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Native American Economies: Adoption and Dependency

Native American Economies: Adoption and Dependency


A New World. The arrival of Europeans meant the eventual destruction of most traditional Indian economies, but the devastation was not inevitable or immediate. Natives adopted certain European plants, animals, and technologies into their older economic structures; in fact, some nations flourished for a time by embracing such Old World animals as the horse. Indeed, adjustment to the natural world and to European invasion was common throughout the continent. Yet, for those groups that survived the European onslaught, the shift from economic self-sufficiency to reliance on outsiders, including the federal government, ultimately undermined both their traditional and newly adopted economies.

Technology. Native Americans had dynamic economies even before the Europeans arrived, but the pace of change quickened after 1500. The introduction and selective adoption of plants, animals, and technology from the Europeans played an important role in their ability to survive and even prosperat least for a while. Technological differences between Europeans and Indians were considerable at the time of contact; for example, natives used tools and weapons made of stone. Accordingly, European metal goods, such as cooking pots, knives, and guns, remained in high demand among Native Americans who obtained these valuable tools by trading commodities such as furs and hides.

Livestock. Many natives initially rejected Old World plants (including weeds) and animals brought across the ocean. Some groups did eventually accept livestock such as cattle, hogs, and sheep as well as plants such as wheat and peach trees. The horse, however, proved especially desirable; this is particularly true for some tribes on the Great Plains.

The Horse. The introduction of the horse on the Plains altered most native economies in the region. It allowed some Indian nations to expand across the wide grasslands and pursue more bison and new trade opportunities. The Cheyennes, among others, adopted (at least for a while) the Old World horse. Starting in Canada north of Lake Superior, the Cheyennes moved first down into Minnesota (where the first written records of them appear in 1680), then westward into the Dakotas. During these early movements their economy was based on farming and hunting. Then, in the 1700s, they slowly abandoned the practice of raising crops, and in the 1800s they turned into full-fledged nomads when they moved into territories that became modern-day Nebraska, Wyoming, Colorado, and Kansas. As horse nomads their economy was based on bison hunting and trade. Historians and anthropologists remain unsure why the Cheyennes decided to give up farming, but the adoption of the horse surely allowed them to carry more possessions greater distances, as well as more effectively hunt the buffalo.

New Cheyenne Economy. Cheyenne trade networks expanded when they emerged as middlemen between native groups on the northern and southern Plains. The primary role of Cheyenne chiefs was obtaining trade goods. Some of these leaders specialized in certain commodities, including horses. By the 1820s the Cheyennes had entered the bison robe market. They killed these large beasts and exchanged the skins for American manufactured goods. The increased economic activity, made possible by the acquisition of the horse, also had its price. Acquiring grass for new steeds became a major priority for the Cheyenne. Although the Plains were full of grasses, horses needed good forage grass, and they needed it throughout the year. As a result the Cheyenne had to move to new campsites whenever their horses had eaten the good forage in a particular area. Furthermore, they had to break into small camps in the winter to ensure adequate food for themselves and their mounts. Suitable campsites also had to have enough water and wood; valleys along the rivers proved ideal for the grass-wood-water combination.

Decline. When white settlers began moving onto and through the Plains in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, the Cheyenne economy began to crumble. Anglo migrants to the West and later farmers found the traditional Cheyenne campsites ideal for wagon trails and settlement. Grass and wood became scarce. To make matters worse, the bisonthe primary food source of the Cheyenne and one of their most important items of tradebegan to vanish because of, among other things, the Cheyenne quest for buffalo robes. Finally, since the prestige of the chiefs was based on their ability to gain trade goods from the Americans, these leaders often proved reluctant to go to war; this hesitation caused rifts in Cheyenne society. Some warriors broke off from their traditional groups in order to fight the intruders who were destroying their horse-based economy.

