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A Short History Lesson for Matt Lauer and His Audience

Ray Cook, Opinion Editor
9/14/12

A while ago someone asked me if we should ask for an apology from Matt Lauer for his Indian-giver slight that occurred during one of his programs covering the Olympics. I don't think of it as a slight of racism. It's more complicated than that. What is the true nature of the slight? Where’s the failure?

I see the Huff Post covered that gaffe extensively. That prompted me to do a quick search of at least four online language sites, and they produced similar translations of the offending phrase.

The basic line is that an Indian giver is someone who gives a gift and later wants it back, meaning the gift giver is greedy and rude. Or the Indian giver is someone who gives a gift and wants a gift of equal value in return, in which case the giver is selfish. Some say it could also mean that it was an act that preceded negotiations to get people into the mode of giving—in other words, deception. Lastly, it was the colonists who excelled at giving and then taking back. The giver is not a person of her word. She is unreliable.

Except for the last of the above interpretations, the phrase began as an observation of Indian (Native) behavior. Not understanding the Native art of negotiation and diplomacy, the Colonists believed they were being given gifts—of land, resources, welfare assistance—not realizing the customs of the day among the Native peoples was based on reciprocity, of constant relationship management. Trade was the foundation of diplomacy.

So, it is here that Natives may find the phrase's interpretation and the interpretation's acceptance to be insulting. And that is a mistake of America’s education (including social and citizenship) centers. America does not know their history with this land's first peoples, to the point that insults go unnoticed. Worse, they are not worthy of introspection. The lack of will to explore, understand and embrace the Native reality, historically speaking, is in this case the true gaffe and insult to America’s first icons. Fertile ground for the language of privilege.

That one of America's institutional interpreters of America's events, even America's history, would make such a blunder—and Lauer made it so innocently—illustrates how deep and insidious the amnesia of America runs. His statement, said in fun (in his mind) was in fact an affront to many. To have made such a mistake shows America’s inability to find a place in its history to accommodate the ones who gave the most to America's existence, either by friendship or by force. And in this, we find America to be the Indian giver, selfish in its hunger, unreliable in keeping its agreements and disrespectful to those they don’t understand.

Should Lauer have apologized? Did he see his error and acknowledge it honestly? His management team didn’t. They were contacted by ICTMN columnist and Native actor Sonny Skyhawk, and they said they see no harm and did not think it warranted an apology.

I and many others view the advanced educational institutions Lauer attended also to be part and parcel of his mistake. Their failure to include the true, complete history of Native nations in the history of America's beginning—or failure to examine the near-forced supplying of our vast natural resources for the voracious maintenance of the American Dream—is the ultimate act of an Indian giver: to only take and then forget.

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derrico's picture
The failure to understand "Indian giver" and the reciprocity built into Native societies is one more way in which conventional education (even 'higher education') fails to provide what Philip Deere called 'a proper education.' He asked why college students, who supposedly have access to all the world's knowledge, still have their minds in John Wayne movies.
derrico
curtj's picture
what is more disgusting is our so called leaders who have made it a career to be losers. They refuse to educate themselves on the history of this continent starting with Christopher Columbus, famed lost freebooter, slaver, rapist and mass murderer, who died of syphillis with a gaping hole where his nose used to be. Or educate themselves of the Pilgrims who murdered the Indigenous who saved them from starvation 3 years after the celebrated 1st thanksgiving. Miles Standish and his henchmen lured the chiefs into a blockhouse under the ruse of a meeting and boltlocked the windows and doors, ran them through with swords, shot them and hung the survivors from the same rafters. Our leaders REFUSE to take their cases to the Indigenous Peoples Forum of the United Nations to publicize the policies of colonialism, that Europeans and Americans have invaded and manipulated countries, to enable the theft of natural resources and lands for colonization, with the enslavement, murder and genocide of the Indigenous people. The anglos prop up despot puppet 2 bit dictator regimes who are bribed to keep their people in line with intimidation, terror, kidnappings, rape and murder. the policies of colonialism and its theft, murder and genocide, incenses with rage, the people who see their resources and lands stolen and people terrorized and murdered to accomplish the theft and murder, they do anything in their power to kill as many Americans as possible with "terrorism", quite like the revolutionaries during the American Revolutionary War, when the illegal European immigrant "Colonists" rebelled against the British and their "Hired Mercenary Armies", who weren't called by that catchy phrase name, "Contractors". our leaders are worthless, only worried about how they'll fill their pockets with cash, bribed to sell their peoples resources, with the profits going into their pockets. Sickening. You could refuse to print this, I notice you refuse to print a lot of my posts since it'll madden your corporate sponsors.
curtj
redhaircrow's picture
A very thought-provoking article that cuts to the true heart of the matter without the sensationalism or excess of outrage despite Lauer's management team response, yet still firmly touches an emotional cord. Having read so much on the topic before in similar cases, I think this is one of the best synopsis I've ever come around about the topic of: "To have made such a mistake shows America’s inability to find a place in its history to accommodate the ones who gave the most to America’s existence, either by friendship or by force. And in this, we find America to be the Indian giver, selfish in its hunger, unreliable in keeping its agreements and disrespectful to those they don’t understand." Excellent, excellent article.
redhaircrow
sierra's picture
"Should Lauer have apologized? Did he see his error and acknowledge it honestly? His management team didn’t. They were contacted by ICTMN columnist and Native actor Sonny Skyhawk, and they said they see no harm and did not think it warranted an apology. I and many others view the advanced educational institutions Lauer attended also to be part and parcel of his mistake. Their failure to include the true, complete history of Native nations in the history of America’s beginning—or failure to examine the near-forced supplying of our vast natural resources for the voracious maintenance of the American Dream—is the ultimate act of an Indian giver: to only take and then forget." 'To only take and then forget.' Yes and you know yourself of the rote learning about Ndns that goes on from stereotypes, falsified media images and myths uncritically examined from generation to generation. But could we be overestimating the sophistication of the masses when television has been around for only a few decades? I recall when Obama used the example of his white grandmother and her use of the N word in front of him, he as a youth, showing how ingrained it (racism) could be. But, keep tight control of the media, and feed the masses what those whose interests the highly concentrated mainstream media serves - and maybe the masses and even their educational institutions' staff understanding - of such would be limited. a racist slight made by Lauer and others might then be overrated. In higher learning institutions, they are bombarded with knowledge and established scholars and sources whose works are probably more often than not, simply reiterated; reproduced in alternative words. No plagarism allowed. If the 99% were interested in understanding how and why our society is the way it is, they need to understand that it is now our collective lifeways that are threatened as a whole - given the relatively fast but effective long term planning that has led up to this point (of the wealthy protecting its property against the masses), and what colonization means. And that they are a big part of it given that they have the strength in numbers, their dollars and hard work is used to fund big interests -but the collective safety and security has turned into tighter control via technology a mere decade after 9/11. On the national scale, we have the 13 or 14 families at the top of the pyramid having their hands into everyting - including but not limited to the National Education Association in the U.S.A.? as well as the Canadian Test Learning Center in Canada dictating what our students will be indoctrinated with? Being part of the mainstream way of living and being..
sierra