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.

Gift Exchange

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 Portraictuer of Captayne John Smith

European explorers were familiar primarily with their own continent’s burgeoning market-based system of trade. As a result, they were often confounded by Indian gift economies. For example, in 1492 Christopher Columbus observed that the natives on Hispaniola “bartered like idiots.” They repeatedly gave “objects of great value for trifles, and content themselves with very little or nothing in return.” Likewise, Gabriel Archer asserted in 1607 that the Indians of Tsenacomoco had “no respect of profit.” These actions, beliefs, and priorities were perfectly normal within a gift economy, however, and John Smith was exceptional in his appreciation of that fact. In A True Relation (1608), he succinctly explained the native system, writing that “we [the English] freely should give [to] him [Powhatan], and [then] he liberally would requite us.” Smith also appreciated the effectiveness of such exchanges. In perhaps the most insightful historical observation of the Virginia Indian gift economy, Smith declared to the paramount chief Powhatan, “by the gifts you bestowe on me you gaine more then by trade.”

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.”


The Killing of Father Segura and His Companions

Ignorance and misunderstanding of the Indian gift-exchange system sometimes led to violence. In 1561, for instance, a Virginia Indian named Paquiquineo accompanied the Spanish to Europe and then Mexico City, where he was baptized and given the name Don Luís de Velasco. In September 1570, with a small team of Jesuit missionaries, Don Luís returned to Ajacán, as he called the area that includes present-day Virginia. Although the local Indian population was seemingly thrilled at the return of Don Luís and the two groups maintained friendly relations for the first few weeks, Don Luís ultimately left the missionaries and returned to a village in the interior. The clerics endured for months by trading for food with other native groups until February 1571, when Don Luís and a few other Indians returned to Ajacán under the false pretense of constructing a mission and killed the Jesuits.

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.”


Anglorum in Virginiam aduentus (The arrival of the Englishemen [sic] in Virginia)

England attempted to establish settlements at Roanoke Island in 1585 and 1587. Although neither attempt succeeded and the English colonists repeatedly violated the most basic rules of the gift system, the sequence of exchange violations and hostilities did not follow the pattern established at Ajacán and seen later at Jamestown. In fact, the Algonquian-speaking Indians of Ossomocomuck, as they called their land in the present-day Carolina Sounds, seemingly went out of their way on multiple occasions to ignore English slights in order to manipulate the colonists and gain political power in the region. Various groups repeatedly treated the English settlers as a prized ally and then baited the colonists into attacking their enemies. Unlike the Indians in the Chesapeake Bay region, most of whom paid tribute to the paramount chief Powhatan, the Indians in the Carolina Sounds were more politically independent and frequently at odds with one another. Thus, their actions reflected historical moments when politics trumped socioeconomics. Sometimes it was better for the individual tribes to ignore various gift-exchange slights, especially when a tactical advantage could be gained at the expense of neighboring rivals.

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.


Trading with the Indians

The events at Jamestown in the first few years of colonization were eerily similar to those at Ajacán. English settlers received an extensive series of gifts from the group living closest to their outpost on the James River, the Paspaheghs. In fact, the Paspaheghs even gave the English the land at Jamestown for their settlement. The colonists failed to reciprocate, however, and the Paspaheghs deserted the immediate area. When the English then made repeated offerings to the Weyanocks, a neighboring group with whom the Paspaheghs frequently battled and competed, the Paspaheghs were incited to strike. This economic slight was made even more obvious when the English proceeded to respond to many other local groups (among then the Pamunkeys, the Arrohatecks, the Kecoughtans, and the Appamattucks) with lavish reciprocation. The Paspahegh attack nearly annihilated the English colony.

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.

“Indian Giving”

Nobilis Matrona Pomeioocenfis (A Noble Married Woman of Pomeiooc)

Gift exchange in early Virginia Indian society was first and foremost about relationships. Missionaries, colonists, and merchants often failed to realize that Indian offerings were symbols that reflected bonds between individual people and larger groups. Native actions were also often highly symbolic; even the violence Indians perpetrated frequently had multiple levels of meaning. For example, Don Luís killed the Jesuits with the missionaries’ own hatchets (the same items that the clerics had refused to exchange with them and ultimately had traded with other native groups). In 1609, Virginia Indians killed colonists who stole food from them and then stuffed the mouths of the deceased with bread. And in the eighteenth century, Indians from the Great Lakes region responded to the theft of their land by European colonists by killing these transgressors and then filling their victims’ mouths with dirt. These acts were symbolic and violent; they succeeded in being both lethal and sending a corrective message that echoed rules of gift-based reciprocity.

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.

  • Gleach, Frederic W. Powhatan’s World and Colonial Virginia: A Conflict of Cultures. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1997.
  • Horn, James, ed. Capt. John Smith: Writings with Other Narratives of Roanoke, Jamestown, and the First English Settlement of America. New York: Library of America, 2007.
  • Mallios, Seth. The Deadly Politics of Giving: Exchange and Violence at Ajacan, Roanoke, and Jamestown. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006.
  • Oberg, Michael Leroy. The Head in Edward Nugent’s Hand: Roanoke’s Forgotten Indians. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008.
  • Rountree, Helen C. Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.
APA Citation:
Mallios, Seth. Gift Exchange in Early Virginia Indian Society. (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/gift-exchange-in-early-virginia-indian-society.
MLA Citation:
Mallios, Seth. "Gift Exchange in Early Virginia Indian Society" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 04 Mar. 2021
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