Pawnee Experience. Not all Plains Indians who adopted the horse became full-fledged nomads like the Cheyennes. Village Indians, many of whom had lived along the rivers for many years, were dispersed throughout the Great Plains. The Pawnees of modern-day Nebraska were a horticultural village people who continued to farm river bottoms and to hunt bison as they had for centuries. Although resisting the nomadic lifestyle, the Pawnee acquisition of the horse did produce important social and economic effects. The men who possessed these mounts were more successful in the hunt. Greater divisions between rich and poor appeared. Like the Cheyennes, the Pawnees also had problems obtaining sufficient grass for their mounts. When they hunted in the winter, they sought both grass and bison. Still, even with the acquisition of a limited number of horses, the Pawnees managed to continue much of their traditional way of life well into the middle of the nineteenth century. Disease, drought, constant attacks by the Sioux Indians, a growing dependency on the Americans for basic supplies, and the disappearance of bison finally undermined their economy. Only then did the Pawnees finally move. In the 1870s they left Nebraska and moved south into Indian Territory, in the current state of Oklahoma.

Pawnee Horticulture

The Pawnee Indians of modern-day Nebraska survived on the Great Plains for centuries by mixing a sophisticated agriculture with the hunting of bison. Anthropologist Gene Weltfish describes their ingenious economy: Pawnee life, like our own, was strongly molded by the four seasons. The spring and the fall of the year were the times of planting and harvesting the crops of corn, beans, and squash. During the summer and again in winter, the whole tribe left their villages behind and set out on a long expedition to the southwest part of the state [Nebraska] where large herds of buffalo followed their accustomed paths of migration.

Source: Gene Weltfish, The Lost Universe: The Way of Life of the Pawnee (New York: Ballantine, 1965), p. 9.

Debt. Many nineteenth-century Indians faced an erosion of their economies in the face of American expansion. Removal from their lands or a corrosive reliance on the Anglo-dominated market (or both) was a common outcome. The natives of the Eastern seaboard had faced these problems in the colonial period. As Americans moved westward, growing numbers of Indian nations who were once self-sufficient became indebted to Anglo traders, making them vulnerable to the seizure of their lands and to the whims of the U.S. government.

Choctaw Economy. The Choctaws, who mostly lived in what is now the state of Mississippi, were one group that became integrated into the world market. As a result their independence was slowly undermined, and whites gained increasing control over their fate. The Choctaw economy of the 1700s was based on farming and hunting. Although around two-thirds of their food came from farming, deer hunting was critical in the winter months, as well as in those years when their crops failed. Choctaws traded deerskins with the Europeans but managed to do so on favorable terms. The chiefs controlled the distribution of European goods and were able to maintain much of the Choctaw way of life.

Threats to Communities. When growing numbers of traders entered their lands, the Choctaws began supplying even more deerskins in order to acquire liquor. Earlier these natives were able to keep their demand for European products down by limiting their desires to certain goods, such as metal pots, which only occasionally needed to be replaced. When more English, and later American, merchants traveled inland, alcohol flowed in much greater quantities. Choctaw leaders were no longer able to control the terms of trade as hunters circumvented their authority. Consequently, the Choctaws killed more deer, consumed more alcohol, and became increasingly indebted to outsiders.

Removal. When the deer started to disappear, starvation became a real possibility. Whenever the crops failed, these natives had to turn to the Americans for food. Americans also used the debts the Choctaws had incurred as leverage for land. The Americans acquired their first part of Choctaw territory in 1805. Some Choctaws tried to adjust to the new economy by adopting American-style agriculture, raising livestock, and espousing values that put more emphasis on the individual and less on the group. Those who were more willing to assimilate fought with the traditionalists. Economic decline and rampant conflict undermined any chance for these Indians to resist whites demands for removal. In 1831 the federal government removed the Choctaws from Mississippi and forced them to resettle in Indian Territory. Many other Indian groups whose economies were weakened by the fur or deerskin trade faced a similar fate in the first half of the nineteenth century.


John H. Moore, The Cheyenne Nation: A Social and Demographic History (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987);

Richard White, Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983).

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