What Do You Think About Matt Lauer's Use of the Phrase 'Indian Giver'?

Sonny Skyhawk

On Monday morning I, like millions of other viewers, was watching The Today Show’s broadcast from London, site of the 2012 Olympics. I have been completely enthralled by these Olympics, excited about how our American athletes were winning so many gold medals every day. One of my heroes as a boy growing up was Jim Thorpe, who in 1912, one hundred years ago, captivated the world with his performance at the summer Olympics, by winning gold medals for the Decathlon and Pentathlon. The King of Sweden even declared him the greatest athlete in the world. A Native nation, the Sac and Fox of Oklahoma, were deservedly proud that one of their own had accomplished so much and was being recognized on the world stage. Even today, what Jim Thorpe did at those Olympics is recognized as one of the greatest moments for American Indians in modern times.

These memories of my hero have been on my mind as I have enjoyed these Olympic Games—until I heard those ugly words uttered by Matt Lauer:


I was frozen and dumbfounded, as if someone had slapped me in the face. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. I paused and then recalled the countless hours and years I and many of my colleagues had spent, attending diversity meetings in which we discussed and agreed on the need for all cultures to respect each other. We agreed that all humans deserve to be given respect when it has been earned, and that we, American Indians, have earned that respect many times over.

Sonny Skyhawk high school track team

All of that came crashing down when I heard that idiotic phrase. I calmly went to my computer and, after counting to 20 and taking quite a few deep breaths, began to compose a letter of disappointment and astonishment to the President of NBC News, Mr.Steve Capus.

Here is what I wrote:

Dear Steve,

If by chance you have not heard by now, your on-air spokesperson and Today Show lead anchor, Matt Lauer, has stuck his foot in his mouth. On Monday, in patter and back and forth with Meredith Viera, he uttered the unacceptable, demeaning and racist remark: “DON’T BE AN INDIAN GIVER”. Now, admittedly, we have bigger concerns and issues on our diversity plate than to respond to every derogatory crack, but here is my take, since we have not been privy to any admonition efforts emanating from your offices. Our organization, American Indians in Film & Television, have taken the responsibility of monitoring networks and working with them to create a better and mutual understanding of the American Indian. I could go on and educate you as to how this ludicrous phrase came into existence, but I will spare you the insight. The point is, we humbly and kindly ask you for nothing less than an on-air apology for this obvious oversight. I have great admiration for NBC News because your organization has in the past been very diligent about doing just that when it has been brought to your attention. My approach may be humble, but please do not mistake it as permission for inaction on NBC’s part. I am willing to expend considerable effort to see this matter resolved at all levels.

Thank you for your time. I would appreciate your quick response, and your resolve.

I remain, sincerely,

Mr. Sonny Skyhawk, Founder & CEO

American Indians in Film & Television

In one fell swoop, Matt Lauer set back years of what was thought to be a clear path of understanding, respect and recognition. What happens now is up to NBC. Spouting racist innuendo is not a sustainable business model in most corporate fields, and the television network that has been in the basement of ratings, pretty much, until the Olympics, had better get a grip before it again attempts to defile or demean anyone else.

I sometimes find fault in even our own people in the American Indian community for not being willing to speak out when a personality—a Matt Lauer or a Kardashian—uses such inexcusable innuendo in public. People, and especially people who get paid to be in the public eye, need to be held accountable and responsible for what they say, and we as the Native people of what is now called America, need to do just that. We are the ones who need to hold them accountable. If we do not, who will?

Here is what you can do. I have learned over the years, that if you take the time to express your disapproval of something done or said on a major network, that any network chairman will view your letter as the equivalent of 1,000 letters. Your voice is the voice of 1,000 of your people. Your statements do not need to be as long as what I wrote, the important thing is to make yourself and your people heard.

NBCUniversal has an e-mail address for feedback: nbcuniversalviewerfeedback@nbcuni.com

The director of communications for The Today Show is Megan Kopf: (212) 664-6205. This number is one of several listed on the media contacts page for NBC News.

NBCUniversal has a website devoted to diversity; here is the contact page: http://diversity.nbcuni.com/contact.php

Leave a comment on or send a message to The Today Show's Facebook Page.

If you are on Twitter, you have a direct line to NBC News, the Today Show, and Matt Lauer himself. If they are smart, they will listen to the voice of the people. Here are their Twitter feeds:

NBC News: @NBCNews

The Today Show: @todayshow

Matt Lauer: @mlauer

You can also contact your local NBC affiliate.

Let all of them know that a network that defiles a race of people is not your choice for television viewing. I am sure they would more than appreciate hearing from you. If enough people take a stand, point them in the right direction, set them on the path of putting a stop to racial innuendo, and hold them accountable for their actions, it will act as a reminder—and next time they open their mouths, they will remember us.

