On Kodiak Island Alaska there is a story told of an Aleutian boy who lived with his grandmother. The two were trying to stretch out their meager supply of dried seal meat to get them through what was a very rough winter. The grandson became tired of eating the same thing day after day and each day he complained to his grandmother to let him go out and hunt for something more to break up the monotony of dried seal. Finally, after the grandmother had heard just too much complaining from the grandson, she allowed him to go hunt, but she gave him these words of instruction, “after you make your first kill, bring it home to share, and we will be satisfied.”
With harpoon, knife and net in hand, the next morning the boy eagerly set out to find something better to eat than dried seal. The winter was severe and there was little game stirring so the boy had to wander quite a way from his village. Out on the horizon he saw something darting about. It was a mouse, and a small one at that, but the boy set out to hunt and kill the mouse. Although he remembered his grandmother’s words, “after you make your first kill, bring it home to share, and we will be satisfied,” he thought to himself, “I have already spent too much energy hunting this small mouse, even if I ate the whole mouse myself, I would not have the energy to get back home.” So the boy ate the mouse and continued on his hunting journey.
Next, the boy came to a stream where he was able to catch a small fish. The fish was so small he was able to swallow it with one large gulp, completely forgetting his grandmother’s words. He followed the stream to find a lone salmon waiting to die. By this time he was famished, since the mouse and the fish were so small. He caught the salmon and immediately began eating the best parts of the fish. When he had almost finished the entirety of the salmon he remembered his grandmother’s words once again, but it was too late. The boy had started a pattern and a pace that would grow as large as the appetite he was developing.
Next, he netted a ptarmigan. Then he speared a seal and ate the whole thing. As he continued to go farther into areas he had never seen before, the boy hunted a walrus and consumed it completely. One animal after the other, and his appetite just kept growing. Finally, after being gone for what seemed like months, his appetite was almost insatiable, so he found a beached whale and he began to eat it, bite after bite, until there was nothing left. By this time the boy had noticed that he had grown so large in size that he no longer looked like himself. He was almost as big as his grandmother’s house. Now this made the boy very sad. What had he become?
Suddenly, he remembered his grandmother’s words, “after you make your first kill, bring it home to share, and we will be satisfied.” The boy began to understand, nothing he ate would satisfy his great hunger. Thinking of his poor grandmother back home eating dried seal, or by this time, perhaps starved to death, made the boy very sad. Feeling hopeless, he cried for hours and then he made a decision to find his way home again.
As the boy walked, his belly was so full that it swished and swashed with each step he took. After many days he finally spotted his village and then made it to his grandmother’s home. There he sat, outside the door, crying because he realized he could no longer fit through the door. His grandmother heard the boy outside and immediately told him what to do. “Grandson, she said. “Climb on the roof and come down the smoke hole.” Although he knew he would never fit through the small smoke hole in the roof he, nonetheless, obeyed his grandmother. The she said, “put your feet in the hole and drop down.” As the boy put his feet in the smoke hole, the grandmother lifted up a bone needle she had made and the boy miraculously passed through the eye of it to become himself once again.
On his way down all the animals and fish he had consumed came out of his mouth, spewing up through the smoke hole and landed in front of his grandmother’s home. They gathered up the whale, and the walrus, and the seal, and the ptarmigan, and the salmon, and the small fish and the mouse and everything else the boy had consumed while he was away. When they had gathered it all up they prepared a feast for the whole village, made up of all those fine foods. But the boy was satisfied just to eat dried seal.
The story of the boy and his grandmother was likely a traditional story modified after the Aleutian people heard the Bible story in Luke 18:25 when Jesus said, “For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God” (RSV) or else, it is an uncanny coincidence. Whether adapted or original, the story is illustrative of many of the values of Indigenous North Americans when it comes to understanding poverty.
Wealth, in traditional North American Indigenous cultures, was most often measured by food supply and the conditions of the homeland from which it was supplied. The normal expectation was to be satisfied with whatever one had, and one’s primary responsibility was to share it with others. The seminal Indigenous value of generosity was based on abundance as the norm, and scarcity as the exception. In the story, the exponential increase of food for oneself and the parallel change in the boy becoming less of himself by not sharing what he had, creates something grotesquely less than a simple human being. In a sense, the boy became a monster through his own greed. Indeed, the cure for his dilemma was
- Listening to his elderly grandmother, who was the repository of wisdom
- Returning home, to his own land and his community of support
- Sharing what food he had, with his community. (Note: the way he shared it was regurgitation, which is supposed to add humor to the story).
Many of the values concerning poverty and wealth among traditional Native North Americans are based on these shalom principles. The boy’s survival depended on listening to his elder, understanding the primacy of his own homeland but his actual wealth came from sharing his food among his community. Perhaps the most important aspect of shalom, though there are many, is generosity that is focused on equity, (everyone has something and equality (everyone has equal opportunity).
In a capitalistic and individualistic society such as ours, we must find ways to share. And, that sharing must be directed towards hospitality and empowering those who are marginalized and disenfranchised. Economies based on the “trickle-down” approach never work. Like the grandson, we must remember to share ourselves, our homes, our food, our financial and other resources if we want to live into the shalom teachings of Jesus and other harmony way traditions. If that means sometimes just being happy eating dried seal, I think we will be ok.
This post is part of the October theme Living Into the Shalom of God.