Algonquian-speaking Indians in the Chesapeake Bay and Carolina Sounds regions participated in a gift-exchange economy. Rather than trade or sell goods in exchanges of something for something, as the Europeans did, they gave gifts. Such offerings appeared to involve something for nothing, but they actually required return gifts, presented at a later date. In fact, Indians bore the obligation to give, accept, and reciprocate, and failure to fulfill any part of the transaction might lead to various forms of punishment. Status was announced through particularly elaborate gifts and then gained by acquiring personal debts, as opposed to material wealth. Those participating in the gift economy prized relationships over things, and as a result, the identity of who owed a debt was of far more importance than what was owed. Furthermore, goods were not individually owned in a gift society; they continued to be circulated among the community and often ended up as offerings to the supernatural. As with many indigenous groups in the South Pacific and the Northwest coast of North America, gift exchanges in early Virginia Indian society established communities that were permanently allied and perpetually interdependent through the continual transference of gifts and obligations.
Just as successful gift exchange pulled groups together, failed gift offerings often pushed people apart, resulting in hostilities. Although the rules and consequences of gift economies varied by culture, they followed a general pattern. Failures to give, accept, and reciprocate dissolved the bond between exchange partners and routinely resulted in a separation between the individuals or groups. This abandonment was not immediate, because gift exchange required that a certain amount of time elapse between the initial offering and reciprocation. In other words, it usually took a few weeks for one group to realize it was being spurned. A violent reaction was only warranted when subsequent gifts to rival groups served to humiliate the initially rejected benefactor.
The Europeans' commodity-exchange system has a strikingly different set of rules and motivations than those of the gift economy. Exchanges are something for something and dictated by the perceived value of the objects involved and not the status or relationship of the people who participate. Such transactions prize the acquisition of material goods, not debt. This helps to explain the mindset of the Europeans who settled at Roanoke in the 1580s and at Jamestown twenty years later. Their most important goal—in addition to introducing the Indians to Christianity—was to acquire wealth. Relationships were only a means to an end. For investors in the Virginia Company of London, for instance, profit was the paramount goal.
Catholic missionaries did not behave like other Europeans, however. They were economic anomalies who prized neither debt nor wealth. Because their primary goal was the conversion of nonbelievers, they routinely embraced any type of exchange that aided their divine cause and prohibited those that impeded it. Many Jesuits, in particular, saw the New World as an Eden-like paradise and the Indian population as spiritually pure. They worried that European greed and lust for material gain would contaminate the Indians' souls and undermine their opportunities for Christian salvation. As a result, various Jesuits made a practice of prohibiting trade with the Indian groups they planned to convert while allowing it with other communities that were only helping to facilitate their missions. This double standard helps to explain the derisive term "Jesuitry," coined in the nineteenth century to refer to the "doctrine that the ends justify the means."
Traditional explanations for this violence focus on Don Luís's personal motives, such as revenge, torn loyalties, and embarrassment. But each of these hypotheses fails to explain the initial amicability between the Indians and the Jesuits, and the Indians' two distinct acts of hostility (abandonment and execution). The gift exchange does shed some light, however, by suggesting that separate missionary violations of Indian economic practices immediately preceded each of the adversarial acts. Close examination of the historical records indicates that the missionaries did not make any return offerings to Don Luís's people for their extensive gifts of food and labor during the first few weeks at Ajacán. According to indigenous norms, the punishment for failing to reciprocate is desertion.
Once the Indians left, the clerics then traded their highly valued iron hatchets to neighboring groups. The Jesuits had previously refused to exchange these same goods with Don Luís's people—whom they had hoped to convert to Christianity—for fear they would be spiritually contaminated. Because the Indians of Tsenacomoco during this time participated in a competitive tribute system, the Jesuits unintentionally privileged neighboring groups while, at the same time, diminishing and humiliating Don Luís's people. The Indian punishment for this transgression was death. In The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (1624), John Smith explained that the Indians he encountered in the Chesapeake Bay region "make wars … principally for revendge, so vindictive they be, to be made derision of, and to be insulted."
These savvy indigenous acts were especially apparent in the colonists' interactions with the rival Roanoke and the Chowanoc Indians, two of the strongest groups in the region. For example, when the English failed to compensate the Roanokes for numerous offerings, the Roanokes did not abandon the colonists; instead, they warned them that the Chowanocs were about to attack the English settlement. This was untrue, but Governor Ralph Lane and the colonists took the bait and launched a preemptive attack on the Chowanocs, principal rivals of the Roanokes. The Chowanocs were equally skilled at manipulating the English; they responded to the settlers' unprovoked aggression with gifts and an offer of alliance. The Chowanocs could easily have annihilated the English; instead, they placated the settlers, declared that they and a neighboring group (the Weapemeocs) were servants to the English Crown, and effectively surrounded the Roanokes with English allies and indigenous enemies. Intercultural hostilities erupted months later, resulting in the decapitation of the Roanoke leader, the abandonment of the English settlement, and Chowanoc control of much of the region. The English had twice been effectively used as pawns in the volatile political maneuverings of the different Indian groups against one another.
Just as the Jesuits forbade exchange with intended converts but allowed it with other natives, the English made distinctions between Indian groups. Virginia Company leaders explicitly stated their policy in a message to the governing council in Jamestown: "If you make friendship with any of these [native] nations as you must doe, choose to doe it with those that are farthest from you and enemies unto those amonge whom you dwell, for you shall have the least occasion to have differences with them and by that means a suerer league of amity." Company officials correctly reasoned that conflict was seemingly inevitable between the Jamestown settlers and the closest tribes; what they failed to appreciate was that their ill-advised policy of diminishing those closest to the settlement and regaling those at a distance would make the attacks come even sooner.
Even today's offensive racial epithet "Indian giver" offers insight into past economic practices of American Indians and the colonial legacy of exchange-based hostilities. Over the past four centuries, the term has undergone a significant transformation. Originally, it described the belief that American Indians anticipated a return offering when giving something. This definition coincides with a core tenet of the gift economy that each gift requires a return gift. Later in the 1700s, "Indian giver" had come to mean someone who makes an offering and "expects to receive an equivalent, or to have his gift returned." Individuals participating in a gift economy who have an item offered to them have two alternatives: they may accept the gift and embrace the alliance by reciprocating or refuse the gift and reject the interpersonal bond. The only sequence gift-exchange participants would not expect involves someone accepting a gift and then making no return offering. These actions reflect gift-system duplicity, simultaneously forming and dissolving interpersonal connections. Late in the 1800s, "Indian giver" held a slightly different meaning; it referred to "a repentant giver" who regretted the initial offering. By the twentieth century, the phrase took on its current meaning: "a person who gives something and takes it back."
The meaning of "Indian giver" changed over time from people who made offerings and expected return goods, to people who regretted offerings that they had made, and, finally, to people who took their initial offerings back. Many of the Algonquian-speaking Indian groups in Virginia and elsewhere experienced a microcosm of this linguistic evolution in their dealings with European settlers. The Indians of Tsenacomoco and Ossomocomuck, who participated in an economy based on gift giving, grew frustrated over time with the lack of colonial reciprocation and, as a result, often attempted to secure return items or the original goods offered without settler consent.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Mallios, S. Gift Exchange in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2019, March 18). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Gift_Exchange_in_Early_Virginia_Indian_Society.
- MLA Citation:
Mallios, Seth. "Gift Exchange in Early Virginia Indian Society." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 18 Mar. 2019. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: May 22, 2012 | Last modified: March 18, 2019