Aho, pilamaya pelo. (Thank you)

Sonny Skyhawk

Lifetime Advocate and Founder of American Indians in Film & Television

Sonny Skyhawk will be discussing this issue on the radio show Native America Calling on Monday, August 13.

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karenlconner's picture
Submitted by karenlconner on
he all to be SHAME of himself for using such words and he need to go on air and emit his shame!!!!!!

username's picture
Submitted by username on
Should Matt Lauer face consequences? If he had used the term "don't Jew me down" would Matt Lauer had faced consequences? Am I offended? No, I expect nothing less from Matt Lauer or people like him. In fact I am more disappointed by your use of the term "our American" than what Matt Lauer said because it shows me the extent to which Indians have been colonized and brainwashed.

thechief's picture
Submitted by thechief on
I think its kind of funny that the people i have encountered on the rez are probably the least politically correct against all races. At a few of our council meetings crime was blamed on our women having children with nigg*** and wetba***. Yet if somebody says indiangiver all the native columnists jump on it.

nightrain's picture
Submitted by nightrain on
I don't know how old you are Mr. Skyhawk, but I'm nearing 50 yo. I've long ago learned to expect the worst from people, and I'm rarely disappointed. Don't lose sleep over it.

chico2dc's picture
Submitted by chico2dc on
why isnt there a bigger response from the native community? One, I'd like to think Indians are above the whining , but I must look at what really matters.....our population. Jews out number us, Blacks out number us, every immigrant population out numbers the native population. Voting numbers is what matters, I dont care about the PC aspect of it. If the native population was of any consequence a racist remark like Matt Lauer's wouldnt go unchecked.

wolve's picture
Submitted by wolve on
Thecheif made a commemnt that is so racist to the bone. I want to know what was you point to say that the women in your tribe are mixing with ni**as and wet**cks. You sound like you have been colonized yourself. From my understanding when Africans and Native Amearicas first saw each other something spiritual brought these two culters together. You need to wake up.

thechief's picture
Submitted by thechief on
that was my exact point. at tribal council meetings you hear some pretty ignorant things said that are far beyond "indiangiver" yet when somebody has a slightly racist thing said everybody has to jump over it. yet you never hear a columnist write that people on the rez are too racist and should go through cultural sensitivity training. I bet if you ask 90% of indian kids how to say black person, or white person in their native tongue they probably do. Only so we can talk about white or black people in front of them without sounding racist. so, if we can dish it out we should be able to take it. As far as something "spiritual" happening with the race mixing i think that you might be drinking some happy juice.

wolve's picture
Submitted by wolve on
Thecheif I drink water, but i don't understand your point if you are a rasisit then just say it. Africans and Native Americans did mix in one time in American history all over the Americas some tribes more then others. You just a rasist. I love all my Native American brothers sisters. Thecheif you sound worse then the white man. Study your history don't fotget were you come from. You sound white washed. A real native American would not speak like you. I am done no more speaking to you.

osprey43's picture
Submitted by osprey43 on
I agree with your comment, he could care less, as you said I too expect no less from him and his constituents.

deedee's picture
Submitted by deedee on
Matt Lauer's a Knucklehead! Who listens to that foo!! Aside from getting to see the Spears Brothers lately (on T.V.), once their shows end, where r all the Native Ppl at? We're bitching about 1 white man saying stupid stuff, when we sh/ be bitching that T.V. can't Ever bring Us Native Ppls into the Modern Era!!!

