than feasting and food; sharing economic wealth and gifting is the main component. In prominent and enduring traditions, the feasts strengthened ties and social order and helped people survive starvation and waste less food. These feasts often took place in long buildings or halls, some built especially for this type of feasting, both in the Americas and Europe (Paulsson 2010). Histories, dancing, and singing were also often shared as gifts to the guests or gifts to the host. Speculating here: I would guess that because Vikings and Picts participated in longhouse feasts, and Christians saw them as heathens, they felt threatened by longhouse traditions in the Americas. Everyone brought what they had to share at community building feasts, or a single-family sometimes worked for years to host a feast. This distribution of wealth threatened capitalism. Sometimes the feasts were purposed for divine honour or interventions or to honour some leader. Still, more often, they were for auspicious family occasions, weddings, the birth of a child, coming of age, or apologies (Paulsson, 2010).
EQUITY FEASTING CAN BE EASY, THE RECONCILIATION WILL BE THE HARD PART, BUT WE CAN’T ARRIVE UNTIL WE START:
Based on a few Indigenous protocols and resurgent articles (Coulthard, 2017), (Desjarlais, 2012), (Scully, 2012), multiple simple internet “top ten” style etiquette checks and my own vast experience, I am going to provide my suggestion of some potluck protocols that might set a crowd up for engaging deep diversity and developing Canadian identity through potluck equity feasting. “Anyone who has invited a group of people over for a meal understands that doing it by yourself can be a heavy lift. A potluck party allows friends and family to share the load” (Koncius, 2019). But engaging dialogue isn’t just about the convenience of the host. As a host, you have to keep in mind that you are inviting your guests to this style of a meal as a form of recognition of their equity and autonomy. By fully participating in the creation of the meal, each member is invited to see every other guest as an equal. So here goes. 1. If possible, keep the longhouse model in mind; set up a long buffet-style table in one area and feast tables on opposite sides. Like we saw with the fish on birch, you don’t want everyone else to see how much or how little or how picky anyone else is being in choosing food. 2. I recently read a suggestion that you ask guests to bring a bag with their dishes and possibly even drinks, minus coffee or tea. With Covid and hygiene still at issue, I believe this is wise and promotes autonomy and equity. It doesn’t leave the host with a huge pile of dishes at the night’s end. 3. In my experience, there is often a prayer or toast or some centering at the beginning of the meal that signals everyone to be still. Elders make this type of any community-building exercise. Even if it is not a gratitude prayer, standing in silence with others is humbling. 4. In my experience, an order of people should be encouraged. Elderly people and the disabled eat first, followed by children, helped by elders if assistance is required, and parents and adults last. 5. Finally, once the elderly and children are finished eating together, they serve the adults and parents tea and dessert. This creates an intergenerational learning environment between elders and children and teaches children patience. It also shows children, who are our future, and the elderly respect. Children can also learn not to be greedy.
Ok, one last story, I was once involved in a community that had monthly potluck meals and followed this protocol at least somewhat. The occasion was April fools, and so based on this theme, the children and seniors came up with a game for tea and dessert. The adults had to pick a drink, dessert, and utensils based on a random draw. Adults ate green jello with toothpicks and hot crossed buns with only a knife or grapes with a plastic spoon. Looking like a fool will get adults talking. With children engaged in this learning from their elders, adults can engage in deep diversity, often talking about the origins of a national dish or politics in productive ways. The only stipulation is that you only get out of anything what you put into it. You don’t have to have a big spotless house to host three or four guests and begin to have equity feasting. As we all emerge from Covid restrictions, we aim to create and celebrate community.
To navigate its future, all of Canada’s people must come to terms with our past. We need to work to create a shared cultural experience in which all Canadians have equal value and human rights, and Indigenous Canadians and non-Indigenous Canadians have a cooperative understanding of land and resource use and social and environmental wellbeing. One does not have to look very deep or far back to see that we are far from arriving at cooperation. Is Reconciliation possible from where we stand today? I have heard contradictory responses to that question, and the answer isn’t simple. What does Canada’s story of Reconciliation look like? We can not yet know, but perhaps it looks like a potluck equity feast.
Beerbohm, Eric (2012) “In Our Name, the ethics of democracy.” Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15461- 9
Coulthard, Glen & et al. (2017) “Dechinta Bush University: Land-Based Education and Indigenous Resurgence.” Peter McFarlane & Nicole Schabus (Eds.), Whose Land is it Anyway? (pp. 57-61). Federation of Post-Secondary Educators of BC.
Desjarlais, A.,(2012) “Emptying the Cup: Healing Fragmented Identity An Anishinawbekwe Perspective on Historical Trauma and Culturally Appropriate Consultation,” Fourth World Journal 11(1)
Kawagley, A. O., & Barnhardt, R. (1999). “A long journey:” Alaska onward to excellence in Yupiit/Tuluksak schools. Portland, OR: US Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and Improvement. https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED437254.pdf
Koncius, Jura (2019) “Potluck etiquette: All you need to know before you plop a casserole on the table.” Home and Garden, The Washington Post. November 26, 2019. DOI: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/home/potluck-etiquette-all-you-need-to-know-before-you-plop-a-casserole-on-the-table/2019/11/25/
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Oleman, Gerry. (2021) “Elder Talk: Exploring Identity.” Canada School of Public Service, 13 Jan. 2021, OttawaIndigenous Learning Series: Canada.ca, youtube/sZLoHCeXCtw.
Paulsson, Erik, and Michael Brockington, producer. (2010) “Banning the Potlach:” The Edge of the World: BC’s Early Years. Narrated by Erik Paulsson, Knowledge Network: Battle, Murray , 2020, youtube/eIIS7a0GUgw.
Scully, A. (2012). “Decolonization, re-inhabitation and reconciliation: Aboriginal and place‐based education.” Canadian Journal of Environmental Education 17: 148–158.
Taylor, Charles. (1991). “The Malaise of Modernity.” CBC Massey Lecture. House of Anansi Press: reprint 2003.
Taylor, Charles. (1992). “The Politics of Recognition.” In A. Gutmann (Ed.), Multiculturalism and the Politics of Recognition (pp. 25-74). Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tully, James, (2012). “Charles Taylor on Deep Diversity.” McGill University, A conference of the Groupe de Recherche Interuniversitaire en Philosophie Politique (GRIPP) de Montréal, the Centre de Recherche en Éthique de l’Université de Montréal (CRÉUM) and McGill University’ Research Group on Constitutional Studies (RGCS). Talk given as part of the Charles Taylor at 80: An International Conference event. Sept. 6, 2012 DOI: youtu.be/-raJWEplmxg. Yerxa, J.‐R. (2014). “Gii‐kaapizigemin manoomin Neyaashing: A resurgence of Anishinaabeg nationhood.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 3(3): 159–166.