Column: The meaning of ‘giving back’“Giving back” is a phrase that I have been hearing more and more often these days, and think that it is an endearing concept: “giving back.”
“Giving back” is a phrase that I have been hearing more and more often these days, and think that it is an endearing concept: “giving back.”
The basic idea is that we have received much and that in doing for others we are reciprocating. It is a way of repaying in kind, doing good deeds in exchange for good things that we have received.
Here in Onigamiising we see it all the time: retired people tutor children who need reading buddies; school children clean parks and nature trails with their classmates; just tonight I watched a news story about many people of all ages walking to raise funding and awareness for autism programs and resources.
We are an appreciative people who value service; we value generosity of time and resources. We give back.
Although the use of the phrase occasionally comes close to being overused (e.g., a candidate for public office recently told me my vote is needed in order to give that person the opportunity to “give back to the community”), I believe that overall this is a wonderfully positive sign of idealism and the desire to make the world a better place.
Serving others, and giving, is an integral part of Mino-Bimaadiziiwin, the Ojibwe word that means “the living of a good life.” Traditional Ojibwe teachings remind us that we have been given many gifts by the Creator; that these gifts have made our lives rich; and that in our walk along the good path, one important way in which we acknowledge and honor those teachings is through generosity.
Generosity can take many forms, both tangible and intangible. We share things big and small.
The most respected and beloved Ojibwe people are those who are noted for their modesty and giving natures: they are rich in their generosity of spirit, whether they have much in the way of worldly goods or not.
In this context, “giving back” has the same meaning that the tribal tradition of humble generosity has always had.
Some years ago a man I worked with told me a story about his grandmother, an Elder who lived on a reservation up north. She had heard that a neighbor down the road was not feeling well, and so baked a cake and brought it over for a visit to cheer him up. This was more than a mile’s distance over a dirt road, not an easy walk for a small Nokomis who was not in robust health herself.
When some of her adult children heard about it they asked her, “Why didn’t you call us? Somebody would have come to get you; why didn’t you call for a ride?” Her answer was, “That’s what Indians do.”
I think that what the grandmother was teaching was that generosity can be inconvenient and take some sacrifice, but that a Native person who is on the Mino-Bimaadiziiwin road would understand this and do it anyway. And that it is appropriately Indian-ish (an old ‘70s word!) to place your own heart and spirit into service.
In days not so long ago there was no specific Ojibwe word or phrase
for “I love you.” Instead, love for others manifested itself in what one did for them.
Gratitude, generosity, giving back, love: surely there is a connection between that showing of love, the elderly Ojibwe grandmother’s telling her younger relatives, “that’s what Indians do,” and today’s concept of “giving back” to the community, the tribe,
That gentle and considerate way of regarding one’s fellow man continues: the words may not always be directly and specifically said, but perhaps they may not always be needed.
Monthly columnist Linda LeGarde Grover is a professor of American Indian studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth, an award-winning writer and a member of the Bois Forte Band of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.