“Don’t be an Indian Giver”

725px-Fort_Nez_Perces_Trading_1841One of the most offensive (insulting) phrases that Americans still use today is, “Don’t be an Indian giver.” This refers to the idea that Indians (“Native American” is the term we use most often today) give gifts and then take them back. You may hear children calling their playmates (children they play with) “Indian givers” if they argue and take back toys they’ve shared or traded, and you may even hear the phrase in the media (such as newspapers and TV news) when talking about a divorcing couple where one side wants its expensive gifts back. This phrase is rooted (based) in negative and offensive stereotypes (images or beliefs about an entire group that are usually untrue) about Native Americans and it may have all started with a cultural misunderstanding.

When white explorers (people who travel to a place few have traveled to before) such as Lewis and Clark, two of the first people to travel to what is now the western part of the United States, met Native Americans for the first time, Lewis and Clark were offered gifts. When the explorers, and later the white settlers (people who move to a place where few people live), were given gifts by Native Americans, they may have thought, “Oh, that’s nice. They’re giving me a present.”

However, from the Native American’s point of view, they weren’t just doing something nice to welcome a new visitor. They were doing business, the business of trading. They were bartering, which is when you give something of value to someone in exchange for something of value in return (not money).

For the whites, a gift was a gift. You don’t have to give anything in return, at least not immediately, and personal gift-giving was not mixed with business trading. The two were entirely different things.

To the Native Americans, they were beginning a business transaction, with the expectation that they would get something in return of value. When they did not, they did what any business trader would do: they took back their “gift.”

By doing this, the Native Americans, from the whites’ point of view, were being deceptive (saying something but doing something else). To the Native Americans, the whites were not holding up their end (doing what is expected or required) of the business deal. That’s the cultural misunderstanding a recent National Public Radio story explains is at the root of (underlying; behind) this phrase.

Are you aware of any cultural misunderstandings that have given rise to (started; been the source of) terms or phrases people use today to describe different people or groups?

— Lucy
Image Credit: Fort Nez Perces Trading 1841 from Wikipedia
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24 Responses to “Don’t be an Indian Giver”

  1. Dan says:

    Hey Guys

    Perhaps, one of the best things globalization is doing is destroying all these stereotypes/cliches that, at times are even funny.

    I was looking up at stereotypes about us (Italians) and that was funny.
    It is fun reading stereotypes of Californians as well.

    One of the things I am trying to do is to stop judging. That’s difficult.
    We are so used to judging and labeling everything since we are kids, that is really hard to stop.

    There is nothing wrong in that, our brain does that. Take for instance when we men see a woman; without even knowing that, my mind in a fraction of a second
    rates, judge the subject. Unbelievable! I am working on that trying to stop it, or at least having that under control.

    This website too is a help in getting rid of stereotypes about Americans.

    I do not you guys, but throughout the process of learning a second language, in this case English, I got the chance of looking at the US more closely
    and I can tell you there are not so many differences between many states in the US and Italy.

    I mean, if you take the average family today in Italy is the same as itn the US.

    Both parents work, one or two kids, two cars, everyone looking at his/her smartphone. Same rate of divorced and so on.

    Once, as I was Skyping with this girl from the east coast, she was surprised about our percentage of divorced couples because we have the Catholic church in the house.

    By the way, if you go to mass here the youngest is probably 40 years of age.

    Sorry, I am going too far, I am going back listening to Leslie Gold on Fox News Radio


  2. Myo ko ko says:

    Hi, Lucy
    How do you do?
    I’m just checking your Blog to see if a new post is there.
    I’ll be back tomorrow. Just greeting you for now.
    Lucy, you see, I’m writing now from my bed – tapping on a touch screen.
    It is mid night here in my location. I’m about to go to bed now.

    See u,
    Hey I’m the first one to drop lines here.
    This time I beat Peter on this. 😉

  3. Dan says:

    Me again.

