Extreme Virtue 15: Indian Givers

Indian Givers

by Randall Auxier


When I was a kid, my schoolmates used the phrase “indian giver” as a slur against anyone who gave something away but then wanted it back. I probably said it myself. None of us knew any Indians and I don’t know where we got this phrase –probably from television. The stupidity, racism and injustice of this verbal tick needs no further analysis. But the context that creates such slurs is worth pondering. Every image is reversed when you see it in a mirror, and TV of that time was a mirror if ever there was one, reflecting the dominant culture back to itself in two dimensions. When the white-dominated culture tried to grasp the customs of native peoples, and when the values expressed in those customs were strange, the white people overlaid their own values and fears on what they saw. Distortions abounded and spread.

This is a Lakota Giveaway ceremony. The custom is found in many tribes, including some agrarian, herding, and fishing tribes. There is a relationship with material possessions expressed in the ceremonies that cuts across the boundaries of what European culture calls “private property.” The Lakota have “property” in a very strong sense of the word, but the “private” part is a little harder to translate into their traditional ways. John Fire Lame Deer says that a person’s body is probably what he or she “owns” in the strongest sense, but even that is had for a limited time. The reason that some Lakota ceremonies involve cutting off pieces of flesh as a gift is because this is the bodily possession we hold so closely that it causes physical pain to give it away.

So, for instance, a Lakota woman learns her daughter is pregnant. Over the months before the birth, she carves off pieces of her own skin and dries them. It hurts, but so does child bearing, and she is preparing for joy –or for grief. This is an uncertain time. As the birth approaches she finds the perfect gourd, decorates it with the protective symbols and leather wrappings, and she puts her own dried, hardened skin inside the gourd. The baby’s rattle is the grandmother. All her pain, her anticipation, her fears, her hopes, enclosed in that gourd like a baby in the womb. Strong medicine.

We are more than our bodies, but we are at least that much. Lame Deer thought the dominant culture has problems with its most basic possession; we want our bodies to become like plastic:

No smells! Not even good, natural man and woman smell. Take away the smell from under the armpits, from your skin. Rub it out and then spray or dab some nonhuman odor on yourself, something you can spend a lot of money on, ten dollars an ounce, so you know this has to smell good. “B.O.,” bad breath, “Intimate Feminine Odor Spray” –I see it all on TV. Soon you’ll breed people without body openings. I think white people are so afraid of the world they created that they don’t want to see, feel, smell, or hear it.

A few posts back we saw how Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman parted company on the issue of private property, and how Barry Goldwater saw it as the cornerstone of American citizenship. Lame Deer, if I understand him, is saying that we won’t ever understand what property is until we develop a clearer sense of our bodies.

So, the Lakota people may circle up when they are grieving, and they give away their possessions. They might do the same when they celebrate a great joy in their lives. Joy and grief are not so different because in both extremes what is outside of us has found a way into us –a great achievement, a profound loss– and what is in us needs to find a way back out into the world. Joy and grief levitate the body, raise us into the keeping of the world and the circle of life. We are held in suspension above our own lives, and in these moments we see that we don’t need any “stuff.” In fact, we need to be free of it. Stuff has a way of finding its way back into our lives. All people know this, not just Indians, but the dominant culture brings us hoarders, and ministorage rentals, and McMansions, and Wal-Mart, which are all the same thing in different stages of decay.

To open our bodies to the world outside of ourselves, as we do when we eat or breathe in, or procreate, and to bring forth what is within us, to breathe out, to speak, to eliminate our food and drink, these acts of taking and giving are the body living its way through the circles of life. It draws from and contributes to existence, for a time. But in our grieving and our joy, in our hopes and our aspirations we are drawn above our bodies into a wider circle of time and existence –we feel the world and feel it feeling us. You have experienced it. You know what I mean.

The garage sale is a poor substitute for a giveaway, but it’s what we have. We don’t hold garage sales for grief or for joy, but at least we do usually make a party of it, and sometimes it marks major transitions in our lives. We end the day by giving things away, and often spend the money on our friends. When we hold a garage sale to make money, it is done in the wrong spirit. I wonder if there wouldn’t be a sudden and noticeable improvement in our modern lives if garage sales were tied immediately to grief and joy. What if the spreading of our possessions among our neighbors were a way spreading our joy and sharing our grief? Would we want it back?

Here is an item you might find at a garage sale (if you were very lucky). It is Zuni rather than Lakota, but it tells an interesting story, or a story of a story at least, that anyone can appreciate. More on this next.