Coyote was out hunting and found a dead deer. One of the deer’s rib bones looked just like a big dentalia (mollusk) shell, and Coyote picked it up and took it with him. He went up to the frog people. The frog people had all the water. When anyone wanted any water to drink or cook with or to wash, they had to go and get it from the frog people.
Coyote came up. “Hey, frog people, I have a big dentalia shell. I want a big drink of water—I want to drink for a long time.”
“Give us that shell,” said the frog people, “and you can drink all you want.”
Coyote gave them the shell and began drinking. The water was behind a large dam where Coyote drank.
“I’m going to keep my head down for a long time,” said Coyote, “because I’m really thirsty. Don’t worry about me.”
“Okay, we won’t worry,” said the frog people.
Coyote began drinking. He drank for a long time. Finally one of the frog people said, “Hey Coyote, you sure are drinking a lot of water there. What are you doing that for?”
Coyote brought his head up out of the water. “I’m really thirsty.”
After a while one of the frog people said, “Coyote, you sure are drinking a lot. Maybe you better give us another shell.”
“Just let me finish this drink,” said Coyote, putting his head back under the water.
The frog people wondered how a person could drink so much water. They didn’t like this. They thought Coyote might be doing something.
Coyote was digging out under the dam all the time he had his head under water. When he was finished, he stood up and said, “That was a good drink. That was just what I wanted.”
Then the dam collapsed, and the water went out into the valley and made the creeks and rivers and waterfalls.
The frog people were very angry. “You have taken all the water, Coyote!”
“It is not right that one people have all the water. Now it is where everyone can have it.”
Coyote did that. Now anyone can go down to the river and get a drink of water or some water to cook with or just swim around.
A Kalapuya story told by Barry Lopez in 1927 (Erdoes and Ortiz)
Until the twentieth century, the availability of resources (food and material for making clothing or building houses or tools) depended on where the people of a particular society lived. This was especially true for food. People might be able to travel long distances to get materials for tools, or trade for materials with other people, but food was perishable. It would go bad very quickly, long before it could be transported long distances. The climate of an area could also determine resources. Farming would be difficult to impossible in the Arctic and Sub-Arctic. People living in those areas would have to rely on foraging, a method of getting resources through a combination of gathering wild edibles, fishing, and hunting. People who lived in more temperate areas with long growing seasons, like the southeastern part of what today is the United States, would have more options available to them, including the development of agriculture. However resources are obtained, food is a limited resource. Animals can be over-hunted, leading to their extinction, as can fish be over-fished. Even wild edibles can be exploited. But as the story about Coyote and the frog people shows, the most important resource is water.
Human living sites are always found around water, such as lakes, rivers, streams, and creeks. Habitation sites might be found along the ocean shore, as in the Northwest coastal areas, but there would also have to be sources for drinking water. Water was not only necessary for drinking, cooking, and washing; it was also an important food source. Fish, shellfish, waterfowl, and water plants were all important foods. Water could also be an important transportation route, allowing fairly easy access by canoe or boat to additional areas for the gathering of resources. Water sources, the climate, and environmental factors like rainfall and the length of growing seasons are all important in determining the resources people have available. Different societies living in the same area might utilize their environments and resources in different ways. What and how a society gets and utilizes its resources is its economy. Today in the United States and Canada, we think of economy as referring to money, jobs, and businesses. But this perspective would not describe most of human history. In a broader perspective, economy refers to the resources available to a society, how they are obtained, and how those resources are distributed. Anthropologists have four categories that describe the ways societies utilize or exploit their environments for food resources: foraging, pastoralism, horticulture, and agriculture.
Industrialization, in which people work largely in factories or other business for a wage, is the type of labor with which you are familiar. But this is a relatively recent (in the last 120 years) way of getting resources. In an industrial society, people work for a wage and use that to buy the resources they need or can afford. For most of human history, people worked directly for resources they needed. The way most people in Western societies get resources is changing again, as most of us are and will be employed in service industries such as teaching. This is often referred to as “post-Industrialization.” Beginning in the nineteenth century, many Native peoples started participating in wage labor on ranches and farms. With relocation to cities in the twentieth century, many Native Americans started working in construction and factories in the United States and Canada. In the twenty-first century, many Native American communities and individuals have started their own businesses. The best known are casinos, but they have also started ski resorts, water-bottling plants, golf courses, small-engine manufacturing facilities, and greeting card companies.
Pastoralism refers to the domestication of animals. Societies domesticated animals like horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and reindeer to obtain needed resources from the animals themselves or by trading the animals and their by-products (milk or meat) with other societies. For example, in the Congo, the cattle-herding Zulu will trade milk and meat with their foraging neighbors, the Mbuti, for the roots and fruits they gather. Few societies in North America practiced pastoralism to any extent, although some raised turkeys or other fowl. The Aztec of Mexico raised domesticated deer, and the Incas of South America raised llamas, but for the most part Native Americans did not adopt the practice of domesticating animals until after European colonization, so the practice will not be discussed in great detail.
Foraging societies get food resources through a combination of the collection of wild edibles, fishing, and hunting. In the twentieth century, the anthropological emphasis in examining and describing foraging societies focused on hunting. The assumption was that most of the food in foraging societies came from hunting, and that men were doing the hunting. This assumption often formed the hypothesis for why men had more status in their societies: they provided the food. We now know that in foraging societies in temperate climates, up to 75% to 80% of food comes from the gathering of wild edibles, work that is generally associated with women (Slocum 1975). Further, in Arctic and Sub-Arctic societies in which wild edibles are limited, women participated and continue to participate in hunting, including the hunting of elk, moose, and caribou.
More than 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, all human societies were foragers. In places like northern Europe, Asia, and North America, now-extinct animals were hunted. In North America these animals included mastodons, giant beavers, and ground sloths. Because of the size of animals hunted, these societies are referred to as big game hunting societies. In such societies, not just men participated in the hunting of large game, but the entire community took part. The community would work together to drive animals into corrals or over cliffs where they would be butchered, and the meat and skins prepared. Around 10,000 years ago these large animals started becoming extinct due to a number of environmental factors, including climate change and perhaps over-hunting. As a consequence, these Paleo-Indian (early Native peoples) foraging societies adapted to hunting smaller game—such as elk, moose, caribou, and deer—whatever was available in a particular area.