    Sorry Lucy, but as I am playing GTA V, I must say they did a very well job recreating LA

    I was looking with Google’s street view at the Santa Monica pier and it looks exactly like in the game.

    The same with the rest of the city.

    I know, I know, I am 43 and still playing games…..

  4. Aécio Flávio Perim says:

    When I hear to talk about Indians I remember the various tribes of Indians that lived in Brazil when the country was discovered in 1500 by Pedro Alvarez Cabral, a Portuguese who traveled by the seas with sails boats, in truth 13 boats. It is believed that there were 5 million Indians that year. After long years of robbery and slaughter, the Indians were reduced to only about 200 thousands. Can you imagine that? The Brazilian Indians didn’t have defenses against infectious diseases, like flu. Knowing this, Portuguese brought other infectious diseases and caused a massacre on the Indians populations. Today Indian people are living in narrow areas in the forest, not wanting to have contact with whites. This is a black spot on Brazil history.
    Referring to American Indians, I read something about the fight developed against Indians to get their lands and animals they hunted to eat. It is sad to know that. Do you know that when two teams play a game Indians want the match to end in a tie? Like 2-2.
    Aécio from blue, green and yellow beautiful Brazil.
    Do you know when you are doing something bad for anyone? Put in their place and try to feel what they are feeling.

  5. Myo ko ko says:

    You don’t know how much this Blog is meant to me.
    This Blog is a resource for me when it comes to getting a step up into the language acquisition.
    Whenever I log into this Blog, I always have in my mind that “I’m not here just to give my two cents, but to learn the language, as an ESL student.”
    This notion is always dewlling in my mind everytime I’m writing here.

    So Lucy,
    From an ESL student’s point of view, your posts like this is really useful and helpful for me.
    Reading this post, I get two things, the first one is the expreseion ” Don’t be an Indian giver” and the word “barter”.
    More importantly, I can learn the background of the expression or word.
    In my opinion, knowing the background of an expression or a phrase helps ESL students, like me to remember it very well.
    If I come across the expression again in the future I’m sure I’ll remember this blog post, that my teacher Lucy has taught it to me.

    I have many more to tell you regarding what an ESL student feels about this Blog,
    but I’m not that OK to type on a tablet, like mine. It kills my typing sikll.

    Anyway, thanks Lucy for everything, yes everything on this Blog.

    From Myanmar.

  6. Wang says:

    Hi all!

    Am i wrong as thinking we all do hold some grudges on the others, one way or the other, a lot or a bit? like Dan just said above, we are so used to judging people!

    That is the reason why we have the terms/words like: stereotype, cliche, discrimination! I guess 😀

    I have a thought like this and hope that all friends at this sweet-heart house will help me sort it out!

    Had you ever kept asking a friend, both boys or girls, out many times (hereafter I will call the first)? But she/he kept turning you down? For a while, you felt bored and didn’t want to ask the first out again

    Later on, by a beautiful day, your gang had a reunion and another friend in the group suggested you to call the first to see whether or not he feel like being keen on meeting you all and you said: no, it’s typical

    of him to turn us down, so just move on, cross him out the list.

    Does my thought happen to ring a bell with you? do you think it is a slight type of stereotype or just an experience? do you think experience is just an excuse for that cliche? you know, sometimes a wolf appears in

    a sheep’s clothing. And we are just abusing excuses in order to delude ourselves in doing things that are not proper, moral, conscientious…The same like Dan, I’m striving to get over the issue. Wish it would work out


    Thank you for your replying!


  7. Yáskara Paiva says:

    In Brazil, we have an expression that I consider negative: “Indian program” (Programa de Índio). This expression designates a boring, dull or no luxury activity or entertainment. I personally do not like this kind of comparison, especially because an activity can be boring for one person, but not to another.

  8. Dan says:

    Hi Wang,

    That does not happen to me for the simple reason I do not go out and have no friends. As simple as that.

    Not that I am crazy or shy or something. I just am kind of a loner and basic/simple guy.

