I learned the phrase around 1977, when I was still a girl but my older sisters were rock stars. I loved watching them get ready to go out on Friday and Saturday nights, running back and forth between each other’s closets, changing clothes, and—better yet—I loved when they sat at the vanity our dad had built for them in the upstairs bathroom, and did their makeup. I would sit on the toilet and watch one or both of them leaning into the mirror, sometimes getting up and putting their faces right up close to the mirror. I remember the brightness of the rouge on their cheeks and the purpose in their movements.
One time I was sitting on one sister’s bed and her bare breast happened to end up about twelve inches from my eyes. I quickly saw an opportunity.
“Hey, can I touch that?” I said.
My sister gave me a look, something between “why the hell would you want to do that” and “you are growing up so fast”.
“Sure,” she said, so I reached out the pointer finger on my right hand and gently pressed it into the sponginess of my sister’s breast.
“Weird,” I said, sitting back on the bed. “I’ll never have those.”
“Oh yes you will,” my sister said.
So in this environment of older sisters running around the upstairs of a house in Bemidji, Minnesota, in 1977, it was not uncommon to hear “Indian giver!” being shouted on occasion, following a sisterly conversation such as:
“Take off that shirt! It’s mine!”
“No it’s not! You gave it to me!”
“No I didn’t! I just borrowed it you. Give it back.”
The offending sister would scowl, but she would remove the garment in question and throw it at the other sister, muttering, “Indian giver.”
I came to understand that the term referred to when somebody gives you something and says you can keep it, but then asks for it back. I assumed Indians did this all the time, but had no idea why. I couldn’t understand why my sisters would want to do that either. It seemed like such a cruel exchange.
It was not a phrase that lasted long in my vocabulary. My dad had said to us the year before when we drove through Bemidji for the first time: “Don’t stare at them. Don’t stare out the windows. They’re people who live here just like you. They’ll be in your schools.” It was something like that. And he was right, because they were everywhere.
I learned that “Indian giver” was an insult, so—the perfect nine-year-old I was (“You were a pure energy source,” my brother has said)—I decided never to say it. It wouldn’t happen very often that someone would give me something as a present and then ask for it back anyway. The world didn’t work that way.
“Indian giving” was a fluke and must be something local.
Years fly by and I’m not nine anymore, but that plus thirty and a tiny bit more. It’s Halloween night or St. Patrick’s Day or Cinco de Mayo, some holiday I don’t celebrate anymore. I’m sitting in my recliner under a blanket with my kitties cuddled all around me. We’re watching a murder-mystery show, sharing sorbet.
I’m a little sad inside because I won’t be with them tomorrow because my niece has invited me to stay overnight at her new house in Tucson. I’m so excited! I can’t wait to see her place and just be with her!
Then the phone rings: My niece spends fifteen minutes building up to the main idea that to be perfectly honest, it would be sooo much better if I could come at a different time. Did I mind? I could still come if I wanted to.
I smile a smile I haven’t made in awhile, remembering my sisters fighting over a shirt. “Indian inviter,” I say to my niece.
She is old enough to get the joke, and we laugh.
A few more years go by. I’m almost napping when the sister who let me touch her breast texts me: “I’ll call ya in a few.”
“Otay,” I text back. I get up from the couch. I jump up and down to get some blood flowing. I love this sister like a child. We always say that she and I were cut from the same cloth. Even though we live totally different lives, she was always the one I got close to picking in my childhood nightmare of terrorists invading our house and making me select one member of my family to live, one out of the seven.
I jog back and forth between my cell phone and my home phone, wondering which one my sissy will call me on. It’s perfect timing because I have some quiet things I can do while we talk. Plus, I love my sister’s voice.
The home phone rings, which is usual for us, but when I try to answer, my sister’s voice cuts out. It keeps cutting out. Eventually she texts: “Sry, lost service.”
My heart sinks a little. My eyes think about tears. I really wanted to talk to her. I’m so weak when it comes to her. Disappointment is selfish and useless though, so I decide to do some of my quiet things anyway. “Indian caller,” I text to my sister a few minutes later, accusing but funny.
“LOL,” she writes back. “I will call you tomorrow.” I know she will and that there will be no Indian-giving about it.
My inner soldier lays down my defenses, and beckons me back from wherever I've been.