Often overlooked in examining a foraging society is the importance of fishing. Remember, early human living sites—including those in the Americas—are found around water. Getting needed resources through fishing does not have the same romantic allure as big game hunting or tracking bison, but it is a very important way of getting food. A fish diet is highly nutritious and healthier than a red meat diet. Further, it supplies important omega-3 fats that are important to brain development. Many members of the community could fish, not just strong, healthy men. Archaeological sites often have artifacts that were used to fish, including weirs (an enclosure of stakes and nets to trap fish), nets, fishing spears, hooks, and weights. Current archaeological estimates suggest that up to 75% of the non-vegetable part of foraging peoples’ diets came from fish (Bonvillain 2001). Fishing and fishing rights continue to be very important to contemporary Native communities.
Another important way of getting food in foraging societies was the gathering of wild edibles. In order to get enough food in this way, foraging societies would typically be mobile, traveling from area to area to find the resources they needed. Exceptions to this lifestyle were found in societies in the northwestern area of what are now the coast of Canada and the United States. The Tlingit, Haida, Niska, Gitkan, Tsimshian, Bella Coola, Salish, and Kwakwaka’waku lived in such a rich environment they were able to live in settled villages along the coastal area, where they utilized resources from the sea, fresh water, and plants. Most other foraging societies had to travel to different areas to find needed resources. These societies did not travel constantly; they might settle in an area for weeks or even months. In some instances Natives would have summer and winter camps and migrate between the two areas seasonally. They learned the areas in which particular resources could be found and when they would be available, then settled in these areas utilizing the resources to be found.
By necessity, foraging societies were typically small, no more than 500 people in a community. Foraging societies must have enough people to successfully exploit the resources available, but not so many that they over-exploit those resources. Foraging societies would often split into smaller groups in the winter when resources were harder to secure, then come together again in larger groups in the summer.
An example of a foraging society would be the Innu or Montagnais, who continue to live in what is now northeastern Quebec along the St. Lawrence River basin. Historically the Innu focused on hunting and fishing for resources; gathering was a less significant part of their economy. They hunted moose, caribou, beaver, porcupines, bears, and several varieties of birds. It appears that the Innu traded with the Huron of Lake Ontario for fishing nets. They also used weirs for trapping eels. The Innu would use the animals they hunted for other purposes. Clothing was made from the skins of moose and caribou. Bones, teeth, and other parts of animals would be used to make other household utensils.
The size of communities would vary depending on the season. In fall and winter people lived in scattered camps. Typically these winter camps were made up of extended bilateral kin groups. In the spring, larger groups gathered along waterways such as the St. Lawrence River or the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and got resources from them. In contemporary times, a small number of Innu continue to practice the historical foraging economy of their ancestors; however most are engaged in wage labor. Those who do continue hunting have adopted many European and Canadian technologies such as guns, and there is a greater emphasis on trapping using steel traps (Bonvillain 2001).
The cultural-geographic area called the Great Basin is a large region, but because of the scarcity of resources and the fragile environment, it was home to a relatively small number of Native Americans. This area is referred to as the Great Basin because it only has interior drainage; all its rivers and streams flow into lakes, with no waterways that flow to the ocean. The Great Basin covers an area that includes the present-day states of Nevada, Utah, northern Colorado, southern Oregon, Idaho, western Wyoming, eastern California, northern Arizona, and New Mexico. The area is bounded on the west by the Sierra Mountains and on the east by the Rocky Mountains. The climate is largely arid except at the high altitudes of the mountains. There are large lakes such as Pyramid Lake, Walker Lake and Lake Tahoe, but about 5% of the land is desert. Precipitation, as well as flora and fauna, are all dependent on the altitude.
Before European contact, most of the Native American Great Basin population was found between altitudes of 5,000 to 7,000 feet. It was here the Utes, Washoes, Paiutes, and Shoshones were best able to find needed resources. The Native peoples of the Great Basin were foragers, relying on plant and animal resources. Unlike the Native American foragers of the Northwest, the Native peoples of the Great Basin were mobile, moving from place to place to utilize the resources found in different areas, while not over-exploiting the resources of any one area. The anthropologist Julian Steward, who largely examined how people adapt to their environments, said the Great Basin peoples relied on various “microenvironments” that changed from season to season, and from place to place.
The resources the Great Basin peoples relied on included fish, deer, bighorn sheep, elk, antelope, rabbits, birds, and waterfowl. They ate wild plants such as pinion nuts, pinecones, acorns, beans from mesquite, screwbeans and agave, cattails, rice grass, bullrush, and fruits and berries. Southern Paiutes, Utes, and Shoshones learned horticulture from neighbors in the Southwest. Like the Native peoples of the Southwest, they grew corn, beans, squash, sunflowers, and melons. Other Great Basin peoples helped the growing of wild plants by burning brush, sowing seeds, and watering and pruning plants. Some foods were dried and cached (stored) in underground pits for later use. But people often were nearly out of food by the end of winter. The most important resource in the arid Great Basin was and remains water.
The Native peoples of the Great Basin had learned to adapt and survive in this fragile environment. People lived in small “clusters” of related nuclear families. Each individual shared in the labor and resources of the kin network. Kinship within the family was bilateral—each individual belonged to the lineage of her/his father and mother. After marriage, a young couple would join the cluster of either the man or woman, depending on which family had enough resources or needed additional labor. In the fall, clusters of families would gather together to harvest pinion nuts, feast and celebrate, and to trade resources.
As with most foragers around the world, the peoples of the Great Basin had informal and flexible political organizations. The leader of a group was generally the head of a family who had gained the respect and trust of his community.
Because of the remoteness and aridness of the environment, the Native peoples of the Great Basin were spared incursions by Europeans until the 1770s. However, they were influenced by neighboring societies who had already had contact with Europeans. Thus, peoples of the Great Basin did have European trade goods, and most importantly, horses. The arrival of horses enabled the eastern and southern Utes and Shoshones to better hunt bison. The Utes would also later use horses in their attacks on Spanish settlements.
In 1776, an expedition led by the Franciscan priests Francisco Dominquez and Silvestre Velezde de Escante traveled to Ute territory at Utah Lake, opening the doorway to other Spanish missionaries. They were also followed by settlers engaged in slaving expeditions, particularly focused on children, who were sold to farmers in New Mexico.
