Lessons from a “gift economy”

Braiding Sweetgrass, an engaging book by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer that marries the science of plants and nature with Indigenous teachings, gives its readers insight into two polar-opposite ways of viewing the world in which we live. Beautifully and compellingly written, she presents a philosophy of living more responsibly and respectfully with nature – and with each other – that we would each do well to take to heart.

I had known from previous reading that Indigenous communities have always, for millennia, shared the bounty of nature with each other and have always paid respect to nature and its plants and animals for providing their gifts.  Gratefulness is part of accepting these gifts, as is sharing.  Kimmerer describes this approach, a “gift economy”, with understanding and grace. It’s a concept that, put in practice, can only add value to our lives.  Think of it as a philosophy for living.

In Kimmerer’s own words, getting at the difference between a gift economy and a commodity-based economy:

It’s funny how the nature of an object – let’s say a strawberry or a pair of socks – is so changed by the way it comes into your hands, as a gift or as a commodity.  The pair of wool socks I buy at the store, red and gray striped, are warm and cozy.  I might feel grateful for the sheep that made the wool and the worker who ran the knitting machine. I hope so. But I have no inherent obligation to those socks as a commodity, as private property. There is no bond beyond the politely exchanged “thank yous” with the clerk.  I have paid for them and our reciprocity ended the minute I handed her the money.  The exchange ends once parity has been established, an equal exchange.  They become my property.  I don’t write a thank-you note to JC Penney.


But what if those very same socks, red and gray striped, were knitted by my grandmother and given to me as a gift?  That changes everything.  A gift creates an ongoing relationship.  I will write a thank-you note.  I will take good care of them and if I am a very gracious grandchild I’ll wear them when she visits even if I don’t like them.  When it’s her birthday I will surely make her a gift in return.  As the scholar and writer Lewis Hyde notes, “It is the cardinal difference between gift and commodity exchange that a gift establishes a feeling-bond between two people.

Lewis Hyde wonderfully illustrates this dissonance in his exploration of the “Indian giver.” This expression, used negatively today as a pejorative for someone who gives something and then wants it back, actually derives from a fascinating cross-cultural misinterpretation between an Indigenous culture operating in a gift economy and a colonial culture predicated on the concept of private property.  When gifts were given to the settlers by the Native inhabitants, the recipients understood that they were valuable ad intended to be retained.  But the Indigenous people understood the value of the gift to be based in reciprocity and would be affronted if the gifts did not circulate back to them.  Many of our ancient teachings counsel that whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away.

From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the “gift” is deemed to be “free” because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at the root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private property is understood to be a “bundle of rights,” whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibilities” attached.

Lots to think about, right?  Now let’s take a look at a related reading I came across this week, a story one might consider an example of people who live the philosophy of the gift economy … and a few who don’t.

The Story of the Haircut

Blessed are those that can give without remembering and take without forgetting.


One day a florist in Ottawa went to a barber for a haircut. After the cut, he asked about his bill, and the barber replied, ‘I cannot accept money from you, I’m doing community service this week’. The florist was pleased and left the shop.

When the barber went to open his shop the next morning, there was a ‘thank you’ card and a dozen roses waiting for him at his door.

Later, a cop comes in for a haircut, and when he tries to pay his bill, the barber again replies, ‘I cannot accept money from you, I’m doing community service this week.’ The cop was happy and left the shop.

The next morning when the barber went to open up, there was a ‘thank you’ card and a dozen Tim Horton donuts waiting for him at his door.


Then an MP came in for a haircut, and when he went to pay his bill, the barber again replied, ‘I cannot accept money from you. I’m doing community service this week.’ The MP was very happy and left the shop.

The next morning, when the barber went to open up, there were a dozen MP’s lined up waiting for a free haircut.

And that, my friends, illustrates the fundamental difference between the citizens of our country and the politicians who run it.

As Ronald Reagan said: “Both politicians and diapers need to be changed often and for the same reason.”

Source unknown.

Remember, it’s important to be grateful for what we have been given, it’s more important to give than to receive, and it’s important to have a good laugh as often as possible! 🙂


Thanks to Adam F for surprising me with this awesome book (which I will pass along or give back in the spirit of a gift economy) and to Marilyn for sending me a good laugh this week.  As you can see, I’m passing the laugh along as a gift to Robby’s readers!

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19 Responses to Lessons from a “gift economy”

  1. Roy McCarthy says:

    It’s heart warming to see giving without thought of reciprocation, sharing without question, helping those in trouble without thinking. Instead the world is constructed around personal advancement. I’m not surprised the Native Americans (for example) treat the white man and his ways with scorn.

  2. somekindof50 says:

    Absolutely love the haircut story! So so true!

  3. debscarey says:

    Being someone with an Indian heritage from the country rather than the Indigenous people, I never knew what it meant and always assumed. Thank you, it’s both interesting to know, and the concept makes a huge amount of sense. I want to be able to recycle my kindle books too – one frustration of going virtual with most of my reading.

  4. BernieLynne says:

    Her words and concepts resonated with me as well. I love the short story at the end with the quote. Unfortunately we just spent, what was it, 600 million and changed nothing.

  5. Inkplume says:

    I am going to go out and buy this book. Then, I have a friend I know will appreciate it so I will pass it along to her. I’m sure she will then share it with someone else and so on and so on!

  6. This sounds like an awesome book!

  7. Really enjoyed this post, thanks for sharing! ❤️

  8. You bet! Good lessons to ponder on this day.

  9. boblorentson says:

    What a fun and appropriate post for the day. And such a great Reagan quote.

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