What’s the origin of the expression "Indian giver"?

Dear Cecil:

I've always wondered where the wonderful American expression "Indian giver" originated. Is an Indian giver one who: (1) as an Indian, gives you something and then takes it back, (2) gives things to Indians, or (3) gives away Indians? Your insight is greatly appreciated.

Cecil replies:

Dear Michael:

This whole thing is so ironic it’s an instant cure for pernicious anemia. "Indian" was once used by the white man as an all-purpose adjective signifying "bogus" or "false," owing to the supposedly low morals of the red man. Thus you had "Indian summer," false summer late in the year; "Indian corn" and "Indian tea," cheap substitutes for products the original colonists had known back in England; and "Indian giver," someone who gives you something and then takes it back.

But of course Europeans were the real Indian givers, repeatedly promising the Indians reservations by treaty and then stealing them back once valuable farmland or minerals were found. The term has thus inadvertently become an acid commentary on the character of its inventors. I think it’s poetic.


Dear Cecil:

Your definition of "Indian giver" is incorrect, biased, and incomplete. Your answer fulfills the stereotypical desire to vent frustration and anger at the "white man," the true "Indian giver." That’s unimaginative and boring, which is typical of contemporary liberals. A definition showing true imagination and sensitivity can be found in the book The Gift by Lewis Hyde, one "white man" who looks at the world with his eyes open. –Tatiana R., Washington, D.C.

Cecil replies:

I like that "eyes open" part, Tatiana. You should try it. Contrary to your evident belief, Hyde’s book strengthens my argument, such as it was. Admittedly I didn’t mention the earliest definition of "Indian gift," namely one made in the expectation that it will be reciprocated. Hyde rectifies this omission. He then launches into a discussion of gift giving in primitive societies, the gist of which is that the free-and-easy tribal method of passing gifts back and forth is superior to the white man’s notion of hoarding the goodies for yourself. I don’t entirely buy that–competitive gift-giving in Indian cultures could be just as silly and destructive as anything the white man was capable of–but it’s not out of line with what I had to say.


Dear Cecil:

You appear to be under the impression that Indian reservations were provided by the United States to Indians in treaties, and that the whites later "took back" the reservations. In fact, in the majority of cases, reservations are areas of the tribes’ own homelands, usually very small by comparison to their original territory, which the Indians kept to themselves, while giving up the balance in the treaties. In legalese, the Indians "reserved to themselves" a portion of their lands, while granting the rest to the government.

While this distinction may seem like nitpicking, it is important, because most non-Indians perceive the special status of Indians tribes and their lands as gifts from the benevolent white father in Washington (at the resentful taxpayer’s expense). In fact, neither their special status, which is sovereignty retained by the tribes, nor their reserved lands are gifts in any sense of the word. –Anthony C., Mill Valley, California

Dear Anthony:

Point well taken. Thanks.


Dear Cecil:

I’m afraid you’ve goofed again. In a recent column you wrote, "The whole thing is so ironic it’s an instant cure for pernicious anemia." I’m surprised you didn’t know that pernicious anemia is caused by a deficiency in a protein called intrinsic factor which carries Vitamin B12 to the ileum, the last segment of the small intestine, where the complex binds to a receptor and is absorbed into the blood. No amount of iron would cure it but a good shot in the arm of B12 would do a lot of good. Would you please set the record straight? –Larry G., junior, Northwestern University Medical School, Evanston, Illinois

Cecil replies:

Go away, kid, you bother me.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

Comment on this Column