Reprinted from the Wall Street Journal
When we were students, young and poor, a friend of mine would give his family books for Christmas. Library books. He would seek out works well matched to his relatives’ interests, check them out, wrap them up and deposit them beneath the tree, leaving his loved ones the single task of returning them to the library once they had been read.
An Indian giver, some would say, and more correctly so than they might think. Years ago when I first set out to write a book about gift-giving and art, I thought it would be useful to figure out how that phrase came into being. The first recorded use turns out to appear in Thomas Hutchinson’s 1765 history of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the implication being that something odd had happened when the Puritans first met up with Native generosity. “An Indian gift,” one footnote reads, “is a proverbial expression signifying a present for which an equivalent return is expected.” Over two centuries later we still use the phrase, its sense now broadened to refer to anyone who gives a gift with the clear expectation that the recipient should not keep it.
The experiences that Hutchinson’s forebears were trying to name turn out to demonstrate a simple ethic well known in all traditional gift-exchange societies: The recipient of a gift is more its custodian or steward than its owner. “The gift must always move” is the old wisdom, meaning that what we have received from others must eventually be passed along again, either the actual gift itself or something of similar value and meaning. ~read more...