Long before Marie Kondo had us magically tidying up our homes, keeping only the items that ‘spark joy’, the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast were giving it all away through an elaborate ceremony called a potlatch.

The literal word “potlatch” means “to give away,” and it was the desire of every chief to gather a large amount of property and then give a great potlatch feast in which all was distributed back to his friends and neighbouring tribes. Every present received at a potlatch had to be returned at another potlatch. A man who would not give his feast in due time would be considered as not paying his debts.

Indeed, the potlatch host would in effect challenge a guest chieftain to exceed him in his ‘power’ to give away or to destroy goods. If the guest did not return 100 percent on the gifts received and destroy even more wealth in a bigger and better bonfire, he and his people lost face and so his ‘power’ was diminished.

“The status of any given family is raised not by who has the most resources, but by who distributes the most resources. The hosts demonstrate their wealth and prominence through giving away goods.”

It was the distribution of large numbers of Hudson Bay blankets, and the destruction of valued coppers that first drew government attention to the potlatch.

Potlatching was made illegal in Canada in 1884 at the urging of missionaries and government agents who considered it “a worse than useless custom” that was seen as wasteful, unproductive, and contrary to ‘civilized values’ of accumulation. The ban lasted until 1951.

Give it away (a modern potlatch)

Modern society has an unhealthy obsession with the accumulation of “stuff”. And instead of giving it away or selling it, we store it in our basements and garages (or pay for storage units).

But research into behavioural psychology says that stuff doesn’t make us happy, that we should focus on experiences instead of buying more “things”.

That means downsizing, decluttering, and being deliberate with the number of possessions we allow into our home.

How to get started? You might not have the clout of a Kwakiutl chief to host a potlatch of your own, but today’s shared economy exists online through Craigslist, Kijiji, and Facebook local swap & buy pages.

Lethbridge hosts the Reuse Rendezvous, a city-wide free-cycling event that encourages residents to reuse unwanted items by making them available to others for free.

Of course there’s Freecycle, a grassroots, nonprofit movement of people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns.

Millions of people are embracing minimalism and living a more simple life with fewer material possessions.

While we don’t need to burn all our possessions, quit our jobs, and sail around the world (<–oops), it couldn’t hurt to practice a little mindfulness about how much stuff we accumulate over time.

Final thoughts

My wife and I have made a conscious effort to keep the crap out of our basement and garage. We’ve been in our house for eight years and I’m proud to say we can still park our vehicles in the garage, and we’ve kept our basement from becoming a storage unit.

Are we practicing minimalists? No. But we try to purge our closets once or twice a year and donate or sell items we no longer use. We try (and mostly fail) to adopt the “one toy in, one toy out” rule for our kids. And we stay on top of the clutter before it ever gets out of hand.

We’re doing it for the kids.

We’ve witnessed our parents have to clean out our grandparents’ homes after they’ve passed away and it taking weeks, if not months, to sort through all the stuff that accumulates when you live somewhere for sixty years and never throw anything away.

So to all the chieftains out there who’ve acquired vast sums of wealth, property, and possessions, please consider a modern potlatch ceremony and give that sh!t away.

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