Indian giver

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Indian giver is a pejorative American expression used to describe a person who gives a "gift" and later wants it back or who expects something of equivalent worth in return for the item.[1] It is based on cultural misunderstandings that took place between the early European colonizers and the indigenous people with whom they traded.[2] Often, the Europeans viewed an exchange of items as gifts and believed that they owed nothing in return to the indigenous people. On the other hand the indigenous people saw the exchange as a form of trade or equal exchange and so they had differing expectations of their guests.[2]

The phrase is used to describe a negative act or shady business dealings. It is considered disrespectful, and its use is offensive to many people of indigenous backgrounds.


The phrase originated, according to the researcher David Wilton, in a cultural misunderstanding that arose when Europeans settlers first encountered Native Americans after the former had arrived to North America in the 15th century. The Europeans thought that they were receiving gifts from Native Americans, but the Native Americans believed that they were engaged in what was known to Europeans as bartering. That resulted in the Native Americans finding European behaviour ungenerous and insulting.[3]


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,"[4][5] 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 that the phrase was being used by children in New York to mean "one who gives a present and then takes it back."[6]

In 1969, American bubblegum pop band 1910 Fruitgum Company published the album Indian Giver, with the song Indian Giver peaking at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #1 in Canada.

As recently as 1979, the phrase was used in mainstream media publications,[7] but in the 1997 book The Color of Words: An Encyclopaedic Dictionary of Ethnic Bias in the United States, the writer and editor Philip H. Herbst says that although the phrase is often used innocently by children, it may be interpreted as offensive,[8] and The Copyeditor's Handbook (1999) describes it as objectionable.[9]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Keene, Adrienne. "Kris Jenner uses the term "Indian Giver"". Native Appropriations. Retrieved 17 September 2016.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ Brunetti, David Wilton; illustrated by Ivan (2009). Word Myths: debunking linguistic urban legends. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195375572.
  4. ^ Gandhi, Lakshmi. "The History Behind The Phrase 'Don't Be An Indian Giver'". Codeswitch. NPR. Retrieved 4 September 2013.
  5. ^ "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).
  6. ^ The OED's earliest citation for "Indian giver" is John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1860). Archived 2008-10-19 at the Wayback Machine
  7. ^ Rosenberg, Marcy (11 June 1979). "IBM President Warns: Despite Growth, Trouble Looms for Computer Industry". Computerworld. Retrieved 6 September 2012.
  8. ^ 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.
  9. ^ 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.