In 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark led an expedition through Shoshone territory in Idaho, on their way to the Pacific. Canadian and U.S. trappers followed them. Spain considered the Great Basin to be Spanish territory and tried to stop others from trading with the Native peoples there. When Mexico gained its independence from Spain, the country lost more control over trade and Euro-American settlements in the Great Basin. Permanent Euro-American settlements started in the mid-1800s when Mormons (members of the Church of Latter Day Saints) settled in the Salt Lake Valley. At this time, Mexico still claimed the territory of the Great Basin. Mormon leadership widely stated their wish to avoid conflict with the Native Americans, but their very presence created environmental, economic, and cultural pressures.
From the glut of Spanish and Euro-American settlers arriving in Native American territory, the fragile environment and its resources were soon depleted. Native beliefs were threatened also, as the Mormons sent missionaries to the Native communities of the Great Basin, believing them to be one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. Native children were often “adopted” by Mormon families to be educated in Mormon beliefs and behaviors, and to supply domestic and farm labor. The Native peoples of the Great Basin suffered population loss due to disease and the slave trade. Euro-American trade routes and settlements were established on the areas with the most resources, particularly where water was readily available. This disrupted the fragile balance with the environment and led to malnutrition and starvation of Native Americans.
With the discovery of gold and silver, first in California and later in Nevada, the number of travelers through the area increased, creating further environmental destruction. The visitors who decided to settle in the area further restricted the Native peoples’ access to water and other resources. The Natives reacted in two ways: armed conflict and religious rituals (see Chapter 5 on religion and spiritual beliefs). In 1860, the Paiutes around Pyramid Lake started to defend their lands against Euro-American settlers. The Shoshones of Owens Valley soon followed the Paiutes in defense of their lands. The U.S. Army broke the Native resistance, and “pacified” the area largely by moving the Native peoples to reservations. The Native peoples were forced to sign more than 12 treaties, each of which ceded what had been their land to the United States in exchange for reservation land away from the new Euro-American settlements with military protection to the Natives’ remaining land. Congress never ratified most of these treaties and the protection from future Euro-American incursions was never fulfilled. Further, because the reservation land was so poor, upwards of 60% of the Native peoples of the Great Basin could not survive living on their reservation land.
As Euro-American settlements grew, pressure began in the states of Utah and Nevada to deprive the Natives of more land. In 1887, the General Allotment Act, also called the Dawes Act, decreed that there would be no more tribally- or family-owned property for Native peoples. Each head of government would be allotted 160 acres of land; single persons and those under the age of 18 were allotted 60 acres. Any land not allotted in this way was declared “surplus” and sold to Euro-American settlers. With the General Allotment Act, the people of the Great Basin, like Native peoples throughout the United States, had most of their tribal lands declared “surplus” and opened for settlement to Euro-Americans.
In the mid-twentieth century, the Native peoples of the Great Basin started to regain a portion of the land they had lost, often in legal suits brought forward in U.S. courts. In 1910, the Utes won a court case in which they were awarded $3.5 million in compensation for lost land. In the 1930s, John Collier became the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs during the administration of Franklin Roosevelt. Collier worked to salvage and restore much of the Native American traditions, particularly religious traditions, and to secure and increase the land base of Native American societies. The loss of land through General Allotment was stopped, and in 1946, the Indian Claims Commission was established. The total compensation awarded through the commission to Native American communities for the loss of land came to more than $130 million.
Originally, the money was divided among community members, providing only a temporary aid to their economic situations. Since the 1960s, Native American tribal nations have utilized the money for tribal purposes and investments such as tribal enterprises, infrastructures, and living conditions.
In 1999, 84,000 acres of land were returned to Utes at the Uintah and Ouray reservations by the U.S. government. Unfortunately, this land was severely contaminated by shale oil extraction and low-level radioactive waste from the milling for the shale. The Utes have pledged 8.5% of future profits from tribally owned oil drilling to clean up the sites they did not contaminate.
The economic conditions of Native peoples in the Great Basin vary from location to location, and are dependent on the specific type of resources, such as oil, that are found on their reservations. However, the economic conditions of all Native peoples in the Great Basin are far below those of Euro-Americans in the area.
Geographically, the Great Basin is adjacent to California, but there are enormous differences in the societies found in the two areas. Prior to European contact, the very diverse Native peoples of California were foragers, getting their food and resources largely from fishing and gathering, and to a lesser extent, hunting. Like most foraging societies they lived in small, scattered communities. Living in large or closely spaced communities may well have over-taxed the environment and the resources they depended on. Unfortunately, being small and scattered also made them very vulnerable to conquest—first by the Spanish and later by the Euro-Americans.
In 1542, Juan Cabrillo sailed up the California coast to the San Diego Bay. Cabrillo did not establish settlements; he was looking for the mythic Northwest Passage, a water passage that would go from the West Coast of North America to the East Coast. (Many British and American sailors were simultaneously looking for the same passage from the East Coast.) Spanish settlements in California started in 1769. By the early 1800s, Spanish missionaries and soldiers had established 21 missions, stretching from what is now San Diego to Sonoma. These Presidos (military forts and missions) enslaved thousands of Native peoples who were captured by the military and then forced to provide agricultural labor for the priests and soldiers of the missions.
In addition to what was basically enslavement, the missionaries also tried to change or eliminate the traditional customs and beliefs of the Native peoples. For example, they forced Native peoples of California to convert to Catholicism. The community-recognized chiefs were replaced with alcaldes (Spanish-appointed leaders). Despite the best efforts of the Spanish, through the provision of needed resources and favors, the alcades never gained prestige among the Native peoples. The missionaries enforced changes in the Native peoples’ diets, not allowing them to leave the missions to fish or gather food, but instead supplying European grains, such as wheat, and occasional animal proteins, such as beef. Families were broken apart, as unmarried women and men were forced in live in dungeon-like dormitories. As among other Native societies, disease killed thousands. Among the California Natives, the most catastrophic diseases were pneumonia, diphtheria, measles, dysentery, influenza, and syphilis. Most of the diseases were spread by the Spanish, fostered by the unhealthy living conditions and complicated by malnutrition. Syphilis was the result of the Spanish persistently raping Native women (Heizer and Almquist 1971). It is estimated that by the nineteenth century, 300,000 Native Californians died as a result of the Spanish invasion.
