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“Gadugi” and “charity”

February 13, 2009

Crossposted to LJ.

The concept of gadugi came up in a comment I just left, with the observation that I’ve been glad to find a word for it, rather than a necessarily clumsy English description. It’s harder to get the point across in English. The best summary I’ve seen so far: “At the heart of this principle is a built-in spirit of community comradery. This means that whatever issues/concerns arising in collective living have to be addressed in a unitary way and that no one is left alone to climb out of a life endeavour; it reflects a collective community base.”

This concept does not only come from the Cherokee. Among other things, it’s echoed in the name of the old Iroquoian (women’s) agricultural organization, which translates as “Good Rule: They Assist One Another”.

Not too surprisingly, that got me thinking about the differences between “charity” and gadugi. At least in practice, they have very little in common–and I understand better now why older relatives push gadugi as a way of life, but would rather gnaw off a limb than accept charity.* I would group some of the connotation differences in “generosity” here, too.

As Ed Fields described it in the online language course, the gadugi concept encompasses a few related ones: detsadasalidihesdi, we raise one another up; detsadatliyvsesdi, we hang on to one another unconditionally; and detsadalvquodes, we’re stingy with one another (hold on tightly), which is about the only context in which being stingy is a good thing. This gibed with what I’d picked up, but, again, it’s good to have words for these ideas.

Gadugi has this type of underpinning, though it usually does come out in concrete acts of helping people, as demonstrated by the more organized Day of Caring in Qualla Boundary. You may get a work group together to help an older or disabled person take care of their garden or fix their roof, or notice that somebody is having a hard time financially and drop “extra” food by on your own. (While trying not to embarrass the person needing help, or make them feel beholden.) Or, as in one of Ed’s anecdotes, if kids are out playing and one of them gets attacked by a half-wild dog, the other kids don’t just scamper out of harm’s way. “Raising each other up” doesn’t just apply to overt physical help, though.

Picking up on one note there, this does have a lot to do with the perceived “burden” of disability. Abolutely everybody needs help with something, and it’s reciprocal. I can’t help but be reminded of one of Barbara Mann’s examples, in which out of one group of several thousand (can’t locate the exact reference right now) Removed Seneca, there was only one man who was recorded as not being able to work at all. In the dominant culture, this is amazing–especially considering that these folks had been through genocidal wars and a death march, and most of them would get written off as physical and emotional lost causes, these days. Still, only one man was unable to provide some sort of substantially useful and helpful services, and the community was keeping him going–apparently without open resentment.

A lot of my less favorable impressions of “charity” come from how it’s too frequently implemented. (“Cold as charity”, anyone?) There’s more behind that concept, too. Still, at much past the agape level of cultural accretion, there are pretty big differences.

One of the most basic ones that keeps standing out at me is how these concepts are tied up in very different social systems. Gadugi is what you apply to prevent the social and related financial inequalities addressed by charity from arising in the first place. It does not just accept that these inequalities will inevitably exist, but tries to level the field.

In spite of good intentions, similar is unlikely to happen in a society which still–to greater extent than a lot prefer to think–has stratification built in from the ground up. It’s not so long, in the scheme of things, since larger numbers of “masterless men” were perceived as a symptom of “the world turned upside down” in Britain. The U.S. got some of the worst, expansionist versions of this one, which are still duking it out with more Native ideas of individual freedom rooted in cooperation–just look at the ongoing messy jumble which is the Constitution.

Cultural differences in power dynamics, and the necessity/desirability of such, still abound. Not completely incidentally, this has had a lot to do with various well-intended attempts at more egalitarian/communal systems not working out so well, grafted onto societies which aren’t built on that from the ground up. Power dynamics involved in giving and taking play a deceptively big role, as well. I wrote something about this here a while back, about 75% of the way down.

At any rate, some of the conceptual differences are much clearer to me these days. I’m trying to work out some of the myriad implications.
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* This extended to the point that, after one of Sid’s medical crises, my Papaw–exaggerating to make a point–suggested that my mom would be better off robbing convenience stores than signing up for food stamps. (Which he perceived to be in the “dehumanizing charity” category, rather than returned tax revenue when one really needed it. Well-earned distrust of government agencies no doubt also played in.) They were making sure we had a lot of necessities, and I’d imagine he also took it as a poor reflection on their gadugi. I was 9 or 10, and did not fully understand why he got so worked up at the time.

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