Some time ago I accepted a comment from an individual using the phrase above, if with, er, misgivings. I see today that the CBC is poised to offer profuse apologies to an Aboriginal complainant after a right-wing commentator named Kevin O’Leary used the term in a recent TV broadcast.
How the expression came to be regarded as an insult is worthy of speculation. Those familiar with Marcel Mauss’ The Gift and his and Bronislaw Malinowsi’s exhaustive descriptions of the Kula ring (Argonauts of the western Pacific, 1922), will know that gifts in some societies are actually forms of exchange. Reciprocation is an essential part of gift-giving (contrary to the blind altruism of the Christian injunction, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”), and gifts such as Kula necklaces (seen above) and armbands are only on loan, circulating in prescribed ways and cementing social relations thereby.
Closer to home, there is the potlatch ceremony. In a gift economy, as opposed to commodity exchange, ownership is ephemeral. With commodity exchange, the object is forever alienated, and the giver becomes the seller.*
Cultural commentator Louis Hyde has pursued the same theme in his The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (1983):
The opposite of “Indian giver” would be something like “white man keeper”… [W]hatever we have been given is supposed to be given away not kept. Or, if it is kept, something of similar value should move in its stead… [T]he gift may be given back to its original donor, but this is not essential… The only essential is this: the gift must always move.
One can see how two incommensurable frames clashed. What should be a compliment is, in a commodity economy, an insult instead. It’s seen as trying to reverse a final transaction: just as purchases are meant to be irreversible, so too is gift-giving. And once pejorative connotations are attached to notions of reciprocity and transient forms of ownership, it’s not hard to understand why First Nations and others would take offence: if a term is intended to be demeaning, it will be received in that spirit.
So I offer my own apology for permitting the comment. But I think it would be a progressive move to rehabilitate the concept of “Indian giving” nonetheless.