The Native communities did their best to resist the Spanish, but their small, scattered numbers made an effective resistance against the Spanish all but impossible, and retaliation by the Spanish was brutal. Many Native peoples tried to escape, both in small and large numbers, despite the fact that capture by the Spanish military usually resulted in death. There were also consequences for those who did escape, for with them often went the Spanish diseases, which then spread to new communities.
In 1821, the administration of California was transferred to the newly independent Mexico. While the Native Californians were technically citizens with legal rights, in reality their lives were changed very little, except that as Spanish and Euro-American settlement began to grow, Natives’ enforced labor increased. In 1832, Mexico started the process of secularizing the missions. While the government removed the priests, they established a system of peonage—political appointees who held power. The Native peoples continued to provide labor for the Mexican civilians in political power.
With the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo at the conclusion of the Mexican-American War, Mexico lost land and political power in California to the United States. This, coupled with the discovery of gold, increased the hardships for the Native peoples of California. While Spain and Mexico had needed the labor of the Native peoples, the Euro-Americans did not. All they wanted was land and gold. The Native peoples were obstacles, and the new Californians hunted down and murdered thousands of Native peoples in their quest for land and wealth.
The California state government supported militias and vigilantes who killed Native Californians by paying a bounty of $5 per child and $10 per adult to those with proof of a slain Indian. Proof constituted of the scalp: the pair of slain individual’s ears with the flesh and hair connecting them. Over $500,000 in bounty was dispensed between 1850 and 1870 in payment for these deaths. Laws furthered the discrimination against the Natives. For example, a Native American could be forced into labor for 40 days for “loitering.” Children were often kidnapped and forced into labor on Euro-American farms, with no legal recourse. Rape of a Native woman by a Euro-American man was never prosecuted. The legal system also protected the continued loss of Native land and resources (Heizer and Almquist 1971, 215).
Responding to accounts of these atrocities, often covered in newspapers, the United States government established temporary reservations for the Native peoples in California in the 1850s. These reservations were meant to offer personal protection for the Natives, and stop the further confiscation of land by Euro-Americans. The government also arranged for the distribution of needed rations, such as food and blankets.
The Indian agents (government-appointed personnel who were supposed to protect the Natives and enforce government regulations) often stole the rations. Euro-American livestock often destroyed native farm crops. Any retaliation on the part of the Natives resulted in their imprisonment or death. And Euro-Americans continued to force Natives off their land. Under pressure from settlers who wanted more and more land, the California state government withdrew support for the reservations and allowed more Euro-American settlement. Native Californians were forced off their lands and left to survive as best they could. In 1870, the federal government again tried to establish reservations, this time mainly in northern California. The government also allotted funding for aid in farming and schools. But once again, the state of California allowed for the settlement of Euro-Americans on Native lands. It was not until the twentieth century that California’s Mission Indians would be able to regain land, get compensation from the state and federal governments, and start their own wage economic systems.
The Northwest coastal areas of the United States and Canada might seem to be a continuation of the California coast, but, both environmentally and culturally, the area and its people are unique. The Native peoples of the Northwest were foragers who lived in a resource-rich area. They secured the majority of their food, however, through fishing, both in fresh water and in the ocean, using large dugout canoes.
The Kwakwaka’waka, or Kwakiutls, of the Northwest coast of what is now British Columbia, is an example of societies found in the Northwest. The resource focus of Kwakwaka’waka society was fishing, both in the ocean and rivers; gathering of plants; and some hunting of land animals. Their diet consisted of salmon, halibut, eulachon, cod, herring, sea urchins, clams, and mussels. The Kwakwaka’waka had specialized technology for catching different water animals: barbed harpoons were used to hunt sea lions and seals; codfish and halibut were caught with fishing lines made of kelp; while salmon were trapped in weirs as they swam upriver (Bonvillain 2001). The Kwakwaka’waka did not have to travel from area to area to get needed resources; they were able to live in large, permanent settlements. Their houses were large structures made from the cedar trees found in the area. The style of the houses changed over time, gradually becoming the painted structures with a central door found today. Many Kwakwaka’waka continue to be involved in the fishing industry of the Northwest coast, but in wage labor jobs that include fishing and working in area canneries. The maritime societies of the Northwest do not fit the Native Americans stereotype held by most Euro-Americans and Canadians.
European contact in the Northwest did not start until the late eighteenth century. Russian, Spanish, British, French, and American merchants all tried to establish trading posts for the fur trade. The Russians were the first to establish a permanent fort in 1799 at what is now Sitka, Alaska. This fort became the center of the Russian-American Company. In 1827, the Hudson Bay Company established Fort Langley on the Fraser River in British Columbia. Unlike other cultural-geographic areas of the Americas where trade had devastating results on the Native societies, this was less so in the Northwest. The Northwest societies were already involved in long-distance trade. The items the Europeans brought to trade: food, alcohol, blankets, firearms, copper, and body ornaments were incorporated into the pre-existing status system, but generally the Natives did not rely on them. The Europeans depended on the trade system, and they complained about the shrewd bargaining of the Northwest peoples. If Natives did not find a price to be agreeable, they would simply refuse to trade.
Because of the Europeans’ dependence on trade, they did not interfere with Native culture to the extent that they did in other parts of the Americas. However, there were changes within the Northwest societies. They gradually shifted their focus from getting resources for subsistence to getting trade items. In some cases, this led to over-exploitation of some resources. Because the Europeans did not like to trade with women, a task in which they traditionally participated, the status of women became reduced. The arrival of missionaries in the nineteenth century further reduced women’s standing. The chiefs became richer, and their political power solidified, because the Europeans preferred to work with one individual they saw as being in power. Subsequently, the society became more traditionally European, with the status of women being lowered and one man being in charge.
As Euro-American and Canadian settlements grew, Native population numbers and lands declined. Both the Canadian and U.S. governments tried to extinguish all land titles held by Native peoples, but the Native communities refused to concede to those demands. The lack of treaties, particularly in Canada, became the impetus for land claims in the twentieth century. Native communities began to organize for economic and political rights. As the northwestern Native communities traditionally had extensive trade networks, their organizing networks were also far-reaching. Their political networking triumphed in 1997, when the First Nations of Canada attained an important ruling from the Supreme Court of Canada that stated First Nations’ rights to land and resources must be considered when mining, logging, and resource exploration are undertaken in their territories.