    To give you a comparison with an animal, I am like a cat.

    Thank you

  9. Dan says:

    Hey Lucy,

    I have heard this one just this morning at the shop’s parking lot.

    There always is this guy selling things to the customers coming out from the store.

    I am not sure where he is from, looks like Marocco or Tunisia

    Anyway, a man was telling him “hey,you have found America here” that, I think, is a stereotype.

    We are used to saying that to someone -usually from another country- who is doing well economically/financially.

    I do not know why we say that, but it is used quite often. Maybe that is related to the period when the Italians left to get to the US and a few of those got rich over there.

    Nowadays, that is no longer true. I guess many Italians are better off than many US citizens despite the economic crisis. But that depends from the region and states.


  10. Aécio Flávio Perim says:

    Yáscara, you’re right. Indian program is an expression used by fools. Only fools believe that. Those who have studyed Indian culture and history will understand better those people who owned America before the whites came. They were the real settlers, not any other people. They lived in harmony with the nature because they didn’t have money and didn’t know the power of commerce. Where do you live, Yáscara? Brazil? Join the club! You are wellcome!
    Aécio from beautiful blue, green and yellow Brazil.
    What do you say about the next sentence? “Ask a silly question and you’ll get a silly answer.” Is it a nice try?
    So long.

  11. Myo ko ko says:

    As far as I can thank of, we Myanmar people have three expressions.
    Ta youte lo shar,
    Ka Lar lo su, and
    Burma lo ma phyone nae`

    Here I write down the phrases as we sound them in our tounge.
    Below are meanings in English:
    Ta youte = Chinese
    lo = as, like
    shar = work and earn (money)
    So the first expression means “Work and earn money like a Chinese”

    The brief background for this expression is that
    Today there are “China Town” as we call them in many countries across the globe.
    Here in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, there is one.
    There is one too in Los Angeles, the home of our teacher Jeff.
    Yes, we know that China has a “big” population, most of them are in middle-class.
    And we also notice that middle-class people living in a particular country “determines” whether their country is rich or poor.
    To put it in another way, the level of income of the middle-class of a nation says if the country is “developed” or “developing.” Chinese know this pretty well and so they work hard and earn money as much as they can wherever they are.
    They always try to be rich by working hard to earn more and more money.
    With the money they earned they invest in business again and become rich.
    Not every Chinese try like that but I’m saying the general trand.
    Seeing Chinese working hard to earn a lot of money, we Myanmar people use the above first expression to encourge each other.

    For the second expression,
    Ka Lar = the Indians (people who come from India and living here in Myanmar)
    lo = as, like
    Su = save (the money that earned, not spending on unnecessary things)

    So the whole phrase means “An Indian don’t spend too much, somewhat frugal in positive way,
    so save your money like an Indian does.”It is especially the case with the (Ka Lar) Indians living here in Myanmar.
    This expression has its own background and even a true-but-bitter story. But I’ll leave it out here to shorten my comment.

    Now the third;
    Burma = we Myanmar people
    lo = as, like
    ma = not
    phyone = spending too much when it is unnecessary.
    So we get the idea of “Don’t spend too much like a Burma does.”
    It is true we Myanmarnese spend too much without taking care anything.
    We work, we earns and we SPEND.

    So Lucy,
    In short, we here use three expressions about Chinese and Indians.
    But with a positive altitude, not about stereotypes.
    You see.


  12. emiliano says:

    Nothing to do with the subject, just write something about OLYMPIC CANDIDATE OF MADRID 2020.

    IT was a story told by my father, many years, my father who was died years ago told us what happened in his Little village too many years ago and it was that one of the neighbors made a trip to the capital of the province.

    Before going to that place, not very far but then hardly anyone was out of town and have to travel by horse, donkey or cart, lots of neighbors wanted him to bring orders from Burgos, the city to which his neighbor was traveling, and the man took note of all and each of the things they were asking him for and saying.
    He was pointing and pointed silently, without comment, and even regaled him with a muffin or bagel, a sausage, etc.., and thus earned more his will, they thought.

