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Charleen Touchette

Charleen Touchette photo courtesy of Charleen TouchetteCharleen Touchette is Quebecois, Acadian and Metis of mixed blood French and Canadian First Nation ancestry and grew up bilingual in French and English. An artist, author, activist and mother of four, she lives in the mountains in Santa Fe, where she is the New Mexico Coordinator of Martin Luther King III’s Realizing the Dream Initiative. Charleen has authored the award-winning, critically-acclaimed and banned book, It Stops with Me: Memoir of a Canuck Girl, and NDN Art: Contemporary Native American Art. Read more by Charleen at her One Earth Blog and in various sections of EcoHearth.

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The Importance of Handmade Gifts
Friday, 30 November 2012 00:00  |  Written by Charleen Touchette | Blog Entry

Giving the Grandmothers Cake photo and art by Charleen TouchetteWhen I was a girl, soon after the fall harvest I began making holiday gifts for my family, friends and teachers. Using whatever handwork or cooking skills I learned that year, I would knit, sew, embroider, bake, paint or sculpt homemade presents. As a young mom, the presents were jars of preserves, bottles of wine or dried herbs and sachets made from the gifts the Earth gives throughout the seasons. One year, I sewed placemats and napkins out of cloth remnants for each family member, and the children made punched tin napkin rings to go along. The joy we felt giving these gifts was deepened by the many hours we spent making them.

Many are rethinking holiday gift-giving thanks to the tighter economy. There is heightened awareness about the negative effects of hyper-consumerism charged to credit cards on a family budget, and on the environment and the psyche. According to the National Retail Federation, consumers spent 5.7% more during the December 2011 holidays than they did the previous year. But while per capita consumption in the US has increased by 45% since 1973, quality of life has decreased by about the same percentage. Affluenza, the book, PBS television program and DVD, focus on the perils of “Affluenza… overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”

Charleen Touchette Knitting photo courtesy of Charleen TouchetteHomemade gifts cost little in materials, but the time, effort and love put into each one makes them of great value. Gifts crafted at home inspire children, are eco-friendly, use less gas and packaging, and replace fossil fuel with human energy. Making presents requires thinking ahead and thinking about the recipient, while taking the time to make something especially for them. It is also an opportunity to consider gift-giving in general—and its place in our lives, our relationships and our communities.

Cultural anthropologists explain the role gift-giving has in all societies and the ways it connects us. Beyond the community-building benefits of gifting, through establishing bonds of reciprocity and support, the actual making of gifts has a salutary effect on overall well-being in that it fosters creativity and productive, purposeful work.

In the United States, gift-giving is primarily focused on Christmas and birthdays, while in the indigenous world, it is a part of daily and ceremonial life year-round. Generosity is highly valued in indigenous cultures and leaders are respected for how much they give away rather than by how much they acquire for themselves. Among the Lakota, the word for generosity, wacantognaka, “means to contribute to the well-being of one’s people by sharing and giving freely… of not only objects and possessions, but also emotions like sympathy, compassion, kindness.” The benefit of such generosity is seen as extending to the giver and contributing to their happiness.

The Lakota host gift-giving ceremonies called wopilas (literal translation: “thank-yous”) throughout the seasons for Honoring, Naming, Adoption and other ceremonies. In fact, wopilas accompany nearly every important event in an individual’s life including graduation, marriage and memorials for the departed. According to Elizabeth Grobsmith in her book, Lakota of the Rosebud: A Contemporary Ethnography, “[t]he Lakota giveaway is an example of ‘reciprocal exchange’ that serves the function of cementing relationships, expressing mutual affection and establishing a system of what the Lakota call ‘Indian insurance.’”

In many cultures, it is customary to gift a person who compliments something you wear, such as jewelry, with the object they admire. When I learned this as a child, I decided immediately that I wanted to be a person who gives freely with such unconditional love and generosity. I find that the joys of making things and giving them away freely with an open heart results in increased happiness and well-being for everyone. When something feels so good and is so good for you and the Earth, why limit it to only one day a year? Gift-giving year-round keeps the warm holiday glow burning throughout each new year.

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Additional resources:
31 Healthy Hints for the Holidaze: Re-thinking Gift Giving
Wopila! Giveaways Make Powerful Medicine
Akta Lakota Museum and Cultural Center
Economy of the Iroquois (Haudenaosaunee)
The ‘Porkmole Liberation Front’ Manifesto
How to Stop Buying, Find Eternal Happiness and Save the Earth
Visual Commentary: Over Consumption
Steady State, Economy of the Future: The Brian Czech Interview
The Greenest Consumer Is the Non-Consumer

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Comments (4)add
Written by Liesette , January 19, 2011
great ideas, hand-made gifts really do show grater love than store bought gifts
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Written by terri , January 19, 2011
I enjoyed the article and I just realized that your paintings are featured. I love them!
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Written by James T , January 19, 2011
Great thoughts and thanks for all the resources, too. I've got lots of reading ahead of me.
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Written by JT , January 19, 2011
Inspiring sentiments and wonderful writing. I'm committing to making all of my gifts myself from now on. And since things take longer to make than buy, I won't end up "over gifting"--that is, give in greater quantity and size than is necessary, thus wasting fewer resources and polluting less.
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Eco Tip

Grow a garden or a fruit tree. A garden is fun, provides exercise, teaches kids about nature, reduces your carbon footprint (since your food need not be shipped to you), and controls what pesticides or chemicals do or do not go into the food you eat. Not to mention how delicious and nutritious fresh-picked fruits and vegetables are! More tips...

Eco Quote

Let us a little permit Nature to take her own way; she better understands her own affairs than we. - Michel de Montaigne, translated   More quotes...