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Racial slurs—such as the use of the term “Indian giving”—no longer have a place in our vocabulary. They demonstrate historic ignorance and are insulting to Native Americans. Source: PixelWitch / Adobe Stock

Why We Should Ditch the Historic Term “Indian Giver” Today

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The English language is full of colloquial expressions derived from our storied past. Up there with racial slurs such as “redskin,” “squaw” or “casino Indian,” “Indian giver” or “Indian giving” is broadly accepted as being inappropriate. Despite ongoing efforts to eliminate these terms, they persist due to historical ignorance or deliberate use to insult Native Americans.

An “Indian giver,” which is commonly used today to describe shady transactions or negative gift-giving behavior, is defined as “a person who gives something and then demands it back.” The idiom even featured in a Seinfeld episode, acknowledging its offensive connotation through humor. One could even say that using “Indian giver” in everyday language perfectly sums up hundreds of years of harmful stereotypes about Indigenous Americans.

The expression has been traced back to the 1700s, firmly rooted in the contentious relationship between white European colonizers and the Native Americans whose territory they invaded. Its basis is actually to be found in a complex web of cultural misunderstandings which can only be untangled by comprehending Native Americans traditions of gift-giving.

In Word Myths: Debunking Linguistic Urban Legends, Dave Wilton argued that the colloquialism started when white settlers misinterpreted the way Native American bartering worked in practice, causing offense on both sides; “To the Native Americans… one did not give a gift without expecting one of equivalent value in return. If one could not offer an equivalent return gift, the original gift would be refused or returned. To Europeans, with their monetary-based trade practices, this seemed low and insulting.”

The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition described Native Americans as “forward and impertinent, and thievish,” based on cultural misconceptions about gift-giving customs. Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell. (Public domain)

The journals of the Lewis and Clark expedition described Native Americans as “forward and impertinent, and thievish,” based on cultural misconceptions about gift-giving customs. Lewis and Clark on the Lower Columbia by Charles Marion Russell. (Public domain)

Hence this term which portrays “Indians”—a word coined by Europeans to describe Native Americans after Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas while sailing for India—as deceitful and cunning is fundamentally racist and profoundly offensive to Native communities.

While traditions surrounding gift-giving vary amongst different Native groups even today, they have historically been use to build relationships and show respect. For Indigenous Corporate Training Inc., gift-giving is an important cultural tradition imbued with honor and the understanding that the recipient would value the gift. “If the recipient of the gift did not use it, then that was viewed as disrespect, and the item was taken back.”

One urban myth claims that “Indian giving” comes from European settlers giving land to the Indians, only to take it back. But, as reported by Evan Morris in The Word Detective, “it would be quite a stretch to credit 19th century European settlers with the honesty to have recognized that they, and not the Indians, were the ‘Indian givers’ in most cases.”

Words matter. The sooner people start to invest time in familiarizing themselves with history and unlearning demeaning terminology, the sooner these kinds of harmful idioms will disappear from our popular lexicon.

Top image: Racial slurs—such as the use of the term “Indian giving”—no longer have a place in our vocabulary. They demonstrate historic ignorance and are insulting to Native Americans. Source: PixelWitch / Adobe Stock

By Cecilia Bogaard

 

Comments

Blimey, I've never even HEARD of it, let alone used it, which I wouldn't, because I'm polite.

I have however heard plenty of 'gammon,' 'mayo,' 'hillbilly,' 'honky,' 'cracker,' 'white trash,' 'trailer park trash' and 'redneck,' none of which are particularly pleasant, yet none of which I ever see academics and social justice types complaining about. Are we up for ditching those very well used/documented historic references too?

If Ancient Origins would like to do more to combat racism, how about pointing out how racist every empire must have been, whether that of the Mongols, the Akkadians, the Romans, the Inca or whoever?

'But, as reported by Evan Morris in The Word Detective , “it would be quite a stretch to credit 19th century European settlers with the honesty to have recognized that they, and not the Indians, were the ‘Indian givers’ in most cases.”'

So, 19th century European settlers were all racist and dishonest, while 19th century American 'Indians' were never thus...

Give it a rest. All human societies have exhibited xenophobia, because it has been a protective mechanism. The ones that didn't were probably murdered by neighbours. Where that xenophobia spills over into racism, though, it is no longer cautiously protective. It becomes aggressively dangerous. This racism is also universal within human societies, unfortunately.

In Australia, the First Peoples were largely genocided by the Second. However, contrary to deliberate misinformation, that wasn't the reprehensible white on black violence of the 19th century, but equally reprehensible black on black violence. The 'gracile' relative pygmies of Lake Mungo etc were hunted by bigger and stronger incomers, the Murrayians who were the 'Indigenous' ancestors of most Aboriginal Australians today. However, this is an inconvenient truth to many today.

In New Zealand, there is good evidence for the Maori being another Second Peoples and for the First being Europeans (probably Celtic) who were on the receiving end. This is another inconvenient truth.

In South Africa, the Bantu expansion came at the expense of the smaller Bushmen, before the Afrikaner arrival.

Native American cultures could be aggressively racist towards their neighbours. Nowadays, the woke are aggressively racist with the use of language.

All racism is reprehensible, even reverse racism. History was once filled with the former. Now it is hijacked by the latter. This is no improvement.

How about we simply stick to the truth, no matter now inconvenient it may be?

Tonja's picture

This article here was nothing more than a thinly-disguised slap in the face to the White Race.

I have not heard the words "Indian Giver" or used those words since my late childhood and early teens, 45+ years ago.

Don't you have anything better to do than jump on that bandwagon, which is so nauseating today, of stirring the cauldron of racial disharmony?

When General Armstrong Custer was defeated and killed by the Sioux and Cheyenne, these tribes had moved into and taken over land that belonged to the peaceful Crow. . .

Cecilia Bogaard's picture

Cecilia

Cecilia Bogaard is one of the editors, researchers and writers on Ancient Origins. With an MA in Social Anthropology, and degree in Visual Communication (Photography), Cecilia has a passion for research, content creation and editing, especially as related to the... Read More

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