As we get ready to celebrate Thanksgiving next week, I thought you might be intrigued by this little piece of cultural history.
When the Puritans first landed in Massachusetts, they discovered an Indian practice that was so strange to them, that they gave it a name: “an Indian gift”. Thomas Hutchinson used this term in the history of the Massachusetts colony he wrote in 1764. Here’s how the immigrants from England discovered this practice:
An Englishman went to an Indian lodge. His hosts, wanting their guest to feel welcome, invited him to share a pipe of tobacco. The pipe was beautiful—carved from a soft red stone and well used. In fact, the pipe was a peace offering that had been given and re-given among the local tribes. Its history, up to that point, was that it stayed in each lodge for a while, and then was given away again. And so the Indians did what was polite among their people—they gave the pipe to their English guest when he left.
The Englishman was delighted by the gift. What a nice thing to send back to the British Museum, he thought! Sometime later, a group from the same native tribe came to visit in his home. To their surprise, the pipe was mounted on the wall above the fireplace. The Indians had expected that he would offer them a smoke and give them the pipe to take back with them as a gesture of good will—just as they had done with him. Instead, the Englishman had taken the pipe out of circulation entirely.
The disconnect between the cultural practices of these two groups was so startling, that the English gave a name to it. An “Indian giver” acted on the belief that a gift was something that should be given away over and over again, not kept. The opposite of that—which might be called “white man keeper”—believed that something valuable should be kept, laid aside in a museum or invested in a permanent collection that has financial value.
We could use this story to talk about how important it is to learn and understand the profound differences between cultures. I hope we will have that conversation. But today, as we gather up our gratitude, let’s think about gifts. There may be something for us to learn from the Indians in this story: that a gift must always move, to keep the spirit of the gift alive. Whether something is returned to the original donor or is passed along to someone else, the way we honor the gifts we have been given is to let them expand our own generosity, and to give our own gifts without fear of them getting used up or lost.
In fact, many cultures believe that a gift that is not used and re-gifted is lost, while a gift that is enjoyed and passed along generates more abundance. This tradition reminds me of some of Jesus’ parables. It reminds me also that it’s a good thing to re-think our cultural traditions from time to time.
As you think about what are grateful for this Thanksgiving, you might ask yourself: What are the gifts that have not yet been passed on, the gifts that might have more life in them if you gave them away again?
With gratitude for you and for this community of learning and faith that we share, Kathi