Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Native Terms

A group over on LinkedIn is discussing the term "Indian giver," which still crops up in language. And while there's someone arguing against the time devoted to the discussion, the point is worth discussing.

Here's the posting:

Indian giver is a North American English expression used to describe a person who gives a gift (literal or figurative) and later wants it back, or something equivalent in return.

The term "Indian gift" was first noted in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson, and "Indian giver" was first cited in John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms (1860) as "Indian giver. When an Indian gives any thing, he expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned."

The consensus is that it is based on Native Americans having a distinctly different sense of property ownership as opposed to those of European ancestry. Early European settlers in North America misinterpreted aid and goods they received from Native Americans as "gifts," when in fact they were intended to be offered in trade, as many tribes operated economically by some form of barter system, or a gift economy where reciprocal giving was practiced. It is also theorized that this stereotype may have been coined or exaggerated by the conquering European groups to denigrate the native people as dishonest and thereby justify their conquest.

The phrase is considered a racial stereotype and is often offensive, as it implies that Native Americans commonly practiced this behavior.

I'd not heard it explained this way, so I find it useful.

The use of the word "squaw" gets a lot of attention, though not everyone agrees on its offensiveness.

We'll save the debate over Indian mascot names for another day. Actually, I don't think there's much of a debate: we white folks don't get to decide that we're "honoring" people by using their words and they find it an insult. It's pretty simple.

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