Indian giver is playground slang for a child who takes back a gift after he or she has bestowed it on someone. The term has its roots in the 18th century when white settlers in North America became confused over Native American systems of trade and barter.
Native Americans, without a system monetary currency, conducted trade via barter. 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. 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.
The term Indian gift first appears in Thomas Hutchinson’s 1765 The History of the Colony of Massachusets Bay:
An Indian gift is a proverbial expression, signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.
Indian giver appears nearly 75 years later in the New-York Mirror of 23 June 1838 in a discussion of 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.)
Some have politically correctly (but historically incorrectly) reinterpreted the term to actually refer to whites. The whites would give things to the Indians, only to take them back; these, according to this reanalysis, were the true Indian givers. While European dealings with Native Americans were often duplicitous, this is not the origin of this term.
(Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition; Proquest Historical Newspapers)
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton