Gifts That Keep Moving

The Working Catholic
Bill Droel


Gifts That Keep Moving

This is the season for gratitude. First up is our national day of Thanksgiving on which we express gratitude to God for our beautiful country and for our relatives, even those who are a tad rowdy at the day’s get together. Thereafter begins three and a half weeks of giving gifts at Christmas parties and at a family reunion or two.

Unfortunately, some essential features of gratitude have been lost over the years. First, a true gift must be given with a generous spirit. Not allowed are feelings like: “If I get him one, then I suppose I have to give her one even though she doesn’t…” Or, “I wish they’d have Christmas only once every ten years so I wouldn’t have to bother with shopping for and wrapping all this junk…” In other words, a true gift must not be the result of any coercion, including subjective feelings of guilt or resentment.

Second and yet at the same time, a gift is different from a monetary trade in that it imposes a non-quantifiable obligation on the recipient. A true gift is implicitly reciprocal and its essence is lost if the gift is not re-gifted.

Take the phrase Indian Giver. It is offensive, like the name of the NFL team in our nation’s capital. But specific to our lesson here about gratitude, our understanding of the phrase is also historically inaccurate.

Those who know something about the beginning of our country know that Thomas Hutchinson (1711-1780) was a wealthy merchant in Massachusetts, loyal to the British occupation. He was perhaps the first to put the phrase Indian Giver in writing. Given his cultural assumptions, Hutchinson and many others thought that Indians take back a gift as soon it is given. Indians, Hutchinson wrote, put gifts in the category of monetary trade in “which an equivalent return is expected.” The next thing you know, Indians will expect the settlers from Europe to give back the country to them.

Anthropologist Lewis Hyde of Kenyon College in Ohio explains that Native Americans had a profound notion of gratitude and that a phrase for someone who abuses a gift might better be Settler Giver.

Hyde sets a scene in his book The Gift (Vintage, 1979). A Puritan visits an Indian lodge. In hospitality the Indians invite the visitor to smoke a peace pipe. Upon leaving the lodge, the Indians give the red stone pipe to the Puritan. He displays it at home for awhile and then, so impressed with its decorative carving and feathers, he sends it to a museum in England. Later, other Indians visit the Puritan settlement and are astonished to learn that not only do the Puritans have no intention of giving them the pipe, but that it is now stagnating in a museum. The custom, not understood by the Puritans, is that every gift contains a spirit of generosity and that gifts circulate from tribe to tribe or house to house in order to symbolize mutuality. From the Indians’ point of view, the Puritans were the stingy, uncivilized ones.

“A cardinal property of the gift,” Hyde says, is that “whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away, not kept.” Given away not given back. “It is better if the gift is not returned [to its original donor] but is given instead to some new, third party,” writes Hyde. In a sense, giving is about passing around some useless thing. The power is in the circle of beneficiaries/givers. The action of the circle is “the container in which the gift moves.” Once a gift is treated like a market commodity, Hyde concludes, it only strengthens the negative spirits of selfish individualism and clannishness.

To be continued….

Droel is editor of INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629), a free newsletter about faith and work.