Native American Culture of Giving

Within Native American communities, giving has often been an expectation of individuals as a means of sharing and survival. In the last several decades, Native Americans have struggled with gaining economic stability and preserving their culture simultaneously.


A Gift Economy is one where status is given to individuals based on what they give to others as opposed to a commodity or exchange economy where status is given to those individuals who have the most (Pinchot 1999).

Potlatch is a Chinook adaptation of the Nootka word patshatl, which means “giving.” A Potlatch celebrates the giving and distribution of a portion of wealth among fellow tribal members. These ceremonies also serve to mark transfers of power between generations, to memorialize important chieftains, and to celebrate the social initiations of heirs (Hanson 1997).

Barter is a form of trading where goods or services are exchanged for a certain amount of other goods and services. No money is used in a barter transaction as bartering typically exists in cultures that have an unstable system of currency or for which there is no monetary system. (Wikipedia).

Historic Roots

History and survival play key roles in the way Native Americans view institutionalized philanthropy. Many ethnic groups that make up modern American culture have traditionally viewed giving in terms of recognition, power, or prestige. However, for most Native Americans, giving is a way to honor future generations and clan members. There are many forms of giving in Native American culture. Two rather well known examples are those of barter and potlatch, both of which demonstrate the Native American philosophy that giving should be mutual and equal by all parties (Millett and Orosz 2002).

Historically, the definitions of giving and values of wealth were so different between Native American and European American culture that there was a gap in understanding and often a barrier of exchange and trust between the cultures. Until European Americans became the dominant culture in North America, Native Americans existed as hunters and gatherers, surviving by taking what they needed from the world and interacting with one another in a gift economy that relied on an understanding of trade, barter, and wealth distribution. European Americans relied on a commodity economy and placed a stronger emphasis on the accumulation of wealth and goods.


Native American Philanthropy is guided by the customs and traditions of the indigenous culture not only of Native Americans as a whole, but of each individual Native American tribe as well. Native cultures are based on the philosophy that humans are the stewards of the natural world, and not consumers of the world’s resources. Unlike European American values, "wealth" in Native American culture is not measured by net worth, but rather by a combination of spiritual qualities, material goods, and behavior. Leaders are selected for their ability to take care of the tribe by sharing their wisdom and wealth (Millett and Orosz 2002).

Institutional philanthropy as defined by European Americans reflects only a part of the circle of giving in Native communities; receiving gifts completes the circle. The stereotype of poor, disadvantaged Native Americans is becoming outdated and is damaging to the perception of Native Americans as a minority group. Native Americans are historically generous but view giving in a very different way. Understanding those cultural definitions is key in bridging the gap of understanding. It is not new to share and exchange; it is new to institutionalize and standardize these activities (Berry n.d.).

Native Americans have had to struggle to maintain their autonomy within the mainstream culture. Because their resources have been taken from them and because modern North American lifestyles are not conducive to living the lifestyles Native American culture historically has desired, Native Americans have had few opportunities to improve their economic standing. The accumulation of wealth, which is contradictory to their culture, has become a new necessity for survival.

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Because Native Americans have historically been considered incapable of giving either through financial means or because of a lack of understanding of the European American mainstream culture of giving, Native American communities have been slow to give funds outside of their own culture. Furthermore, the attempts by European Americans to assimilate Native Americans into their culture has destroyed and caused misinterpretations of many Native American tribal giving customs.

Within Native American communities, giving has often been an expectation of individuals as a means of sharing and survival. If one person had more than what they needed to survive, it was a cultural expectation that they would share this bounty with their tribe. In the last several decades, Native Americans have struggled with gaining economic stability and preserving their culture simultaneously (Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians).

European Americans have always had much to gain from the understanding of a gift economy and from the giving traditions of Native Americans. Institutional Philanthropy assumes a plan, strategy and cultivation of a donor or group whereas Native American tribal giving assumes that all needs are met through the distribution of funds from those in power or in a position of wealth. Ironically, these two concepts are not as far removed when the root of giving is explored. At the heart of Institutional Philanthropy there is the assumption that the wealthy still feel an obligation to support their communities (Hanson 1997).

Key Related Ideas

Indian Giver is a often seen as a negative slang expression meaning that someone gives a gift and then takes it back (Wikepedia). A more correct interpretation of an “Indian giver” is one who makes a gift and expects to get something back, even if it is the same gift. The purpose of this form of giving is to keep the gift in circulation demonstrating a commitment to sharing (Boice 2005).

Cultural Assimilation is the process by which minority groups are absorbed into the larger, mainstream culture. This concept presumes that the minority group will eventually lose the characteristics which make it unique from the majority culture (Wikipedia).

Indigenous People commonly have a culture reliant on living off the land in predominantly non-urban areas. Indigenous peoples are historically and presently concerned with a variety of issues such as preservation of their culture, the environment, ownership of natural resources, land rights, poverty, health, and discrimination (Wikipedia).

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Rebecca Adamson (1950- ), is a Cherokee activist and the Founder and President of First Nations Development Institute, developed in 1980. The organization’s mission is to enable Native Americans and other indigenous peoples to become economically self-sufficient while maintaining their cultural values (The Heroism Project).

  • Black Elk (1863-1950), was a Lakota Chief and through dictation to John Neihardt, was the author of Black Elk Speaks in 1932. A converted Catholic and philosopher, Black Elk warned the Lakota people not to cross over into total assimilation and acculturation, in fear that they would lose their rich traditions and cease to exist as a unique nation (Houghton Mifflin).