Early in their encounters with Europeans, the Native peoples of the Northwest were better able than many other Native peoples of the Americas to adapt to the impacts of Euro-American and Canadian settlement and hegemony (social and political power) to their traditions. Many Northwest communities continue to adapt, especially within the fishing industry. This adaptation is reflected in economic data demonstrating that the Native peoples of the Northwest, in both Canada and the United States, have the highest standard of living of any Native American/First Nations group. It must be remembered, however, that the standard of living for the Native peoples of the Northwest is still far below that of average Euro-Americans and Canadians.
More stereotypical examples of American foraging societies would be found in the prairies and plains (both terms refer to flat, grassy land) of the United States and Canada. The Arikara, for example, lived on the plains along the Missouri River for thousands of years. The Arikara practiced a combination of foraging and horticulture. Through a trial-and-error method that is typical of how humans make important discoveries, people found that some of the plants they were gathering in the wild could be domesticated: that is, they would become dependent on human cultivation for reproduction. Seeds or pods of the plant would not be eaten or thrown away, but kept and used to grow the plant in the next year. People might plant these seeds close to dwelling areas where they could be watched, watered, and protected from birds and other animals. Among the first plants to be domesticated in the Americas were squash and beans. Between 8,000 to 12,000 years ago we see people around the world starting to rely more and more on domesticated plants.
Initially, people planted domesticated crops but continued to rely on foraging, fishing, and hunting. This is called a horticultural society. Societies that had summer and winter camps could grow domesticated crops during the summer, and hunt and/or fish in the winter. Gradually, many, societies relied more and more on their domesticated crops. Planting, tending, and harvesting domesticated crops required people to live in more settled communities rather than be mobile.
Among the Arikara, women farmed bottomlands along the river, where they planted corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers. They also foraged for wild edibles, such as wild potatoes, turnips, various grasses, fruits, and berries. The men fished in the Missouri River using spears and wooden traps, and caught turtles and waterfowl. The men also hunted, bison being the most important source of meat. Before the arrival of the Spanish in Mesoamerica, there were no horses on the plains to help in the hunting of bison. Instead, the entire community would construct corrals into which they would then drive the bison and kill them with spears and bows and arrows. The community would then work together to butcher the animals and prepare the meat and skins, as well as tools made from bone, sinew, and internal organs.
Currently, most Arikara live on the Fort Berthold Reservation in North Dakota with two other societies: the Hidatas and Mandans. Together they are known as the “The Affiliated Tribes.” Farming continues, especially the farming of European crops such as wheat, and the ranching of both cattle and bison.
A more stereotypic plains or prairie society would be the Teton Lakota. The typical image of the Lakota depicts hunters and warriors mounted on horseback. But the word Lakota means “friends” or “allies,” and Teton comes from “tetonwan” which means “dwellers of the prairie”( Bonvillain 2001). So how did the friendly people of the prairies become feared warriors of the plains? Before 1750, the Teton Lakota lived in what is now the state of Minnesota, along the Missouri and Minnesota rivers. The French explorer LaSalle encountered horticultural societies along the southern Missouri River in the seventeenth century. The Spanish sent out expeditions from their settlements in the southwest, but these were short-lived. Like the Arikara, Lakota women grew corn, beans, and squash along the rivers and gathered wild rice and other edible plants. The men hunted bison, elk, and deer. The Lakota also had extensive trade networks that extended north, south, east, and west.
In the 1700s, the Lakota started experiencing difficulties, as more and more Europeans and displaced Native American societies started moving farther and farther west. The effect was much like a line of dominoes: when the first one falls, it knocks down the next, and so forth on down the line. As Europeans started establishing settlements farther west, they pushed Native American communities out of their traditional homelands, destabilizing many societies. Ultimately this is what happened to the Lakota; they were continually pushed westward, away from the rivers where they lived and farmed, to the Great Plains.
The plains and prairie geographic areas are hard to define. This area extends west from the Mississippi River to eastern California, from the timberline of the Canadian Prairie Provinces to what is now northern Texas. As large as this geographic area is, it looms even larger in the American imagination. Say “Indian” or “Indian lands” and this is the image people see in their minds: a half-naked man in a feathered headdress riding a horse across the flat plains in pursuit of bison. This vision of American Indian life only applied to a relatively small number of people for a very short period of time.
The land of the Great Plains tends to be flat. It does not have much forests and the rainfall is typically not sufficient for agriculture. The main difference between the plains and the prairies are the types of grasses. Prairie grass grows much taller than the short plains grasses, sometimes as much as 6 feet in height. The roots of the shorter plains grasses grow in dense tangles that contribute to the development of what is termed sod, a substance that could be made into bricks to construct sod houses for both Native peoples and early Euro-American settlers in the area. While sod is a good building material, it makes it very difficult to farm in these areas without steel plows. Euro-American farmers used steel plows to remove the sod holding the lower layers of soil in place. However, when droughts occurred, as in the early twentieth century, the near-constant winds stirred up the unprotected loose soil and resulted in the infamous dust storms of the 1930s. Many areas are still recovering from the environmental damage of what was known as the Dust Bowl, which, along with cattle over-grazing, has nearly wiped out the native grasses that helped maintain the protective layer of sod.
The arrival of horses on the plains coincided with the expansion of a European presence and trade along the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. This may be why so many Euro-Americans can only imagine the Native peoples of the plains (and, in much of popular culture, all Native Americans) on horseback, hunting bison. Few Plains peoples encountered Europeans until the early 1800s when fur traders arrived. After the French and Indian War in 1763, France ceded all its territory east of the Mississippi to England, and west of the Mississippi to Spain. At that point, Spain started more frequent incursions to the plains, establishing a fort at what is now St. Louis and starting a trade network to the south and central plains. Around this same time, British/Canadian explorers made contact with farming villages on the upper Missouri. The United States became a rival in this area with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, and soon after the Lewis and Clark expedition set out to explore and map the area.
At first, trade between the Plains peoples and Europeans and Euro-Americans was balanced. The Plains peoples only gradually accepted European trade goods, while the Europeans and Americans wanted animal furs. Some Native societies such as the prairie horticultural Mandan and Pawnees raised surplus crops for trade with the Euro-Americans and foraging Plains societies. Other horticultural societies functioned as brokers or intermediaries between Euro-Americans and mobile foraging societies.
