INDIAN GIVING : A PushMePullYou
An old expression, probably very politically incorrect, but brought back to mind by an e-letter I got from www.delanceyplace.com just today. * (see EXCERPT below)
Indian giving, when I was a child, meant that you gave something to someone and then took it back.
“Indian giver” you would label the person who took a gift back from you. It was not an epithet against native Americans in the way we used it, at least not consciously. But a trip to Google asking for the origin of that expression gives any number of opinions on the phrase. Here’s wikipedia’s take: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_giver
Without expecting retaliation, I want to say that probably all the opinions in Google have basis in reality, the Wikipedia summary, speaking of a cultural barter system being the basis, seems to me fair, correct, and very pertinent to the bit from delancey place today. I would like to add that it is my belief that the built-in “owing” that our current western USA type culture includes in “gift giving” is a corrupt system, and I love that the Eskimos have it right. I have spent a lot of time wondering why people measure how much is owed them by others to whom they have given. (“After all I’ve done for him…” , etc.)
Justice seems to be built into humans. Very young children feel they have been abused by life when someone gets something and they do not. It is not very long before the little baby in the high chair is weeping and reaching out for whatever a sibling is being served at the table. Altruism is not a built-in virtue. Survival requires a peck-order and the ones who don’t push to the front, in the chicken house, may actually die for lack of a turn. We are partly blessed with that survivor instinct.
“It isn’t fair!” I have heard plenty of adults saying this about their perceived bad luck. And they are measuring. They are measuring what others are getting that they are not getting equally. I have heard adults say about their own wealth or good fortune that it isn’t fair that everyone doesn’t share in the same way. But what can be done? They give to charitable causes, and make generosity a big matter in their social interactions. (and get a tax break.) The recipients are grateful. (and embarrassed to take charity.) Something about this is not healthy.
We are told in The Book (I use the Bible as mine) that we should give without expectation of return. And we are told we should pay our taxes. (this is the way we share with others less fortunate, ideally.) But we deduct from our taxes when we share this way. If we don’t report it as a deduction, we are getting closer to the Book’s instruction. But we do give ourselves a nice pat on the back. “It makes me feel good,” we say.
I really like how the Eskimo in the quoted story below handles his gift giving protocol. It’s not sentimental, smarmy, or self-aggrandizing. It’s just transactional. It’s what we do here, he explains.
Something like picking up a fly-away paper littering the park. You just bend over, pick it up, and put it in the trash, right? (or not.) Either way, it’s just a transaction, done just because that’s what’s done. Not because you think the hero-hunters are video-ing your virtuous gesture, or because you can claim it proudly to your neighbor. You don’t even have a tantrum when you walk that way the next day and find another piece of paper littering the park.
When did we lose the simplicity of this kind of behavior and mind-set? Why do the Eskimos still do it this way? I want to do it this way and I get all sorts of flak from people who think it isn’t fair to me! Then I start to worry that it isn’t fair to them because they then think they must worry about it being fair to me! So muddled and confusing…
What to conclude? I have not yet figured it out. I just know how I think it should be, and will tend to not keep accounts of favors incoming or outgoing other than to love the people in my life who are dear to me. Just because I think this way doesn’t mean THEY have to agree. That’s a free gift—they have choice. So do I.
Old Swimmer .. Susan
* EXCERPT: In today’s excerpt – the supposedly virtuous act of giving is often instead an act meant to create an obligation, an act whereby the giver measures himself against the receiver and requires a repayment, even if that repayment is gratitude:
“[Here] are the words of an actual hunter-gatherer – an Inuit from Greenland made famous in the Danish writer Peter Freuchen’s Book of the Eskimo. Freuchen tells how one day, after coming home hungry from an unsuccessful walrus-hunting expedition, he found one of the successful hunters dropping off several hundred pounds of meat [for him]. He thanked him profusely. The man objected indignantly:
” ‘Up in our country we are human!’ said the hunter. ‘And since we are human we help each other. We don’t like to hear anybody say thanks for that. What I get today you may get tomorrow. Up here we say that by gifts one makes slaves and by whips one makes dogs.’
“The last line is something of an anthropological classic, and similar state- ments about the refusal to calculate credits and debits can be found through the anthropological literature on egalitarian hunting societies. Rather than seeing himself as human because he could make economic calculations, the hunter insisted that being truly human meant refusing to make such calculations, refusing to measure or remember who had given what to whom, for the precise reason that doing so would inevitably create a world where we began ‘comparing power with power, measuring, calculating’ and reducing each other to slaves or dogs through debt.”
Author: David Graeber
Title: Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Publisher: Melville House