    When he returned from the trip all the neighbors that orders had come to his place to pick them up the things they asked for and see how his trip was so rare back then.

    Many of them picked up what he had been told previously without any problems, but others were disappointed to see that nothing had brought from the city despite they asked for and very specifically commissioned. and even with some prior in-kind gifts.

    Very puzzled they were asking about their orders, and always said the same thing to each and every one of those who were not satisfied its mandate.

    “NO MONEY NO whistled”

    And so on to one and all have not previously given the money to him for their request.

    You could lose our money, or die on the trip and keep it answered him.

    It was a risk of yours, he replyied, mine only please you but I was not or nobody was sure you could pay me the buying, once satisfied your desire, and there are no good words or friendship in this, NO MONEY NO whistled, he said.

    Those as we happened to Madrid’s bid to host Olympic Games
    2020 might be good speeches, two more or less, some not appropriate, and even some / s ridiculous to many of us, not all, but NO MONEY NO GAMES ….. NOT, by all means.
    It could be or may even have previous gifts, kind words, etc..
    and they assured us it would be Madrid Olympic venue …..

    credulous we are, of course, but we didn´t know all the truth.
    And do not serve good words, rally, or that some were good presentations. NO, it was plain and simple lack of funds to guarantee a good financial support for the Project, NOT GAMES.
    You can lose the budget, gain nothing, losing still far more invested?. Of course, in this kind of events crematísticamente talking almost nobody wins. Generate more debts, and we can only see what happened to Athens (Greece) 2004 or Montreal (Canada) 1976, both as an example were a real disaster for the city and in the case of Athens for the country.

    Montreal was paying over twenty years accumulated debt.
    Y Madrid?, had been chosen improbable thing …., the debt would have meant to drag the city already.
    Neither speeches or ridiculous, or anything else, MONEY, PASTA or as we like to call it.

    Who would had thought Madrid, based on repeat things are not true and less sell the bear’s skin at a loss before the hunt, often nonsense.
    I do not like ridicule anyone, it’s just easy, it’s what they’ve done some television and radio stations.
    I prefer to say and argue a plausible reason, before and after the event, and of course NO ILLUSIONS OR CREATE FALSE HOPES, no money not a chiflo or not games now…..and ever.

    How easy is to make fun of someone, typical of our style and we see the disastrous results in a european festival of music that year after year we relegated to the last positions in Europe.

    It’s just music, but our presentation and input melody always say it’s good, best, previously unrecognized is to be rubbish and ridicule, and even after not receiving decent scores, it continues to insist that no catch, they europeans do not want us, do not understand, etc.. etc.

    At the festival there any introduction, no scapegoat for absolute and total failure, year after year.

    I am grateful to a reader, EDELVEEIS, your previous comment on the first blog in relation to this event the presentation of Madrid.
    ‘s been promoted to do now this one.
    Thanks friend, more critical to Blog is just and necessary.

    (I refer to my blog not ESL blog friends.)


    Thanks a lot dear Lucy to let me put this one.


  13. Wang says:

    Hi Myo ko ko, it was nice of you to share those expressions here.

    In my country, we have this expression, but this one is nice so i won’t sort it into bad terms for stereotyping. 😀

    ?n quâ?n 5, ngu? quâ?n 3 va? ch?i quâ?n 1

    I will try my best to interpret them. “?n quâ?n 5”, “quâ?n 5” means district 5, “?n” = eat => it should be translated into “eat in district 5”, rather than “eat district 5” though

    You know that, my friends, we can’t eat the territory, the land (joking). According to Myo’s mention, it used to be a district with most Chinese people were in

    And as you may know, Chinese they have a huge history for creating food so eating their food would be the best choice for filling your appetite. BTW, my country was invaded by Chinese

    and they reigned the country for almost 1000 years. So you know, a part of our culture is their culture too

    “Ngu? quâ?n 3”; “ngu?” = sleep, “quâ?n 3” = district 3 => “go sleep in district 3”

    Again, we had another black mark in history as being ruled over 100 years by westerners, I mean the governments, not every whites have that mind set. you know, just like most of Asia’s other countries.