The increase in population and hunting for trade soon had negative consequences. Competition for resources made the permanent horticultural villages on the prairies vulnerable to attack, as people grew desperate for food and supplies. Increased population density made these settled villages more vulnerable to diseases because the people were living close together—a situation that always increases the transmission of disease. Those societies that adapted to foraging to obtain resources expanded, while horticultural societies experienced a loss of territory. Both foraging and horticultural societies experienced social change and instability.
After arriving on the plains, the Lakota found it difficult to continue their horticultural economy. Their farming technology of digging sticks was not successful on the thick sod of the plains. Ultimately, the Lakota became highly mobile foragers, relying largely on hunting. Over the next century, the Lakota adapted well to their new environment. One reason they adapted so well was the arrival of the horse around 1750. To the Lakota, horses are “sunka wakan” or “sacred dog” (Bonvillain 2001), which illustrates how important the horse became to the societies of the plains.
The change in the economy of societies like the Lakota had consequences throughout their social organization. While women did participate in hunting, their roles in providing resources decreased, which in turn decreased their social and political status. Warfare between Plains societies, now competing with each other for horses and limited resources, increased. Warfare grew even greater as more and more Euro-Americans first traveled through and then settled on the plains. In a little more than a century the Lakota went from the friendly farmers on the prairies to the stereotype of Native American hunters and warriors on the Great Plains.
The Haudenosaunee or Iroquois are another example of a Native American society that is not typically thought of as horticultural. But archaeological evidence indicates that the Haudenosaunee have been producing domesticated food resources for close to 1,000 years. The Haudenosaunee are a group of Native American societies (the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) that share similar languages (Iroquoian), kin, political and economic systems, and a similar oral tradition and spiritual beliefs. Archaeological, linguistic, and oral tradition all indicate that the Haudenosaunee migrated to the Northeast over 1,000 years ago. Their languages are related to other languages, such as Cherokee, Tuscarora, Huron, Caddoan, and Siouan. Like many societies of the northern and southern woodlands, the Haudenosaunee have a matrilineal and matrilocal kinship system and a rank political system. The oral tradition of the Haudenosaunee, particularly the story of Sky Woman, is similar to other societies, like the Ojibwa, which were found along the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. One of the big questions of the archaeology done in the northeastern part of what is now the United States is: did the Iroquois migrate to the Northeast as a horticultural society, or did they develop horticulture, particularly the cultivation of corn, once they were in the Northeast?
Archaeological evidence indicates that the Iroquois grew different domesticated crops at different times, with beans, squash, and sunflowers being domesticated first, followed by corn (sometimes called maize). Corn is a very unique crop in the Americas. Most other domesticated crops were grown directly from the seeds of wild plants, but corn is an example of a crop that the Native peoples, in what is now Mexico, selectively bred and hybridized from the wild grass Teosinte (pronounced tA-O-‘sin-tE) somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Corncobs found at archaeological sites show the development of corn from a grass looking much like wheat, to a cob about the size of your thumb with only a few kernels of corn, to larger and larger cobs that resemble the corn we know today. Further, the Native peoples developed a wide variety of hues in their corn. The farming of corn soon spread from Mexico to many other parts of the Americas, both north and south. Early Spanish explorers in the Southwest wrote about the rainbow of colors of corn drying on pueblo roofs. The various colors of corn indicate different breeds of corn grown for specific reasons. Some corn was bred to arid areas with little rainfall, others to the short growing season of the Northeast. Some breeds of corn were planted on the borders of cornfields to fight off blight and pests. The Native peoples of the Americas developed over 30 varieties of corn to be used in different environments and for different purposes.
In time, corn came to the northeastern and southeastern woodlands, including Haudenosaunee territory. Corn became one of the staple crops of the horticultural and agricultural Native peoples, along with beans and squash. These three crops were grown together and often eaten together, so among the Haudenosaunee they are referred to as the Three Sisters and are very important to the economies of these Native peoples. A cycle of ceremonies is conducted throughout the year to ensure the growth of and to give thanks for these crops.
While the Haudenosaunee grew crops, they also continued to gather wild edibles such as roots, tubers, greens, berries, fruit, nuts, and seeds. Wild strawberries and maple syrup were important foraged crops and there are thanksgiving ceremonies for them. They also hunted animals such as deer, squirrel, beaver, and bear, along with birds and waterfowl, but fish provided most of the non-vegetable food (Bonvillain 2001). The Haudenosaunee, like other Native American horticultural societies, did not plow and plant on huge tracts of land. They planted on small tracts of land with digging sticks. They did not irrigate their crops, but depended on rainfall, which is called dryland farming. There is some evidence that they used natural fertilizer, such as uneaten parts of fish. When the land grew fallow, meaning it no longer supported crops, they would move their farmland or entire village to a new area. Contemporary farmers allow fields to go fallow (do not plant crops on them) for a year or two. Farming was done on a relatively small scale as compared to agricultural communities in Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it was very successful. It is estimated that the women, who did most of the farming of eastern woodland societies, produced three to four times the amount of food produced by contemporary European farmers (Weatherford 1991).
Native American farming societies are generally referred to as horticultural, not agricultural. In agricultural societies, most of the food consumed by a society is produced through farming, and there is little gathering of wild edibles or fishing and hunting. Indeed, the large scale of farming in agricultural societies, with acres of plowed fields, use of irrigation and fertilizers, and frequently domesticated animals, such as cows, horses, sheep, goats, and pigs, makes the diversified means of getting food found in horticultural impossible.
In Ancient Drums, Other Moccasins, Harriet Kupfefer refers to southwestern Pueblo societies as intensive farmers. Like European agricultural societies, the people of the Pueblos got most of their food from farming; they did not have domesticated animals. They did irrigate their crops, built permanent villages and had—and still have—a complex social and political organization.
