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 pejorative 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 early European explorers (like Lewis and Clark)[2] and the Indigenous people with whom they traded. Often the Europeans would view an exchange of items as gifting, believing they owed nothing in return to the Natives who were generous with them, while the Indigenous people saw the exchange as a form of trade or equal exchange, so had differing expectations of their guests.[2]

The phrase is still in colloquial use to describe a negative act or shady business dealings, but the racial implications are seen as not only inaccurate but offensive,[3][4] especially by Native Americans, whose cultural traditions are based on hospitality and generosity, not deception.[1] From 1778 to 1871 the United States government entered into more than 500 treaties with the Native American tribes; every one of these treaties has since been violated in some way, or outright "broken" by the US government.[5][6][7] Due to this history, the phrase may also be interpreted to be about the broken promises of the government.[7][8] However, violations by one party do not nullify the treaties; the treaties are still in effect, and Native Americans and First Nations peoples are still fighting for their treaty rights in federal courts and at the United Nations.[6][9]


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.[10] The phrase was first used in print in 1765.[11][12]


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,"[11][12] 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."[13]

As recently as 1979, the phrase was used in mainstream media publications,[14] 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,[3] and The Copyeditor's Handbook (1999) describes it as objectionable.[4]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b 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. ^ a b 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. 
  4. ^ a b 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. 
  5. ^ Vargo, Samuel (21 November 2014). "With more than 500 treaties already broken, the government can do whatever it wants, it seems...". Daily Kos. Retrieved 9 October 2016. More than 500 treaties have been made between the government and Indian tribes and all were broken, nulllified or amended. 
  6. ^ a b Toensing, Gale Courey (23 August 2013). "'Honor the Treaties': UN Human Rights Chief's Message". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved 9 October 2016. The U.S. federal government entered into more than 500 treaties with Indian nations from 1778 to 1871; every one of them was “broken, changed or nullified when it served the government’s interests,” Helen Oliff wrote in “Treaties Made, Treaties Broken.” 
  7. ^ a b DeLoria, Jr., Vine (2010). Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. University of Texas Press. ISBN 978-0-292-70754-2.  Entire book is dedicated to examining these broken treaties.
  8. ^ Egan, Timothy (25 June 2000). "Mending a Trail of Broken Treaties". The New York Times. Retrieved 17 September 2016. 
  9. ^ Wildenthal, Bryan H. (2003). Native American Sovereignty on Trial: A Handbook with Cases, Laws, and Documents. ABC-CLIO. p. 122. ISBN 1-57607-625-3. The field of Indian law rests mainly on the old treaties. 
  10. ^ Brunetti, David Wilton; illustrated by Ivan (2009). Word Myths: debunking linguistic urban legends. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0195375572. 
  11. ^ a b Gandhi, Lakshmi. "The History Behind The Phrase 'Don't Be An Indian Giver'". Codeswitch. NPR. Retrieved 4 September 2013. 
  12. ^ 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).
  13. ^ The OED's earliest citation for "Indian giver" is John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1860).
  14. ^ Rosenberg, Marcy (11 June 1979). "IBM President Warns: Despite Growth, Trouble Looms for Computer Industry". Computerworld. Retrieved 6 September 2012.