The Magic of Giving & Native America


With Christmas just around the corner, my mind goes quite naturally to gift-giving.  With layoffs extant in these united states and the economy in a little bit of trouble, it might be a smiggen tight for the pocketbook this year.  But that doesn’t mean that the spirit of giving doesn’t live in each of our hearts.  Or that it has to take a back seat.  There are other solutions.  Come with me on a journey into Native America and the spirit of giving.  Maybe it will give you some ideas, even if you have a full pocketbook.

In the days of old, before the white man came to this country and influenced the American Indian into other traditions, giving was a point of survival.  No chief could become chief who did not give to the needy and the less well to do.  Often the chief of the tribe was the poorest person in the tribe because he gave away almost all that he had.  However, contrary to a more socialist point of view, this was not pure socialism, because the giving was never regulated and never mandatory.  (Compare that to our income tax system.)  Only the strong, the wise and the kind-hearted could be counted on to give, and it was considered one of the most aspired-to attributes.

Actually, it requires a bit of mind change to grasp the American Indian idea of giving.  If a man attained a higher state or did some great deed, he was not given something by the tribe, but rather, he gave gifts to others.  If a woman attained some desired state (a young girl attaining puberty for instance — or an older woman  attaining praise for her handicraft) she and her relatives worked night and day to give gifts to others.  An example of this might be this:  Say it is your birthday, but instead of you getting gifts on your birthday, you and your relatives would work for months and months in order to have a feast, where one would give to the community in celebration of something one attained.  This was considered the highest honor one might place upon a family member. 

This tradition is still carried on in Native America today.  When a family wishes to honor one of its own, members of the family will work for months and months (sometimes years) to produce goods, not for oneself, but to give away to others — in honor of the family member.  If you ever have attended a pow-wow, you might be struck by the tremendous time spent in give-aways.  It is quite an enriching experience.   And if I might be allow to tell you, a very recent example of this that comes to mind is something that happened to my friend, Patricia, who several years ago had finished a particularly hard course and graduated.  Instead of people bringing her gifts, she sponsored her own give-away and feast, recruiting family to help in the give-away.

The gifts in Native America weren’t wrapped.  Sometimes the gifts were simply in the form of food or clothing or blankets.  Sometimes, in the case of a marriage or some other big event, items such as a tepee were given away (remember Dances With Wolves and the tepee the star of the movie was given?)  When one couldn’t give because one didn’t have the wherewithal to do so, one sometimes still gave what one had by simply giving things that one already had.  That way such articles were kept afloat in the society.  Sometimes one gave the very best thing that he treasured most, especially so if there were a sickness in the family and one wanted to ensure their beloved one’s  recovery.  Sometimes the gift came in the form of service to one’s people.  Certain societies had stringent rules about bundles or other sacred items and most people didn’t want the responsibility of taking care of these items (such as becoming a bundle holder.)  In this case the gift would be in the form of the entire family taking on the responsibility, in order to preserve the spiritual traditions of the people. 

This picture was taken, by the way, at Patricia’s give-away — Patricia is in the middle, although the blond lady’s name is also Pat.  It was considered a real gift of giving if one gave in such a way that the other person didn’t feel they had to return the favor.  This happened to George Catlin in the 1830’s when a young warrior gave back to him a diary that Catlin had lost.  The giving was done in such a way that Catlin was unable to give-back, since he was embarking upon a ship.   There is yet another example of giving by the American Indian comes to us from the Iroquois.  The Iroquois (which was composed of originally 5 tribes and eventually 6) had a system of government that was truly Of the people, For the people, and By the people.  Men served and were never permitted to draw any kind of pay for serving — it was simply considered their duty and their way of giving to the the tribe.  Such service is still in operation today.

I’m not certain if I’ve given you any ideas, but the point is that it doesn’t have to be a material object that one is giving.  (You knew I’d sneak this photo in somewhere, didn’t you?)  When my kids were growing up, they used to give me coupons for Christmas — I still have them to this day — little chores they would do for me upon presentation of the coupon.  Many people still give food as a gift for Christmas, some people give their time to others as a gift.  I guess the point is that one can always give something of themselves to another.  Perhaps it might even be said that this is the most wonderful gift of all.  It might even be said that we as a people might have become too addicted to material wealth and material gift-giving.  Perhaps.  The truth of this I’ll leave you to debate.

I’m probably preaching to the choir here, as the people who come here and blog are some of the most kind-hearted people I have known.  But I still thought you still might appreciate this little tour into the American Indian way of giving.  So how about you?  What is the greatest gift you have ever given?  Received?  And what is it that you would like for Christmas this year?

For my own part, I would like to wish this: That reasons for war would perish from this earth.  I’d like to see more understanding between people take place and I’d like the peace that we wish for each other at this time of year become a reality.  So come on in and let’s chat.  Maybe we can give the gift of sharing our thoughts.  Because I’m putting in extra time on a course of study I’m involved in, I’ll be checking in a lunch time and tonight when I finish with course — Eastern Time.

