Indigenous Trade: The Southwest

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Indigenous Trade: The Southwest


Southwestern Tribes. At the time of first contact, trade among the Indians of the Southwest was similar to that practiced in the rest of North America. Like their eastern counterparts, both the sedentary Pueblo Indians and nearby semisedentary tribes such as the Navajo reciprocally exchanged gifts to cement personal and political relationships. In several important ways, though, trade in the Southwest differed from commercial interactions in the eastern part of North America. First, early southwestern Indians exchanged goods with Mesoamerican civilizations in the pansouthwest commercial network to a far greater degree than they traded with other North American Indians. More important, sedentary pueblo-dwelling Indians such as the Tiwas and semisedentary plains tribes such as the Apaches developed a complementary trading relationship in the centuries prior to the European invasion that was far more complex than the eastern Indians reciprocity-based commerce.

Anasazi. Around the end of the first millennium a.d., Anasazi Indians living in the Southwest had become fully integrated into the pansouthwest trade network. They supplied highly valued turquoise and, to a lesser extent, obsidian to tribes located along the Gulf of California in exchange for luxury goods such as bracelets and pendants fashioned from Pacific shells. They also traded turquoise with Mesoamerican civilizations such as the Toltec Empire for high-prestige items such as macaw feathers, ornaments, and pottery. This intercourse had important consequences because it helped spread Mesoamerican pottery styles, religious customs, crops, and agricultural techniques to North America.

New Avenues. After the pansouthwest commercial system collapsed between 1200 and 1400, the pueblo-dwelling Indians of the Rio Grande valley began to trade with semisedentary plains tribes such as the Apache. Pueblo tribes such as the Tewas exchanged surplus corn, cotton textiles, ceramics, and turquoise for the Plains Indians tallow, salt, buffalo meat, and hides. This new commercial intercourse was based, in part, on the same system of reciprocal gift giving that governed trade among the Indians of eastern North America. Commerce between Pueblo and Plains tribes was substantially more complex than reciprocity-based trade, however, because it involved the complementary exchange of surplus goods. It thus allowed the Plains tribes and, to a greater extent, the Pueblo Indians to shift from a simple, subsistence-based economic system to a more complicated one based on specialized production.

Pueblo Indians. Trade among the Pueblo tribes was also becoming more and more specialized in the centuries prior to European contact. Tiwa and Northern Tewa provided fibrolite used in the manufacture of ritual items and axes; Piro and Southern Tiwa exchanged malachite; Tanos Indians supplied turquoise and lead; and Tewas traded obsidian and pedernal chert. Archaeological evidence suggests, meanwhile, that the Pecos Indians had a monopoly in the production of leather goods.


Elizabeth H. John, Storms Brewed in Other Mens Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish and French in the Southwest, 15401795 (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1975);

Alfonso Ortiz, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, volumes 9 and 10: Southwest (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1979, 1983);

David R. Wilcox and W. Bruce Masse, eds., The Protohistoric Period in the North American Southwest, AD 14501700 (Tempe: Arizona State University Research Papers, 1981).

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