Indian giver

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This article is about the expression. For the music by 1910 Fruitgum Company, see Indian Giver (song) and Indian Giver (album). For the book, see Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World.

Indian giver is an American expression to describe a person who gives a gift and later wants it back, or something equivalent in return. It is based on the experiences of early European settlers and pioneers like Lewis and Clark [1] when trading with Native Americans. It was custom among some groups of Native Americans that when a gift was given, something of equal value was given by the receiver of the gift.[1] The custom of Native American gift giving was misinterpreted by early European settlers as shady business dealings.


As observed and documented by Lewis and Clark in their journal, trading with Native Americans had a very unusual aspect - any trade, once consummated, was considered a fair trade. If on one day, they traded beads for a dog from a tribe, then days later, the trade could be reversed - upon surrendering the beads, the tribe expected the dog back. The original idea of "giving" in this fashion connotes trade ("I'll give you this, and you give me that"), and not presents or "gifts."

The phrase originated, according to researcher David Wilton, in a cultural misunderstanding that arose when Europeans first encountered Native Americans on arriving in North America in the 15th century. Europeans thought they were receiving gifts from Native Americans, while the Native Americans believed they were engaged in what was known to Europeans as bartering; this resulted in the Native Americans finding European behaviour ungenerous and insulting.[2] The phrase was first used in print in 1765.[3][4]


The phrase was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, who characterized an Indian gift as "a present for which an equivalent return is expected,"[3][4] which suggests that the phrase originally referred to a simple exchange of gifts. In 1860, however, in John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms, Bartlett said the phrase was being used by children in New York to mean "one who gives a present and then takes it back."[5]

As recently as 1979, the phrase was used in mainstream media publications,[6] but in the 1997 book The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, writer and editor Philip H. Herbst says that although the phrase is often used innocently by children, it may be interpreted as offensive,[7] and The Copyeditor's Handbook (1999) describes it as objectionable.[8]

Another more positive form of "Indian giving" is that used by Central and South American natives. If the individual was liked and that person was going away, a most precious possession was given to that individual to guarantee that they would return. It was a way of making them feel obligated to do so.


  1. ^ a b Gandhi, Lakshmi (September 2, 2013). "The History Behind The Phrase 'Don't Be An Indian Giver'". Code Switch. npr. Retrieved April 12, 2015. 
  2. ^ Brunetti, David Wilton; illustrated by Ivan (2009). Word Myths: debunking linguistic urban legends. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195375572. 
  3. ^ a b Gandhi, Lakshmi. "The History Behind The Phrase 'Don't Be An Indian Giver'". Codeswitch. NPR. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  4. ^ a b "An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected." (Thomas Hutchinson, History of Massachusetts, from the first settlement thereof in 1628, until the year 1750, in two volumes, 1795).
  5. ^ The OED's earliest citation for "Indian giver" is John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1860).
  6. ^ Rosenberg, Marcy (11 June 1976). "IBM President Warns: Despite Growth, Trouble Looms for Computer Industry". Computerworld. Retrieved 6 September 2012. 
  7. ^ Herbst, Philip H. (1997). The Color of Words: an encyclopaedic dictionary of ethnic bias in the United States. Yarmouth Me: Intercultural Press. pp. 119–20. ISBN 1877864978. 
  8. ^ Einsohn, Amy (1999). The Copyeditor's Handbook: a guide for book publishing and corporate communications, with exercises and answer keys. Berkeley: University of California Press. p. 450. ISBN 0520218345.