What is the main idea of the book "Circle of Goods: Women, Work, and Welfare in a Reservation Community" by Tressa Berman?  

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Tressa Berman's Circle of Goods examines several themes relating to tribal economies in the Northern Plains. Its core narration revolves around the system mentioned in her title: the "circle of goods" or, in other words, the circulation of various goods within these tribal societies. 

Ceremonial goods especially are central to...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

Tressa Berman's Circle of Goods examines several themes relating to tribal economies in the Northern Plains. Its core narration revolves around the system mentioned in her title: the "circle of goods" or, in other words, the circulation of various goods within these tribal societies. 

Ceremonial goods especially are central to tribal economies. 

"Berman traces what she calls the 'ceremonial relations of production' involved in feasts, honorings, giveaways, and other ceremonial events. Clan relations channel flows of food, hand-sewn quilts, and other goods to those participating."

This relationship of ceremony to economic goods is hard for us to understand outside of a tribal context. A review written for the "Great Plains Journal" by Alice Littlefield out of Central Michigan University (the same review I quoted above) works to help the reader understand these relationships outside of a tribal society: 

"In the market context, cash from wages can be converted into art,
which can be converted into cash for disposable goods, which may in turn enter into ceremonial networks (feeding people who attend a wake, for example)." 

Ceremony and economy, Littlefield argues, converge in typical Western culture only when large ceremonies demand economic interaction by virtue of food or gifts. If John works hard for his paycheck and John attends Sally's wedding, the ceremonial custom is for John to use part of his paycheck to provide a gift (some economic good, a plate or a cooler) for Sally. That's a ceremonial economic exchange. 

Berman's book works to trace the pattern that these ceremonial exchanges follow in tribal culture, where ceremony plays a much larger role. She learns and tells the stories of various native women to see how the circle of ceremonial goods interacts with their lives.  

But the core of Berman's work is an examination of the way federal economic policy has interacted with tribal economic sensibilities. The importance of ceremony in tribal economy is just one of the reasons federal policy has created inadequate development on reservations. Government policies tend to focus on "individualism and the formal sector." 

However, these concepts are often foreign to native economies where "combining multiple income strategies and pooling and sharing resources with kin have been at the heart of survival strategies." Economic incentives, which are the core of individualist federal economic policy, are at odds with the cultural and familial commitments of tribal culture. Making an extra $2,000 a year is not much of an incentive to Joe if Joe plans to give that money away because of his various community commitments. 

In fact, Berman argues that federal economic policy often ends up doing much more harm than good by upending the economic relationships (community, family, ceremony) that have potential to make reservation economies strong. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team