When generosity became a crime

The United States made many efforts to forcibly assimilate Indigenous peoples into Christian and European values, with at least one exception: Generosity. Instead of instilling the value that “It is more blessed to give than receive,” the U.S. government punished Indigenous people for acts of generosity.

The Indigenous practice of “giveaways” raised alarms for settlers, both secular and religious.

“Giving in a sacred way has always been a central part of American Indian cultures,” wrote Joseph Bruchac in his essay Sacred Giving, Sacred Receiving.

“It may be a means of giving thanks, of bringing the people together, of gaining honor, of distributing material goods so that all may survive, of teaching,” wrote Bruchac, who is of Abenaki heritage. “It maintains the balance that is needed to hold a nation together and to keep an individual in the right relationship within him or herself and with the community …”

In 1883, Congress banned “all Native dancing and ceremonies,” including “giveaway” ceremonies such as potlatches, according to Native American Philanthropy. The Code of Indian Offenses gave “Indian agents authority to use force, imprisonment, and the withholding of rations to stop any cultural practices they deem immoral or subversive.”

U.S. Secretary of Interior Henry Teller established rules for the Court of Indian Offenses in 1883. Among its provisions, an Indian who took the property of another “was deemed guilty of an Indian offense.” It didn’t matter if the property “taken” was part of the tribe’s traditions, such as a giveaway.

Guilty parties had to return property to its owner (or equivalent value) and were to be locked up in prison for up to 30 days.

(Oddly, there was never a Code of Settler Offenses that punished settlers for stealing Indigenous lands.)

The clash over giveaways boils down to this.

In 1883, Teller wrote: “The value of property as an agent of civilization ought not to be overlooked. When an Indian acquires property, with a disposition to retain the same, … he has made a step forward in the road to civilization.”

According to Native American Netroots: “The American obsession with private property and the accumulation of wealth was, and often still is, seen as having a mystical power to transform Indians,” yet “Indian cultures were not based on the principles of private property and greed.”

I am reminded of a recent post on how values and laws are embedded in languages.

For example, Naiomi Metallic, Associate Professor at the Schulich School of Law, Dalhousie University, has worked with others to compile a list of Mìgmaq words around resource sharing, and its opposite, stinginess. (The Mìgmaq are a First Nations people in Canada.)

“[W]e found that the word for chief or leader (saqamaw), literally means ‘distributor’ or ‘the one who makes certain that everyone receives his/her fair share of community goods,’” Metallic wrote.

One thought on “When generosity became a crime

  1. Good coverage of the unabashed and biased cruelty during the formation of the United States…. such a horrific misnomer, as we see more clearly today.


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