sarie's picture
Submitted by sarie on
With a mischievous twinkle in their eyes, which usually meant they were serious about what they were saying AND their sense of humor was fully in play, my father and his uncle sat me down and explained what that, "um, lady," meant by the phrase,"Indian giver," when I was about 7. They said that many people pay no attention to their words' meanings. They hijack words they've heard spoken by another and use them without thinking. They said, "Look out, most people do SOMETHING without thinking, and some people do MOST things without thinking, some are scared to think, and a lot of them energetically ignore their instincts too, because those are too closely tied to conscience, and we can't have THAT going on,"(bigger twinkle, this one mocking & a bit ticked) "or we'd have to do the right thing--at least part of the time. That would NOT be popular! And consider other people??? Sh!!! Someone'll hear you, and it might catch on!" (Laughter)....If you can't change it, you can laugh. Or cry.... I had asked what some lady was talking about,("lady" was the word I had been taught so far, ahem, so those of you who very much ;) prefer "woman" may now apply my 1st paragraph to me.) :) (Disbelief:) "How can you give someone an Indian? Which one? Do they WANT to go with them? Does the Council know? This doesn't sound right." They exchanged a look I understood a couple of years later, with horror, during American History class. They told me my all-time favorite take on the phrase, one that looks from a totally different angle than "history" (as in, "Well, that's HIS story): "Back in the day, during the earliest parts of the (grins) European Invasion, and during Westward Expansion (Invasion, phase two), there used to be meetings and treaties, in between some nasty battles. The men who spoke for the government, (the same guys that had fought so hard not to have to answer or donate to a government that didn't represent them, and their ilk), did not want to share the freedoms they won with people who were in places they wanted to be or who had access to things they wanted to take or destroy. So, they would try to convince the people who were already there, (whom they called Indians because some guy with a boat or 3 was LOST but :) liked to name stuff) that man could own things like the earth itself, and other things that have life, and spirits, like grass, trees, rocks with gold in them, uh-oh, and animals, and that man could rule these things. See, they had more and bigger weapons, and they were a threat to survival in too many ways on too many days, and more of them just kept coming. Ignore people and you won't know what they're up to, and some will NOT be ignored. Many times the men who knew you could not own the earth any more than the sky, had to sign papers anyway, so their families could maybe get a minute or two of peace and temporary safety. These papers would say invaders were GIVING people who DID discover this continent the right to use something on it that a)wasn't theirs, or anyone's, to give, and b)that the People were already using and taking care of with proper respect, not destruction. They were "GIVING" (snicker, eye roll) "INDIANS" something, but it was not a gift, and they would then proceed to take it back, under some greed-based pretext, & quite often with guns and cannons. The guns were aimed at folk just trying to survive a culture that had to control everything. "Control is an illusion. Man cannot really achieve control, but he can and will fool himself about it." "So, Kiddo," they said, "an 'Indian Giver' is someone who 'gives' something they don't intend to let the other person keep, like those soldiers and government men who signed the treaties with so many tribes. THEY were 'Indian Givers' because they 'gave' to 'Indians' falsely. It means, 'anyone who gives to anyone falsely,' and yet it seems to be named after the people who were badly mistreated this way (and, of course, other ways, as that happens whenever people do not care to learn from each other or come to an agreement that works for everyone, just themselves). It LOOKS LIKE it is named after those folk who got 'given' to, so we will remember them with gratitude for their lesson, and be careful who we deal with in life. Those who forget history are doomed to relive it, get blamed for it, and can't learn from it to be better people." That lady flunked history, or more likely, was given a highly innaccurate textbook and an A+, if she thought the "Indian" was the "giver". "An 'Indian' in those days, anyway, did not 'own' land," they said sitting on the split rail fence (Yep, fence.) of Dad's uncle's pony run, "He was not the giver, and he was not the taker. (Although he had to take a lot of cr...ud.) He was the guy, at dozens of campfires, checking out the guy who thought he was in charge of a very large turtle, ;). He was very much bewildered and saddened by this illogic, but kinda had to deal with it." Confusion all around, therefore. How DO you deal with that kid who won't share his toy, but demands yours? I never have figured that kid out, but I suspect it was learned behavior. Probably his family had been watching history on t.v. Pick a continent, any continent. Sigh. My grandmother said never argue with a fool, people won't know the difference, and then how can they count on you? Her grandmother got it from HER grandmother, but they were dealing with a different kind of society. (Hey, when people don't say what they really think, how do you know what you're dealing with? Please, correct me as desired, and I'll take it, :) under advisement.) Look how much constraint we live under, and the huge limits. Like those ponies inside the fence. One jumped out in 1977, by the way. She went down the road where there was no fence, lotsa clover, lucky girl. She stopped biting after that. We can't jump the fence, and words can be fences too, so we paw that ground. We do own now, too, maybe to spare some land or species from harm, or to quit being moved about place(s) at someone else's whim, and protect our families in a way. I like my father and uncles' take on this. When, in real, written or oral history, did it happen the OTHER way? Except Squanto's fish kindsa things--human kindnesses, and return fire as we know, and why, the indigenous guy was not the Giver, in my family's take on this. It was the guy taking stuff back, and time and bias or misunderstanding and presumption played "telephone" with it and changed the perceived meaning. And I'm sticking with that, because that fits with what we know happened. People, the lesson and the humor exist in keeping it real, I say. Ask James and Ernie, Dine' comics and huge promoters of laughing at life, which DOES NOT mean do nothing else. Ask any comic. They get laughs when we can relate. We laugh cuz we need to. So, laugh, my friends, AND stand up for what you believe in--without letting anyone corrode your spirit and resilience. Why let anyone pass on more diseases, (step away from suspicious blankets, yo!) like ulcers, by not seeing the Creator's gift of humor as a favorite song, here.Nothing wrong with healing while you speak up and say, "Hey!". It is often the most ridiculous things that make ME angry, when I'd so much rather laugh, and solve, than get all tangled up in my head or react, ;) in an unplanned manner. In the end, let 'em say what they want. It doesn't change who you are, or your worth one bit. Take a look at how such folk treat each other. You know better. Be grateful for that. I really don't think people think about what the phrase means, OR what the implied insult was in their ill-chosen words,(they didn't notice, it wasn't about them) over breakfast, to the teenager they then blame for 'acting out'. Do NOT grant credibility to jerks. Go swimming instead. Dance. Sing, even badly. No one really hears you when you whine about it, so don't DO that! Smile. (As a way to deflect resentment-why should you have to feel rotten cuz so&so's an idiot?) Say, "Yep, gotta love those treaties! Never sign one of those! Yikes!" and grin, when you hear misinformed Giver-speak. (They won't get it. You will.) Grin, and keep walking. Blame is a bad circle. It makes change unlikely. It's harmony I'm looking for. (I'd better go get some binoculars, huh?) Screenwriters, for one, are taking care of it, and actors. Show, don't tell. It's believable. Give! Kinda simple, so, hard to see as an answer. It can be that smile, or one short history snippet to whet their palate, or a bite of kneel-down bread. Or not. "Mitakuye Oyasin." "We are all related." -Hyemheyosts Storm, quoting his ancestors, and he's right, for good or bad, or what we make of it. ;) Thanks for listening. Good night. :) With respect, Sarie P.S. Jump the fence, find your clover, live well. Now, that gets even!