    By the time the whites being here, they not only built infrastructure for governing but also houses as facilities for themselves. And at that time, they were classified as upscale people.

    Therefore, their houses would be the best place for relaxing, for sleeping. You know how a high social status living! everything in their houses seems to be the most comfortable ones, from chairs, to their mattress,


    And “district 1” is the heart of my city, the commercial zone with glassy buildings for office and expensive things for shopping, gorgeous places/clubs for pleasure…so people labeled it as a area for entertaining

    which stands for “ch?i”.

    Hoping that I made it clear for you guys. have a nice day you all


    PS: Hem, I’m wondering where is Emilliano…He is supposed to be here at this time 😀

  14. Henrique says:

    Hi all

    Very interesting post Lucy, it’s good to learning expressions by this way, knowing the background of them And it’s even more important discover stereotypes like the one you just taught us.
    I really like to learning about US culture.

    Hi friends from Brazil Aecio and Yáskara, I know this expression and I thinks that’s not cool too.

    HI Dan how have you been? it’s good to know that you play video games, I like it a lot. Recentily I’ve played less than I like to, less time, studying more English… I’ve played Red Dead Redemption which is an amazing game.
    Do you have a ps3 or xbox? I own a ps3 and if you too and if you want to add my psn user is KratosPE.

  15. Wang says:

    oh, sorry, I didn’t know that the website can’t make it work with marks in my language

    So the expression is : An quan 5, ngu quan 3 va choi quan 1

    BTW, Dan, sometimes loneliness is a best solution but all the time :D. Anyway, as long as you find it comfort you my friend 😀


  16. Dan says:

    Hey Henrique.

    I have got an X.
    Since Rockstar is the developer I like most, I also played Red.

    If you liked that, get GTAV it’s simply amazing. Fun, the map it is huge, the city is beautiful, lots of things to do.
    Keep in mind it’s been rated 18. In theory, it’s a game for adult. How old are you?

    Thanks have fun.

  17. Karl says:

    Some other stereotypes

    Living like God in France = All French enjoy meals and red wine
    (La Dolce Vita) Life, Sweet Life = Italians enjoy social life, they know how to party
    Italians work to live – Germans live to work

  18. emiliano says:

    Myo ko ko, here in Madrid we have also a chinese town or zone, like in Barcelona and every big city in Europe.
    London has its one also, and last time when I was in London I was walking through it.

    There are some thousands of chinese here in Madrid, and they work strong and very much.
    The use to be silence, not having any trouble with other and some time pólice take some of then when they
    are introducing illegaly other people from their country.
    Chine is so big that they have to be really very different one from another.
    I had a good realationship with a Young chinese boy some years ago. He was incredible nice and we were
    like friends despite the difference of age.
    He treatme very respecful but with confidence and told me a long of his problems with his famile, father
    and so forth.
    He likes Spanish girls, but his father and mother SAID TO HIM NOT A SPANISH GIRL.
    Even their parents arrange a weding in China with a gild he didn´t know, have to travel to China and the
    wedding was an absolute disaster.
    I was like his confident, and told me everything.
    We were in touch for four or five years, but after that I have to leave Madrid to live near the sea side
    menwhile I got a new home here in Madrid and lost our contact and friendship.

    Just a pity. Nice boy and interesting talks with him.

    My best to all you dear bkogers.


  19. Henrique says:

    Dan, i’ve watched some videos on youtube and read reviews too… And gta v is a huge game at all, not only the map.

    The next game i’ll propably buy is the last of us, do you kwon this? I think the game of the year this year is going to be chosen among GTA V and The last of us.

