When I was a kid, “Indian giver” was spiteful thing that you called someone who gave you something then, for whatever reason, wanted it back, asked for it back or worse, took it back. The phrase has pretty faded from common usage, in large part because of it’s clearly a negative racial stereotype.
Recently, I was reading a book by Jim McNeely III, The Romance of Grace, and in his chapter on ‘Gift Cultural’ (chap. 8) he quotes another book, The Gift by Lewis Hyde. Being me, I found that book and read a little on the origin of the phrase “Indian giver”.
I had assumed, like many stereotypes, the phrase had it’s roots in some singular observations or observations of a small minority of the group being stereotyped that was to told over and over again to degrade and dehumanize them until it became accepted as descriptive of the group as a whole.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that “Indian giving” wasn’t a false stereotype, but a deeply ingrained cultural value among the some the indigenous peoples encounter by the Puritans.
Imagine a European Puritan lands in Massachusetts, and is greeted by the leader of the local native village. Being a powerful and respected man, the village leader shows proper etiquette and hospitality and invites this new comer to his lodge. There, he shares the bounty of his village and family, and after a good meal, brings out a pipe of tobacco to share with his new friend. The European gent admired the pipe of intricately carved red stone. The village leader graciously give our Puritan friend the pipe and a supply of tobacco. He takes the pipe home, considering himself having been made richer with this valuable primitive native artifact. Maybe he’ll sell it or send it back home to his financial backers as a sign of his success or save it to pass on to his future generations with stories of his early days in the American wilds.
Imagine his chagrin when an other village leader shows up at his compound, and is offended, when, after a meal, the Puritan doesn’t take the pipe down from it’s display on his mantle, share a smoke, then offer it as a gift to his guest. After a translator explains why the village head man is offended, the Puritan is also offended at the expectation that these savages gave him a gift only to want it back! He sees the locals as rude and disrespectful of his personal property. Thus a pejorative born.
What our Puritan ancestor failed to see, it that his guest just expected these foreign visitors to understand the most basic etiquette of living in a gift culture. Just as our Puritan gentleman would have invented the term “indian giver” to describe his encounter, our village head-man probably walk away, inventing a new pejorative of his own, translated something like “white-man keeper” or “white-man hoarder”.
In his book, Lewis Hyde explains it like this:
The Indian giver (or the original one, at any rate) understood a cardinal property of the gift: whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away again, not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move on in its stead, the way a billiard ball may stop when it sends another scurrying across the felt, its momentum transferred. You may keep your Christmas present, but it ceases to be a gift in the true sense unless you have given something else away.
It really struck my how much more “Christian” the native’s culture and attitude was compared to those who reportedly came in Jesus’s name!
Jesus tells the story of the debtor that failed to understand the true nature of a gift:
“Therefore, the Kingdom of Heaven can be compared to a king who decided to bring his accounts up to date with servants who had borrowed money from him. In the process, one of his debtors was brought in who owed him millions of dollars. He couldn’t pay, so his master ordered that he be sold—along with his wife, his children, and everything he owned—to pay the debt.
But the man fell down before his master and begged him, ‘Please, be patient with me, and I will pay it all.’ Then his master was filled with pity for him, and he released him and forgave his debt.
But when the man left the king, he went to a fellow servant who owed him a few thousand dollars. He grabbed him by the throat and demanded instant payment.
His fellow servant fell down before him and begged for a little more time. ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it,’ he pleaded. But his creditor wouldn’t wait. He had the man arrested and put in prison until the debt could be paid in full.“
Gifts are for giving. But our possessions-centric, capitalistic, consumeristic culture finds the idea of getting gifts for the express purpose of giving them away to be grounds for offense. If I give away a gift that was given to me, it is considered an insult to the person how gave me the gift. That is the exact opposite of what Jesus was teaching here in this parable. Not only are we expected to freely and extravagantly pass on the blessing giving to us, but to keep them to ourselves opens us to harsh judgment!
“When some of the other servants saw this, they were very upset. They went to the king and told him everything that had happened. Then the king called in the man he had forgiven and said, ‘You evil servant! I forgave you that tremendous debt because you pleaded with me. Shouldn’t you have mercy on your fellow servant, just as I had mercy on you?’ Then the angry king sent the man to prison to be tortured until he had paid his entire debt.”
“That’s what my heavenly Father will do to you if you refuse to forgive your brothers and sisters from your heart.”
It seems to me that, at least on this point, Kingdom culture is be more like the gift culture of those “Godless savages” than the churched culture of our Puritan forefathers. I’d be proud to be seen as an Indian giver (at least in the Kingdom sense!)