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KAREN KAY aka GEN BAILEY is the multi-published author of American Indian Historical Romances. She has written for such prestigious publishers as AVON/HarperCollins, Berkley/Penguin/Putnam and Samhain Publishing. KAREN KAY’S great grandmother was Choctaw Indian and Kay is honored to be able to write about the American Indian Culture.
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25 thoughts on “The Magic of Giving & Native America”

  1. Karen what a nice post. We do so much giving at Christmas time but even then, I know I’m in the middle of this now with my children, trying to spend the same amount, figure out what they want and need. The hustle and bustle of fighting crowds and shopping. Even the GIVING isn’t done with the right spirit I’m afraid.

    I had an editor request that, instead of giving her a gift this year, I’d give a donation to a cause I believed in and just send her an email and let her know. She even requested no cards.

    So, I donated money to the Omaha Open Door Mission a homeless shelter. And it was money we don’t usually send in, so it was extra, with her in mind. When I told her, she was just so sweet about it. So genuinely thankful. Like in a way she’d really helped people too, through my donation.

    Anyway, it was a very nice idea and I wish I’d done more of it and asked others to do that for me.
    I might next year. I didn’t get it together fast enough this year.

  2. Kay, what a wonderful post as always. I learn so much from your blogs.

    I admit to loving both giving and receiving gifts. One favorite activity my hubby and I enjoy is buying toys for Toys for Tots since our kids are long grown up.

    I also love to sponsor needy and endangered animals. So far that includes a wolf, a sea turtle, a polar bear, and 3 donkeys through various programs.

  3. Oh, Kay, what a thoughtful blog! I yearn for the days when we used to make special little gifts for loved ones by hand and with a thankful heart. Those meant more than anything. The spirit of giving has changed so much over the decades. Simpler is always better.

    I agree that the gift of one’s time has to be the most rewarding and I don’t do near enough of that. I’m going to change that though.

    The greatest gift I ever received was the gift of love from my late husband. He gave it wholeheartedly and without an expectation of anything in return. He was truly the most amazing man. I’ve never known anyone so unselfish and giving of himself.

    Have a great day. I hope you get your studies wound up and can return home. Good luck!

  4. Terrific blog and especially meaningful at this time of year. I always get so much pleasure from a homemade gift because I know the heart is involved. One of the best presents ever was a throw knitted by a critique partner. Not only did she make one for me but one for my elderly Mom.

  5. I am one who loves to give gifts, in fact I usually have to rein myself in because I just love to pick up things for people. I’m well-known for having a stack on my table or the bureau by my front door and saying, “Take one when you leave.” But I also love to recieve gifts. There’s a Gary Smalley book that talks about what makes us feel loved. With some people it’s time spent, with others it’s a gift. And each person is unique in what makes them feel special and appreciated. I think it’s called The Language of Love.

  6. Hi Kay, your post reminded me of the little treat bags we give out at birthdays and weddings as a thank you for attending. I wonder where that started or is it a remnant of the First Nations society? ie the potlatches of the Pacific Northwest tribes like the Haida, Nootka and Kwakiutl?

    We used to fill an Operation Christmas Child box for each of our kids but in the last couple years, the kids have each taken a box themselves to fill with things they’ve boughten with their own money.

    Through the World Vision gift catalogue, our teen is giving her friend – ‘he’s just a friend, Mom!’ – a donation of 2 hens and a rooster valued at $55 to a family who can use the approx annual outlay of 150 eggs for food and sales.

    We used to send money away for organizations who solicited us via the phone but now we try to keep the money in our community. We buy extra food in the fall so we have lots extra for when people come collecting for the Christmas hampers and food banks.

    My personal giving program is with the children’s goody bags we give away at our church Christmas concert. When I took on the task, we made up a dozen or so paper bags with the usual nuts, candy and orange. Last year, we had kids we never saw throughout the year come to the concert to get their bag. I was told to make 50 bags in this, my 4th year doing it. I go ‘cross border shopping’ and order the little canvas totebags from the Christian dollar store. This year, the re-usable bags will be filled with a harmonica, a bendable toy, a beanie bag lamb, and a candy cane with matching pencil and notebook. Oh yeah…and an oraange. Since I don’t want the church to pay excessive shipping charges, I have the stuff mailed to my ND post office box. Then, it’s a trip down to pick them up and pay the tax to get them back across the border. Since I only submit receipts for the items themselves, the gas, tax, any extras etc is our contribution.

    Then, my kids and I sit around the table and fill the bags. My kids like doing this, I like doing it, and the smiles on the kids faces when they see inside their bags are precious.

