Indian Giver is an offensive term that leaves the very clear yet nasty impression that a person has given a gift and expects that gift returned to them for some known or unknown perceived or actual slight.
Back in on July 29, 2009 American singer Jessica Simpson, 29, was asked by a TMZ.com video crew if she wanted an expensive gift back from former boyfriend Tony Romo. Her shocking response was: “Hey, I’m not an Indian giver.” She got into the back seat of a waiting car and drove off into the night.
Us Magazine and Fox News carried the news as quickly as Jessica Simpson had tossed off the remark and there was public outrage over her use of the term “Indian giver.”
The expression has been identified as offensive over the years and is rarely heard these days. However, the expression hasn’t always been treated this way. There was a time not that long ago when the expression could be found in any number of publications without negative reaction from the public.
On November 16, 1977 the Palm Beach Post newspaper ran a column written by Washington based humourist, Art Buchwald about the land the United States government had given back to the North American Indians — land the government at the time considered to be worthless. As it turned out, the land was more valuable than the government at the time realized. The land in question was found to hold one-third of all the low-sulphur coal suitable for strip mining, 55% of America’s uranium and 4% of America’s oil and natural gas. Of course, realizing the previous government’s mistake and the then-current government’s attempt to get that land back in exchange for different land was something Art Buchwald took aim at in his column. The title of the piece was:
Trials Of An Indian Giver
On March 9, 1959 the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published an article on March 9, 1959 that took a look at inflation and the impact it had on the wallets of hard-working American. It wasn’t bad enough that the headline was “Just An Indian Giver.” Adding insult to injury, the first sentences were:
Not only is inflation an “Indian giver” — he’s a pickpocket to boot. Under inflation you think you get a few more dollars in pay. But then you go to spend them. Now you find that inflation has already taken back those dollars!
A decade before, the Milwaukee Journal carried a scandalous story about Millionaire Gar Wood and his secretary, Violet V. Bellous. It was the case of an affair gone bad and both sides were dissatisfied with how things ended. The story was entitled, “Wood Called Indian Giver: Secretary Tells Story.” It related the following in part:
Mrs. Bellous, 30, called Wood an “Indian giver.” He is seeking the return of a $100,000 palatial home, now in Mrs. Bellous’ name, $20,000 in bonds and $5,000 in cash. Mrs. Bellous related that Wood endeavored to have her leave her husband … calling attention “to the fact that he was an enormously wealthy man”; that he could giver her luxuries of life that her husband never could; that she could “be like a queen because I am a king.”
The Telegraph-Herald seems to have had a sweet spot for the expression. On June 24, 1932 it ran a story out of Chicago entitled, “Al Is Tired Posing For Photographers.” It was a brief piece that read thusly:
Through the generosity of an Indian giver, Al Smith today was the recipient of a five-pound bass. Chief Man of the Heavens, sachem of the Chippewa tribe, journeyed from the reservation at Minocqua, Wis., to the former New York governor’s convention headquarters here to present the fish.
Through his interpreter, Thunder, the chief informed the “happy warrior” that he himself had captured the bass.
Asked to pose for a photograph, Smith wearily replied: “I’ve been posing for nine hours today. Take one of the other pictures and paint a fish on it.”
And on November 3, 1918 the Telegraph-Herald ran an advertisement with the headline, “Don’t Be An Indian Giver! Hold the War Savings Stamps you have bought. Buy more. Don’t cash them in now.” The advertisement was courtesy of the Savings Department of the First National Bank on 5th and Main Streets in beautiful downtown Dubuque, Iowa. The text read thusly:
You have loaned the Government the money you have invested in War Savings Stamps for five years. Don’t be an unpatriotic “Indian giver” and ask for the money now. Hold your stamps until the date of maturity — January 1, 1923 — and get your full interest from Uncle Sam.
Worst Kind Of Slacker
The person who demands money for the Stamps he is financially able to hold is a worse slacker than the person who has bought none. Financial distress is the only excuse for demanding your money now.
On May 28, 1893 the New York Times published a short story entitled, “An Irrational Impulse.” There’s no mention of the author however the story reads in part:
“My dear Mrs. Tedford,” he began, “I hear — ” (little Mr. Phibbs had a proclivity for hearing) “I hear that you have executed a paper for your father which shows that no title passed by his registering the securities in your name, and that if any did, you thereby retransferred it. This is most serious, in fact, most fatal. If there was a consensus of your — “
“What does all that mean?” asked Kate flippantly.
“It means that you understand that he didn’t give the securities to you and so stated in writing.”
“Oh what a wicked lie.”
“But are you quite sure? It would be in accordance with your father’s cautious nature to exact such a document.”
“And be a regular Indian giver? Oh, no! Pa was gone on me in those days. He would have cut off his ears had I craved them. He said, ‘There, my dear daughter, there is a little present for you.’”
The term “Indian giver” was first cited in John Russell Bartlett‘s “Dictionary of Americanisms” in 1860. However, the term “Indian gift” is found in the book by businessman, historian, and a prominent Loyalist politician of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780) entitled, “History of Massachusetts Bay.” In his book he stated:
An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.
From this, it is reasonable to assume that one who gave an Indian gift could be considered to be an Indian giver as opposed to a European or British giver. The British and European settlers in the new world didn’t seem to understand the barter system that was part of North American Indian society.
And somewhere between 1765 and 1893, the expression went from being a descriptive term for a different cultural tradition to being an offensive reference.