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What Is an Indian Giver?

By Timiarah A. Camburn
Updated Mar 06, 2024
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The term "Indian giver" is used to refer to a person who gives another person some kind of gift and then either takes it back, requests a reciprocal payment or wishes for the gift to be returned. The gift could be financial, material or in the form of some kind of service. This term, which is used mostly in the United States, is considered offensive by some people.

Initially, an Indian giver might not express that he or she is looking for reciprocation. In fact, the giver often expresses concern and what seems like genuine consideration for others. The recipient is then made to believe that the implied donor is providing the gift out of kindness or the desire to do good things for the benefit of mankind.

In time, however, the giver will let it be known to the receiver that he or she really had an ulterior motive. He or she might do this subtly with "friendly reminders" of the favor or might openly ask for something in return. If he or she does not receive what was requested, the giver will express discontent with the receiver as if he or she has done something wrong. The recipient is often left feeling confused, guilty or angry enough to return the gift.

It is unclear how the term "Indian giver" originated. One theory is that the expression was first used by European settlers in North America. Perhaps when the settlers received assistance and goods from the native Indians, they mistook such things for gifts when they were intended to be items of trade and barter. When the Indians demanded that their items be returned or some kind of service be given back, the settlers might have started using "Indian giver" and "Indian gift" as derogatory terms.

Some people speculate that the Indians could have been attempting to trade the gifts and services in exchange for keeping some of their sacred lands. The settlers might not have made good on their part of the bargain, which could have prompted the Indians to attempt to retrieve their gifts. Some people theorize that it was actually the settlers who were being dishonest and deceitful.

The first known published use of the term "Indian giver" was in 1765 by Thomas Hutchinson in his book The history of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. This term also was cited in 1860 by John Russell Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms. By the early 21st century, its use generally was frowned upon for being politically incorrect.

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Discussion Comments

By anon992159 — On Aug 18, 2015

Perhaps when someone uses the term "Indian Giver" these days, it's meant to try and cause an emotional response from who hears it. The person who uses it in such fashion should check their own motives, because they don't realize the personal cost of the one who gave the gift.

By wavy58 — On Feb 08, 2012

I thought my neighbor was just being nice when she gave me some tulip and hyacinth bulbs to plant in my garden. I didn't know that she intended to harvest them later.

I was delighted when they emerged in the spring and brightened up my lifeless yard with vibrant colors. I was not so happy when I saw my neighbor in my flower garden with shears, chopping off several stems to put in vases in her house.

I asked her what she was doing, and she thanked me for taking care of the bulbs. She also informed me that after they finished blooming, she would be digging them up and taking any offshoots to plant in her garden.

I had no idea that I was supposed to share my garden with her. It looked rather spotty once she cut flowers from different areas.

By lighth0se33 — On Feb 07, 2012

My childhood friend was a total Indian giver. Our mothers would give us a small amount of cash to spend on gifts for each other at Christmas and on birthdays, and my friend would always want what she gave me back.

I think that she always bought something for me that she really wanted for herself. She knew that I would give it to her if she asked, and this was a dirty trick, because I ended up with nothing.

I gladly would have traded gifts with her, but she wanted to keep what I got her, as well. I even asked if I could have her gift if I gave her back mine, and she told me that she wanted them both.

As an adult, I would never put up with this behavior from a friend. As a child, I just wanted her to like me and be happy with me, so I gave my gifts away.

By shell4life — On Feb 07, 2012

@Oceana – That is just awful. So, she acted like your rescuer when you needed money that you didn't even ask her for, yet she expected you to pay it back. You probably could have gotten a loan from a bank just as easily!

This reminds me of the time my cousin gave me her television. I was moving out of my parents' house, and I had basically no appliances. She gave me the TV and told me she had just bought a new one, so logically, I assumed it was a gift.

Years later, her new television quit working, so she asked about the one she had given me. I told her that it still worked, and she asked if she could have it back. Confused, I gave it to her, but she knew that I didn't have another one to replace it with!

By Oceana — On Feb 06, 2012

I have some wealthy relatives who gave me what I thought was a gift, but I found out later that they intended it to be a loan. My husband and I had been trying to pay off a huge hospital bill, but funds were limited, and we were considering declaring bankruptcy. I wasn't going to ask anyone for help, but my dad told his rich sister, who insisted on paying our bill for us.

She told us that if we had declared bankruptcy, we wouldn't be allowed to buy anything on credit for years, and that was no way to live. I told her she didn't have to, but she insisted. At no point did she say it was a loan.

However, six months later, she began asking about our financial situation. When I told her it had improved, she said, “Oh, good. So maybe you can start making payments to me on that money I loaned you?”

By candyquilt — On Feb 06, 2012

@feruze-- I think that Native Americans might have acted this way with European settlers but I don't see anything wrong with it. In some cultures, this is actually how it is.

In Russia for example, when the Soviet Union fell and many goods and services were sparse, people were able to get by thanks to this kind of activity. For example, if someone could bring meat to a family, the family would then do something else or give something to help that person. This way, people were able to get a hold of commodities and services they would not have access to otherwise.

It's very much possible that Native Americans did the same thing. They probably "gifted" things as a means of trade and access to different goods and foods. The European settlers might not have been familiar with this notion and probably came up with the term "Indian giver" for that reason.

By gravois — On Feb 05, 2012

@jonrss - That makes sense and I don't really use this phrase myself. The thing is that the phenomenon of someone giving something and then taking it back is pretty common. It would be helpful to have a word or phrase to describe people like this. Is there an Indian giver synonym I could use?

By jonrss — On Feb 04, 2012

@feruze - I agree. I think this is an unfortunate saying that is probably very disrespectful to Native Americans. I actually thought that this was one of those obliviously offensive old fashioned phrases that no one really used anymore out of respect. Lets hope that this article exists because the meaning of this saying is starting to be forgotten.

By bear78 — On Feb 03, 2012

I've heard this phrase before and have always wondered about the origin of it. I think it's unfortunate that "Indian giver" meaning will always be associated with Native Americans. I don't know what happened in history and I'm sure no one could say for sure who was at fault. But this phrase is forever going to remain associated with Native Americans.

I have two friends with Native American roots and they are both wonderful people who help others without ever expecting anything in return. So when I hear this phrase, I know that it's not really true about them. But people who don't know any Native Americans in person might believe all Native Americans to be this way. And that's not fair at all.

By turquoise — On Feb 03, 2012

My brother is such an Indian giver! He gifted me a photo camera several years ago and a few days later asked for me to pay for it. I paid him but it made me so upset because I thought it was a gift. I also think he asked for more money than the camera was actually worth.

He's also given me other items in the past only to take them back later on! I just hate this habit of his. One would imagine that family members of all people would not expect anything in return for their "gifts" and favors. But I guess not!

It's just his personality and I don't think it will ever change. I don't ever ask or accept gifts from him anymore. Sometimes he'll send me things through my mom who doesn't know to say no. But I've gotten smarter, I never pay him or return the items anymore because what he does is just rude!

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