The last time I heard this phrase I must have been a kid. The tone of childish outrage still echoes. Maybe I even hurled the insult myself. In all the years since, I never thought to rethink it. Until yesterday. Environmental Biologist Robin Wall Kimmerer showed me the way in Braiding Sweetgrass. The subtitle is worth noting. Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and teaches at SUNY-Syracuse.
Indian Giver: My Disconnect
As a linguist I’ve long taken an interest in cultural anthropology. One of the early anthropologists I have always admired is Franz Boas (1858-1942). He proposed the idea that cultures are systematic wholes to be studied on their own terms and not in terms of better or worse in comparison to other cultures. His work on the cultures and languages of the Pacific Northwest remains important.
In 1899 he curated the Hall of the Pacific Northwest for the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (Now under renovation.) He transformed the earlier museum practice of gathering up like-objects – say, Native American spears – and then putting them all in one display case. Rather, he displayed the artifacts of a culture all together, as they relate to one another.
All this is to say that, for my entire adult life, I have known about the custom of the Indian giver. That is, I have known about the custom of potlatch. This ceremonial feast distributes gifts or destroys possessions in order to display wealth or enhance status. It exemplifies the gift economy where objects are thought of as loaned and then expected to be reciprocated. Such an economy distinguishes itself from a commodity economy where objects are sold and thereby ceded.
See title image: Tradition vivante, Le Potlatch Kwakwaka’wakw sur la Côte Nord-Ouest. No copyright infringement is intended.
Then, too, years ago I read The Gift (1925) by French sociologist/anthropologist Marcel Mauss (1872-1950). The question driving his research agenda was: “What power resides in the gift that causes its recipient to reciprocate?” His answer: Social obligation. He discovered that gift economies exist all over the world.
However, I never leveraged this adult knowledge to consider the origins of a childish insult.
Indian Giver: The Reconnect
And then yesterday I came across the term for the first time in decades. In Braiding Sweetgrass Kimmerer notes that the expression “Indian giver” is used negatively today as a pejorative for someone who gives something and then wants to have it back. But, in fact, the expression:
“… derives from a fascinating cross-cultural misinterpretation between an Indigenous culture operating in a gift economy and a colonial culture predicated on the concept of private property” (p. 27).
I suppose I could have put those two pieces together myself. But I didn’t. Thus, Kimmerer has given me a gift. I don’t know if saying “Thank you” counts as reciprocation. Perhaps quoting her further will count as paying it forward:
“From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the ‘gift’ is deemed to be ‘free’ because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity. In Western thinking, private land is understood to be a ‘bundle of rights,’ whereas in a gift economy property has a ‘bundle of responsibilities’ attached” (p. 28).
If we can figure our world as a wonderful Indian gift-giver, then perhaps we can attend to our responsibilities to it.
This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen