Matt Lauer recently joined Kris Jenner in the ranks of celebrities who use derogatory terms toward Native Americans without thinking. He called fellow Today correspondent Meredith Vieira an Indian giver on Monday’s broadcast from the Olympics.
Lauer said jokingly to Vieira, “Don’t be an Indian giver” when she tried to take back a pair of designer underwear from Stella McCartney she handed him. Watch the video here.
Rick Waters, Cherokee, with the American Indian College Fund, explains on DiversityInc.com that the term was coined over the struggle for land when Native Americans “had no concept of land ownership,” and settlers would try to purchase land for trinkets.
The term is also sometimes misinterpreted to refer to white colonists, who “would give things to the Indians, only to take them back,” reports WordOrigins.org. So, where did the term actually come from?
An early reference to it can be found in Thomas Hutchinson’s 1765 book The History of the Province of Massachusetts Bay: “An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.”
But what it boils down to is misunderstandings. The first peoples of this country didn’t have money like the Europeans, they conducted trade using a barter system.
“To an Indian, the giving of gifts was an extension of this system of trade and a gift was expected to be reciprocated with something of equal value. Europeans, upon encountering this practice, misunderstood it, considering it uncouth and impolite,” reports WordOrigins.org. “To them, trade was conducted with money and gifts were freely given with nothing expected in return. So this Native practice got a bad reputation among the white colonists of North America and the term eventually became a playground insult.”
By 1838, evidence that Indian giver had evolved into a playground insult can be found in the New-York Mirror on June 23 in an article discussing school children: “Among them are distinct species of crimes and virtues. I have seen the finger pointed at the Indian giver. (One who gives a present and demands it back again.)”
The term shows up again in 1860 in John Russell Bartlett’s Dictionary of Americanisms: “When an Indian gives any thing, he expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned. This term is applied by children to a child who, after having given away a thing, wishes to have it back again.”
Whatever the terms origins, it’s still a derogatory term and shouldn’t be tossed around in everyday conversation, especially not on the Today show.
When Jenner used it in November 2011 referring to daughter Kim Kardashian’s $2 million ring after splitting from Kris Humphries, the National Congress of American Indians issued a statement calling her use of the term “wrong and hurtful,” and Jenner later apologized for using the term, saying she was “truly sorry.”