    I’m 25 old… But I always played played violent game, even when I was kid, games like Resident evil 1, 2, 3, mortal kombat and so on.

    Have fun With tour new world Los santos 🙂

  20. Lassana says:

    Hi Everyone,

    I did not know about this Indian expression. there are many stereotypes over the world and it’s been like that since hundreds of years, maybe beyond.

    I am not against certain stereotypes, only if they are soft. Certain are very hard, thus certain persons feel offended.

    For example, here in France and maybe in others countries, sometimes when people speak about German citizens, they call them ” Boche ” in reference to the war. I think nowadays this word is not adapted and stereotype too.

    In reverse, I think you can make a joke, for example when we speak about portugese citizens, we call them ” bacalao ” in reference to the fish called ” cod ” in english and ” morue ” in french. This is their nickname, because they greatly enjoy eat this fish that we can find in many of their receipts.

    See you soon Lucy and everybody !


  21. Aécio Flávio Perim says:

    Speaking about Portuguese, once upon a time a Portuguese man came to Brazil and became enchanted by parrots. He wanted one which could speak sentences like he had seen here in Brazil. A Brazilian man, trying to trick the Portuguese, sold him an owl. The Portuguese took the bird and went to Portugal full of happiness. Some years later he came back to Brazil again and looked for the man who had sold him the “parrot”. “Hello! How is the parrot?” asked the Brazilian. “Oh, he doesn’t speak yet but he pay close attention to everything we say. Maybe because of those two big eyes he has.”
    Aecio from beautiful blue, yellow and green Brazil.
    Respect people just like you would like to be respected py them.

  22. Ben says:

    How are you doing,everybody?
    I guess this post about cultural misunderstanding attact us a lot.And it remind me of one fun story,comic dialogue in my country we called.
    I can describe it briefly like:Two persons met for the first time,one is American the other is Chinese.The American said to the Chinese in
    a sincere way:You looked so gorgeous,lady.Hearing this,the Chinese are so happy in her deep heart.But you know,Chinese normally do not express
    the feeling directly in the public,like most of us do not tend to say “I love you,sweetheart”to our lovers as often.So this lady reply to this American in
    a classic Chinese way like,”where?where?”.This phrase actually means that I am so glad for hearing that and thanks a lot from Chinese view.But it confused this Amerecan,
    which made him think that this lady was like,which part of my body is pretty?So he replied immediately that your eyes looked beautiful.Hearing this,the Chinese
    lady was like,where?where?
    And the American confused more and thought in his mind that why she kept asking me this question.With no choice,he praised this lady that your nose looked pretty as well.
    But to his surprise,this lady said to him immediately that where?where?And the talk like this repeated over and over again,maybe more than six times,which nearly drive this
    American crazy and he found that he practically praised all parts of the Chinese lady.Finally he said to this lady in a smart way that I found all parts of your body looked gorgeous,
    any tidy part definitely.Still to his surprise,the lady replied like where?where?
    So I guess this fun conversation happened between the two persons due to the cultural misunderstanding.We Chinese actually think of the phrase the lady said as a modest way
    to express herself while this American regard it as a real question which almost drove him up the wall.
    I guess it is like one person express thankfulness to people.One American probably say It is my pleasure to do that.And one Chinese possibly say Not at all.

  23. Ben says:

    Maybe the lady’s replication like where?where? confused most of you.That actually means that I just looked ordinary.You know,It is a modest way to
    express ourselves when Chinese were praised by others.So if you praise Chinese girls and get the replication like where,its real meaning is thank you
    for saying that.

  24. Giovanni says:

    We have a similar expression, but I don’t think it’s offensive: “Don’t act like an Indian!” which means don’t pretend to not understand what I’m saying!
    According to [Link removed according to ESL Podcast policy. Search for “DIZIONARIO ETIMOLOGICO ONLINE.”] that expression is referred to someone who’s pretending to have just arrived from the Indies and for him everything is new and so he knows nothing about our country.

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