John Starr’s potlatch

Published October 1, 2011

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

I thought of these verses while attending a memorial potlatch in Tanana, Alaska, for the Rev. John Starr. I heard John quote these verses-from memory, in the King James version-at a similar gathering many years earlier. He quoted this passage to describe the spirit of potlatch and the life of faith and salvation in Christ. Sitting at his potlatch, I realized that his life was an embodiment of these verses.

A potlatch is an amazing event. It includes days of non-stop Native food and dance, reaching its climax in a massive giveaway. It makes My Big Fat Greek Wedding look like a game of chess. This event was so frightening to Europeans that they made it illegal. Its message and method were considered a direct threat to the task of making Native peoples a part of Western civilization. In the end, potlatch was not conquered.

I met John in 1989, long before I was his bishop. He was clearly a spiritual leader, clearly a person who should be ordained in this small fly-in community that had no priest. I told him that I would pray for his ordination. His ordination to the priesthood in February 2000 remains one of the high points of my ministry.

When John died, the testimonies to his influence were overwhelming. He helped so many, silently, behind the scenes, and dramatically influenced many people. John’s life was, like Jesus and like the potlatch, countercultural. Looking back now, I recognize the following to be part of John’s potlatch theology: true greatness is hidden in humility; you can accomplish great things, if you don’t need to be recognized for what you do; strength and power are measured by what you give away, not by what you have; humility, generosity and gratitude are born in each other.

Christian faith intensifies and anoints our life in the larger community, making it possible to serve the well-being of all and bring glory to God.

It was hard to get John ordained. He didn’t strike people as a typical priest, though all acknowledged his spiritual and intellectual gifts. I now believe he is the type of leader we are looking for in today’s church.

Mark MacDonald is national indigenous bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada.


  • Mark MacDonald

    Mark MacDonald was national Indigenous Anglican bishop of the Anglican Church of Canada from 2007 to 2019, and national Indigenous Anglican archbishop from 2019 to 2022.

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