Author: Seth Mallios

professor and chair of anthropology at San Diego State University and former site supervisor of the Jamestown Rediscovery project

Gift Exchange in Early Virginia Indian Society

Algonquian-speaking Virginia Indians during the Late Woodland Period (AD 900–1650) practiced a gift-exchange economy. All Indians were required to give, accept, and, at a later date, reciprocate; failure to do so could lead to punishments of varying kinds. Rather than value the goods being exchanged, Indians valued the relationships of the people exchanging, with participants in the economy collecting personal debts rather than material wealth. In fact, goods were not owned but continuously passed from gift-giver to receiver. This system contrasted sharply with the commodity-exchange system with which Europeans were familiar, and each culture’s unfamiliarity with the other’s economy led to tensions and even violence. In 1571, a baptized Virginia Indian named Don Luís led a party that killed a group of Jesuit missionaries, an act of violence that can be best explained as a response to a violation of gift-exchange protocol. The Jesuits had declined to offer gifts to Don Luís’s people while trading with neighboring groups, an act of humiliation that led to their deaths. At Roanoke, the Indians allowed such slights to pass, instead manipulating the English colonists for their own political advantage. At Jamestown, however, English ignorance of the gift exchange unleashed more violence, which was often symbolic. In one case, the mouths of English corpses were stuffed with bread, a repeated gift of sustenance for which the English had failed to reciprocate. The derisive term “Indian giver,” the meaning of which has changed over time, has come to represent the frustration that resulted from each group’s ignorance of the other’s economic system.