sarie's picture
Submitted by sarie on
But I just finished editing. It posted first? Wow. How? I didn't push "post". Ooops. The first one was not worded well at all. I hope I caused no offense, through thoughtless wording, the whole point. I think I'd better stay off. It shouldn't send before I revise, if needed. Bye, people. Take care.

marten's picture
Submitted by marten on
Matt Lauer's morning show is in trouble. His ratings are taking a dive. To get to the "Indian Giver" comment. Not enough "Indians" are trying to educate their white brothers and sisters. They don't know that silence implies approval. They probably don't even know what the jews went through because of the silence of their fellowmen, world-wide. Even some jews in show biz are ignorant about the effect of racist behavior. They can make fun of "Indians", and not expect any backlash. It is hubris, which is so unbecoming when their own people suffered in the '30s and the '40s. One would think that would make them more repelled at the notion of making fun of the weaker ethnic peoples. I remember Bill Maher, and his black comedians guests making fun of "Indians", and laughing at any notion of a backlash, because "there's too few of them", or some quite similar comment. Ignorance is worse of all when another ethnic group makes fun of their colored brothers and sisters; especially if these racists have been accorded a welcome into the country of native americans. I'm of the belief that a just God will deal with these ethnics more harshly than He will the white racists. Meanwhile, we Indians have to educate the non-Indians, because racism keeps growing without education to keep it in check.

marten's picture
Submitted by marten on
We shouldn't forget Billy Mills, from South Dakota. He was an Olympic hero during the 1964 Tokyo Olympiad. He was a "no-name", and no one expected much from him, when he entered the 10,000 meter race. He won in one of the biggest upsets in Olympics history. (Nowadays, it's the Africans who dominate long distance races!) If one can rent or purchase the documentary, "Tokyo Olympiad" online, I strongly urge them to do so. This will help educate even "Indians" who have no idea there were indeed Indian heroes. If I could, I'd urge the singers, writers, poets, rappers, etc! to compose works about the accomplishments of Indians, and the evil of stereotyping them. Make the point that it is more evil if perpetrated by other ethnics. Maybe we can help make the world a better place by educating them; God willing!

mswenson's picture
Submitted by mswenson on
Matt Lauer, whom ever he is, but obviously someone in the media's attention, would do well to remember it was the Europeans who were the givers and takers back, the ones who gave treaties, and then welched on the agreement. A beautiful painting for display in this person's office is entitled "Paper That Talks Two Ways, the Treaty Signing". Howard Terpning captures the the gathering and the mood of the assembled and the orator. Perhaps if ML were to contemplate this beautiful piece of art daily, he might be better equipped to speak eloquently without spewing rudeness up the Americans who were here first.

pat cosme's picture
pat cosme
Submitted by pat cosme on
Great letter did he make a public apology. If anything that is ass backwards. In our family if someone simply says "I like that"... we usually offer it to them not to be ever asking for it back... it just makes me sad. And I too love Jim Thorpe.. What an anthlete! and against all those adversities... thanks for putting this out there..