Archaeological sites of societies in the Southwest have attracted much attention because many of them are quite spectacular. Chaco Canyon, Monte Verde, the pictographs of Red Rock Canyon, and the misnamed Montezuma’s Castle all demonstrate the skill, ingenuity, and diversity of the Native peoples who lived there. The peoples of the Southwest have been researched and studied by generations of anthropologists. Like all scientists, archaeologists and anthropologists like to categorize the information (data) they gather. Thus, there are a lot of categories for the information we have about the Native peoples of the Southwest. Anthropologists and archaeologists put the pre-historic cultures of the Southwest into four categories: the Puebloan, Mogollon, Hohokam, and Patayan. The present-day societies of the Southwest are also divided into four categories on the basis of cultural and linguistic similarities: the Puebloan, Apachean, the Tohono O’odham, Akimel O’odham, and Yuman.
The Ancestral Puebloans, also known as the Anasazi, lived on the Colorado Plateau, and were probably the ancestors of today’s Pueblo peoples who continue to live and farm in the Southwest. This development may have been in response to climatic changes, or it may have been that their ancestors were such successful foragers that they had to develop horticulture to feed their increasing populations. In the Americas this is called the formative era. People still got food through fishing, hunting, and gathering wild edibles, but they also started to depend on an increasing number of crops that they grew.
In their developmental period, Ancestral Puebloans lived in pit houses in small villages. The pit houses, because they were partly underground, would stay cool in the hot climate. The climate of the Southwest gradually changed, making horticulture more productive. The Ancestral Puebloan people developed above-ground masonry houses and crop storage rooms, some of which still exist today. The pit houses developed into kivas, a semi-subterranean ceremonial structure. Chaco Canyon has many masonry-style houses and kivas. About 500 years ago drought conditions forced the Ancestral Puebloan peoples to consolidate their communities and migrate. Anthropologists refer to these consolidated groups as the Western and Eastern Pueblos. Despite the invasions by Spain and then the United States, the present-day Pueblo communities demonstrate a great deal of cultural continuity with their ancestral groups.
The Mogollon people lived in the eastern Southwest in what is now northern Mexico. Like the Ancestral Puebloans, they lived in pit houses, but changed to Pueblo-style architecture much later than did the Ancestral Puebloans. The Mogollon people also prospered until the climatic changes and drought that occurred about 500 years ago. Some archaeologists and anthropologists think they were the ancestors of the Zuni, in what is known today as New Mexico, which would mean that, like the Puebloans, the Mogollon peoples migrated.
The Hohokam lived in the Sonoran Desert, along the Gila and Salt rivers. This was a hot region, with little rainfall. The Hohokam people foraged and also produced food through agriculture. They developed extensive irrigation systems that were possible as their towns were usually along rivers. The Hohokam also built hundreds of miles of canals. The cultural artifacts of the Hohokam show an influence from Mesoamerica: stepped pyramids, ball courts, platform mounds, and the use of turquoise, copper, and pyrite for jewelry and household items. Just as with other pre-historic groups of the Southwest, archaeologists see great changes in the Hohokam culture around 500 years ago. Their irrigation systems and canals started to deteriorate, and apparently were not repaired, although their towns began to show evidence of fortification. It could be that the Hohokam people were experiencing pressures from societies to the north, along with the climatic changes occurring throughout the Southwest. The Tohono O’odham and Akimel O’odham people now live in Hohokam territory, but it is not clear if they are descendants.
The Patalyan peoples continued foraging until fairly recently, about 1,000 years ago. They occupied the area around the Colorado and Gila rivers, and developed into the Yuman cultures.
In addition, several different Athabascan-speaking groups (such as the Navajo and Apache) currently live in the Southwest. Each of these groups has an origin story, in most cases involving some process of emergence from one or more underworlds, anchoring them to a particular place. Scholars claim, however, that these groups migrated into the region from the north sometime after 1200.
The historian Richard White has shown that Native American societies were very flexible in the way they obtained resources. When a society could no longer get enough resources using one method, they would try another. In the Southeast for example, societies would alternate between foraging and horticultural depending on environmental factors. A society might engage in horticulture for decades, but as the land grew fallow, they would rely more on hunting. Allowing farm fields to go fallow would attract animals and fowl, so hunters would not have to travel far for successful hunting. When hunting resources grew scarce, a society would return to horticulture on reinvigorated land. As the society shifted between ways of getting resources, their social structure also changed. While engaging in horticulture the society would be larger and live in semi-permanent settlements; when engaged in foraging, the society would spilt into smaller groups and become semi-mobile (White 1983). This flexible approach to getting resources helped Native American societies avoid many of the pitfalls experienced by food-producing societies in other parts of the world.
The cultural geographer Jared Diamond has referred to agriculture as The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race (1987). This is an unusual statement and position. In Western society agriculture is seen as the epitome of civilization: with agriculture comes settled communities, the development of written languages, mathematics and science, more leisure time for the development of arts, and a structured political system. Founders of the United States, such as Thomas Jefferson, saw agriculture as necessary for a democracy. But as Diamond points out, foraging and horticultural societies had many of these things. Science and scientific thinking, along with mathematics, was needed for people to be successful foragers and horticulturists. These societies had (and continue to have) very elaborate arts. Their kinships systems can be very complicated and political systems can be democratic.
Foraging and horticultural societies gather from a wide variety of resources. If one or more resources are not available, other resources can generally be found. The variety of grains, grasses, fruits, fish, and some meat makes for a very healthy diet—the kind our doctors wish we would eat today. There is a continuing myth that foraging was a hand-to-mouth existence, with hunger always lurking. This is true of Arctic or Sub-Arctic societies, where resources might be very scarce, hard to find, and very dependent on the skill and luck of the hunters. But in foraging societies found in temperate climates, people might spend 20 hours a week gathering food, while in an agricultural society people might spend 20 hours a day during planting and harvest time to produce food. The time spent in most foraging societies gathering food would leave plenty of time for the development of storytelling, music and dancing, and other arts. Further, Diamond says, agriculture had a lot of negative consequences.
Agricultural societies tend to focus on a few crops. As a consequence, the diet of an agricultural society is often less healthy than those in foraging societies, as agriculturalists are frequently missing important nutrients not found in their crops. Additionally, if the crops fail because of drought, too much rain or hail, an early or late frost, or blight, entire communities could find themselves on the brink of starvation. Large-scale agriculture makes it difficult for people to fall back on other methods of getting food. If the community has domesticated animals, how are they to be fed? Additionally, wild game would have been driven from the area, and wild foods have been eliminated. The runoff from farm fields and the waste left from domesticated animals fouls the water, so even fishing is often not an option.
