A while ago someone asked me if we should ask for an apology from Matt Lauer for his Indian-giver slight that occurred during one of his programs covering the Olympics. I don’t think of it as a slight of racism. It’s more complicated than that. What is the true nature of the slight? Where’s the failure?
I see the Huff Post covered that gaffe extensively. That prompted me to do a quick search of at least four online language sites, and they produced similar translations of the offending phrase.
The basic line is that an Indian giver is someone who gives a gift and later wants it back, meaning the gift giver is greedy and rude. Or the Indian giver is someone who gives a gift and wants a gift of equal value in return, in which case the giver is selfish. Some say it could also mean that it was an act that preceded negotiations to get people into the mode of giving—in other words, deception. Lastly, it was the colonists who excelled at giving and then taking back. The giver is not a person of her word. She is unreliable.
Except for the last of the above interpretations, the phrase began as an observation of Indian (Native) behavior. Not understanding the Native art of negotiation and diplomacy, the Colonists believed they were being given gifts—of land, resources, welfare assistance—not realizing the customs of the day among the Native peoples was based on reciprocity, of constant relationship management. Trade was the foundation of diplomacy.
So, it is here that Natives may find the phrase’s interpretation and the interpretation’s acceptance to be insulting. And that is a mistake of America’s education (including social and citizenship) centers. America does not know their history with this land’s first peoples, to the point that insults go unnoticed. Worse, they are not worthy of introspection. The lack of will to explore, understand and embrace the Native reality, historically speaking, is in this case the true gaffe and insult to America’s first icons. Fertile ground for the language of privilege.
That one of America’s institutional interpreters of America’s events, even America’s history, would make such a blunder—and Lauer made it so innocently—illustrates how deep and insidious the amnesia of America runs. His statement, said in fun (in his mind) was in fact an affront to many. To have made such a mistake shows America’s inability to find a place in its history to accommodate the ones who gave the most to America’s existence, either by friendship or by force. And in this, we find America to be the Indian giver, selfish in its hunger, unreliable in keeping its agreements and disrespectful to those they don’t understand.
Should Lauer have apologized? Did he see his error and acknowledge it honestly? His management team didn’t. They were contacted by ICTMN columnist and Native actor Sonny Skyhawk, and they said they see no harm and did not think it warranted an apology.
I and many others view the advanced educational institutions Lauer attended also to be part and parcel of his mistake. Their failure to include the true, complete history of Native nations in the history of America’s beginning—or failure to examine the near-forced supplying of our vast natural resources for the voracious maintenance of the American Dream—is the ultimate act of an Indian giver: to only take and then forget.