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Native American Economies: Adaptation and Security

Native American Economies: Adaptation and Security


Diversity in Indian Country. Many modern Americans fail to realize the diversity of native economies in pre-Columbian North America. Some may think only of Squanto helping the Pilgrims or Plains Indians hunting bison on horseback. On the contrary, before and after contact with Europeans and Anglo-Americans, Indians throughout the Trans-Appalachian West subsisted on a wide variety of resources. Despite the differences, though, indigenous nations tended to adapt to the local environment to provide subsistence security. They used the land in order to survive, and many refused to rely too heavily on any one resource because such actions often led to starvation.

Agriculture. Because the geography of the Trans-Appalachian West is so varied, Indian economies differed dramatically according to local soils and climate. Still, about one-half of all groups relied regularly on farming, which provided from one quarter to three quarters of a typical communitys dietary needs. Often Indians cleared a certain area in order to plant fields and then later cultivated another stretch to allow the first tract to regain its nutrients. Further, a family would generally have usufruct rights (giving them the right to use, not possess, the land) over a given patch of land to allow them to grow their own crops. Among those groups engaged in agriculture (except some of those in the Southwest), the women usually did much of the farming, to the disgust of Anglos who saw it as a mans job. All told, American Indians grew at least eighty-six different kinds of plants, with maize, beans, and squash being the most important.

Womens and Mens Roles. If not all groups cared for crops, virtually all gathered wild plants, and women were usually responsible for this task as well. Moreover, native economies usually involved hunting (with deer and bison being among the favorite species), and many Indians fished if they had access to bodies of water. Hunting was predominantly a male activity; some Europeans again scorned this practice because chasing game was seen more as leisure sport than as an occupation for civilized, hardworking men.

The Ute Economy. Native Americans of the West developed successful economic strategies that had little impact on the landscape when compared to the practices of peoples from Europe. For example, the Ute Indians of Utah and Colorado lived in what many would consider to be a harsh, arid environment of mountains and basins. Yet some Ute groups were able to adjust to the land by moving up and down the mountains according to the seasons. They did not practice agriculture, but they did encourage the growth of some plants by using fire. For food, hides, and furs the Ute men would hunt large game such as bison and deer as well as smaller animals. Both men and women fished and captured birds and edible insects, and women gathered a variety of plants, seeds, and roots. This diversified economy ensured a certain amount of security because the Utes refused to depend too heavily on any one resource.

The Hupa Economy. By contrast to the widely dispersed Utes, the Hupa Indians of northern California lived primarily in a valley on the Trinity River for centuries. The Hupas fished, gathered plants and nuts, and hunted. Depending on the season, they took different resources from the river, the foothills, or the mountains. Fish provided food for the Hupas and many other groups who lived on or near the Pacific Ocean. Employing traps, spears, nets, and dams, Hupa men caught salmon, eels, and trout. Acornsa staple for many California Indiansformed a central part of their diet. Families gathered these valuable nuts at private groves; Hupa women then processed the acorns into flour. Like many West Coast nations, the Hupas arranged themselves hierarchically according to wealth and property. They possessed both private and communal land rights. By relying on numerous food sources to meet their needs, and by modifying, but not destroying, their valley, the Hupas lived well for centuries.

Desert Economy of the Tohono OOdham. The Sonoran desert of southern Arizona and northern Mexico receives very little rainfall. Yet the Tohono OOdham (or Papagos) managed to ensure a level of economic security by adopting a semisedentary lifestyle adjusted to the harsh desert landscape. Depending on the time of year, the Tohono OOdham hunted, gathered, and grew a wide variety of food. Women harvested such important wild foods as mesquite beans and the fruit of the imposing saguaro cactus. The men hunted game, but unlike most Indians outside the Southwest, they also farmed. The Tohono OOdham men planted maize, beans, squash, and cotton in or around the mouths of arroyos (desert creeks which run dry for part of the year). They had effective but small-scale water diversion projects to quench their thirsty fields. These natives lived for centuries in this arid environment by creating a flexible and ingenious economy.


R. Douglas Hurt, Indian Agriculture in America: Prehistory to the Present (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1987);

David Rich Lewis, Neither Wolf Nor Dog: American Indians, Environment, and Agrarian Change (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).

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