  7. Hi, Kay!

    As always, your blogs are a gift to us all. I LOVE the “must include” photo. Warms my heart. No, melts my heart.

    My WIP is about a Quaker hero in the mid-19th century, who works to “undo the causes for war.” I think of you when I think of the Peace Testimony. Thank you so much for sharing the rich Native American heritage and tradition of gift-giving.

    The main present all of our family and extended family is giving this year is No Gifts. I know that might sound like Scrooge, but everyone breathed a sigh of relief the moment we all agreed. The little ones will get something, of course, but the rest of us will cherish time spent together and knowing that we are all there for each other the year round.

    Love and HAPPY HOLIDAYS!

    Joanne Sundell

  8. Hi Mary!

    What a delightful thing for your editor to do. I’m afraid I’m not giving editor gifts this year. Just cards. But at least I’m thinking of her in some way. : )

    Thanks for all you do, Mary.

  9. Dear Linda,

    Your post touched me very greatly. I agree with you on the gift of time and the gift of love. I, too, yearn for the days of old and simplier times. Deep sigh. This technological age has its pluses, but many minuses, I must admit.

    Thanks, Linda.

  10. Hi Patricia,

    Thanks so much for your thoughts and your ideas on gifts. Isn’t it interesting what we consider important? Often it’s not material objects at all — it’s the labor and the effort of love.


  11. Ah, Cheryl, you touched me with your post, also. I, too, love to gift (and receive) and being away from home at this time of year is quite hard. Quite hard.

    Thank goodness I have my bestest friend with me, my kitty Georgie. : )

  12. Hi Anita!

    I loved your post. What a thoughtful and wonderful thing to do at this time of year. Interesting that you have connected the giving with the First Nation’s Society. I wonder if it is a tradition.

    I so love this time of year and I love so much about it. I only wish I were home to share this time of year with my hubby. It’s hard being away from home.

    Thanks, Anita, for sharing your thoughts.

  13. Oh, Joanne, thank you for your very appreciated compliments. I think the agreement not to HAVE to give gifts this year is a terrific gift to give to each other.

    You can still get together and feast and love each other, and without the tinsel-town must-haves of Madison Avenue.

    I think that’s such a well done.

    Have a super Christmas.

  14. Hey Karen,

    I just about had heart failure when I first scrolled onto the site, I didn’t see Adam! Then I scrolled down further and there he was! I should have known you wouldn’t let us down!

    One year, one of the religion teachers at our church helped all the youngsters make up coupons for them to give as gifts. One coupon for Dad good for a car wash. One coupon for Mom to help by washing the dishes. appropriate coupons for
    the rest of the family. The gift of yourself is
    what the young ones learned that year.

    Pat Cochran

  15. woops left this originally on Kate Bridge’s post. Guess she’ll figure it out!

    Hi Karen Kay, from another Karen Kay!

    I knew you were out there….I’m so glad to finally find you. I love that you are a caring and philanthropic person. Must be something in the name, perhaps my tiny bit of Choctaw & Cherokee blood, but I truly see a kindred spirit here. I will look up your books… admit I have not yet read. I must! May your Christmas wish come true!

    Karen L.Kay
    Jackson, MS

  16. Hi Kay,
    Coming in a little late today to say I so enjoyed your blog about giving. I love to give gifts as well and I’ve learned how to be gracious about accepting them. Sometimes, we feel awkward and such, but I’ve learned just to say “thank you so much.”
    We too, are cutting back on Christmas a little, so we may donate to charity. As you know in CA, there are so many who lost homes in the fire, right in our area. And children who have lost everything as well. We’ve asked our kids to “give” whatever they would spend on us, to charity this year. Your blog is so timely and well thought out.
    Happy Holidays!

  17. Hi Pat!

    Your comment made me laugh out loud — yeah — heaven forbid I post without showing that picture.

    I love your cooments, Pat — this is what my kids used to give me, as well. And I so liked the gift. : )

    Have a super day!

  18. Well,hello to another Karen Kay. : )

    Am so glad that you found the site and found me, also. It’ll be fun getting to know each other.

    : )

    Have a super day!

  19. Hi Charlene,

    Thanks for reminding us of those people who lost so much this year. I haven’t been home because of this study course that I’m doing, and so I forgot about the tragedy of those whose homes were lost in the fires.

    What a good idea to give to charity this year. Thanks Charlene.

  20. Well,it’s late here and I get up very early nowadays and so I am signing off now. I want to thank each and every person who stopped by the blog today to talk and to chat and leave comments.

    And I wish you all a very good day tomorrow!

  21. Glad I back tracted on this site or I would’ve missed out. Enjoyed your post on the Native American gift giving! I always love hearing about other cultures. I think the most meaningful gifts you can give is of yourself because it seems like this day it’s a gift just to be able to sit down have have dinner together as a family. Love Ya and have a special Christmas!!!

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