Sunday, August 21, 2005

Indian Givers

According to the dictionary, an Indian giver is a person who gives something and then asks for it back. Supposedly, the term reflects the belief that Native American Indians expected gifts in return for gifts.

But of course, all around the world, gift-giving often involves some version of the understanding that gifts incur debts. Indeed, that notion is embodied in laws that require elected figures to report gifts. The irony of the term “Indian giver” is that it denigrates Indians for behavior commonly displayed by their conquerors.

For the past nine years, Judge Royce Lamberth has presided over a class-action lawsuit involving 500,000 native Americans seeking unpaid royalties for oil and gas found on Indian lands. The claims extend back to the 1870s, when the government assumed management of Indian lands, with the revenues to be placed in a trust fund.

The Justice Department wants to remove Lamberth. Last year, he found Interior Secretary Gale Norton in contempt of court. He has been very critical of the Interior Department for failing to keep track of how much money the Indians are owed. Last July, he wrote that:

the entire record in this case tells the dreary story of Interior’s degenerate tenure as Trustee-Delegate for the Indian trust, a story shot through with bureaucratic blunders, flubs, goofs and foul-ups, and peppered with scandals, deception, dirty tricks and outright villainy, the end of which is nowhere in sight.*

…Our government still treats native-American Indians as if they were somehow less than deserving of the respect that should be afforded to everyone in a society where all people are supposed to be equal.**

That’s obviously crazy talk. White men wouldn’t give Indians a trust fund and then take it back.