The histories and oral traditions of agricultural societies around the world illustrate the consequences of crop failures and shows how early government systems worked to enforce the storing of some crops in case of famine. For example, in the Old Testament, Joseph convinced the Egyptian Pharaoh to store twice the amount of grain usually kept for emergencies such as a coming blight or drought. Continued famine due to drought caused many southwestern agricultural societies like the Pueblos to move or revert to horticulture or foraging as some of the negatives of agriculture were realized.
Another factor associated with agricultural societies is the increase in communicable diseases. As more and more people lived together in close proximity in settled communities, diseases and illnesses quickly passed throughout the entire community. You may have noticed similar incidents in your dorms. One person gets a cold and pretty soon everyone on the floor has a cold. We now have many medicines and antibiotics to treat illnesses that previously killed large percentages of agricultural communities. Many serious diseases, such as typhoid and cholera, were spread by water that was contaminated by human and animal waste. Water that had formerly been a source of nourishment became a source of disease, because people had unknowingly dumped their waste, garbage, and even bodies into water sources. Foraging and horticultural societies with smaller communities that moved around were less likely to experience the epidemics found in the cities that developed as people settled down and lived in growing urban areas as a result of agriculture.
A less visible consequence of settled agricultural societies was the changes in the access to resources, and how those resources were distributed throughout communities. In foraging societies everyone helps in getting needed resources, and everyone shares them. Foraging societies are very egalitarian—everyone had fairly equal access to resources and participation in the political structure (see Chapter 4). There was not a distinct division of labor, in which some people did particular work, some of which had more status than others. Everyone contributed to the labor needed to obtain resources and shared those resources through a process called reciprocity. Reciprocity simply means that everyone in a community shares needed resources on either an informal or formal basis. In informal reciprocity people would simply share whatever resources they had. This was not necessarily altruism on peoples’ parts, but good sense. There was no way to preserve foods for long periods of time, so if it was not consumed, it would go bad. Better to share food with your community members, particularly when they were kin. It would then be more likely that they would share with you when they had resources and you did not. The extended kin groups of foraging and horticultural societies were essential to the success of systems of reciprocity. Furthermore, the sharing of resources helped ensure the survival of kin and maintain the bonds of both existing and future affine kin.
In more formal systems of reciprocity, the exchange of food and other resources were part of community-wide rituals. Many of the Northwest societies practiced the potlatch. Potlatches were held to mark various life events like birth, coming of age, marriage, and death. During the potlatch, the kin group of the honored individual would give away resources, knowing that at some point in the near future another kin group would be honoring one of their members with a potlatch, and they would in turn receive resources. Plains societies had give-aways that functioned in a similar way. Whether a society practiced formal or informal reciprocity, it did two important things for individuals and the community in general. First, it distributed goods throughout the community. Everyone helped get needed resources and everyone shared them. Some people might have a bit more than others, but various social expectations and religious beliefs encouraged people to share what resources they had. As long as resources were available, everyone shared a portion of them. Among foraging and horticultural societies it is unusual to find that some people hold the bulk of the resources while other portions of the population have little or none.
Second, the sharing of resources would give a kin group and individuals within that kin group status. The sharing of resources, the following of religious and other social beliefs about the value of sharing, brought status to people. In the next chapter about political organization, we will see how the practice of reciprocity could bring political power to kin groups and individuals within those kin groups. If the way you were brought up and your religious beliefs were not enough to encourage you to share resources, the fact that reciprocity was how an individual would get status in his/her community encouraged you to share.
Reciprocity was absolutely necessary to the survival of a foraging society. Everyone worked together and shared the results of their labor. Reciprocity continued to be important in horticultural and pastoral societies. Being able to depend on others increased the likelihood that all people in a community, who were basically extended kin members, would have the resources necessary for survival. But as Diamond points out, the system of reciprocity and the status it brought started to break down in agricultural societies. The larger these societies got, the more likely some people had better access to resources than others. If people were not related to you through descent or affinity, there was less reason to share resources with them. Status became more dependent on access to resources, not the sharing of resources. In time, the access to resources became inherited within kin groups and individuals, along with the political power that came from having resources. Excess resources, more than you need to survive, can be defined as wealth. Over time in agricultural and then industrial societies, a few people have access to resources, while most people have limited access or none. Within agricultural and industrial societies, access to resources meant a wealthy family or individual also had access to power, and vice versa. Another reason, says Diamond, from the perspective of what is best for an entire community, agricultural was a big mistake.
In many ways the history of the European invasion of the Americas demonstrates how the indigenous peoples lost the ability to get or produce their own resources and control the distribution of those resources. The loss of land, people and control of resources changed Native societies, and had such severe economic and political consequences that most of them are only now starting to recover. The previous example of the Teton Lakota being pushed west out of the prairies to which they had adapted is but one example of the experiences of most indigenous peoples in the Americas. From the seventeenth to the twentieth century, most indigenous societies were pushed from their homelands to reservations and urban areas.
Among the first of these relocations of Native peoples were praying towns in New England. After King Philip’s (Metacom) War in 1676, surviving Native peoples in New England were forced from their homelands into shantytowns that were often built on islands or land so poor white settlers did not want it. In 1835 the Five Civilized Tribes of the Southeast—so called because they were horticultural-agricultural societies that had adopted many European customs including Christianity, domesticated animals, clothing, housing, fenced-in farmland, a written language, and slavery—were forced from their farmlands west to the Oklahoma Territory. Their removal is known as The Trail of Tears, a forced march during which an estimated 25% of the population died. During the later part of the nineteenth century, most western Native societies were either removed from traditional homelands, or restricted to reservations. The expectation of U.S. and Canadian governments, as well as their white citizenry, was that these Native peoples would achieve “civilization” through agriculture. However, reservation lands were typically too small and poor to support a farming economy. This policy also ignored both that many of these societies were and had been horticultural or agricultural.
In the twentieth century, many Native Americans living on reservations experienced relocation and termination. During periods of relocation, people were coerced into moving to urban areas with the promise of better jobs and housing. What Native peoples typically found were low-wage jobs and housing in urban slums. Termination was a U.S. governmental policy to end the special trust status of Native lands (reservations) and end government funding—often treaty obligations owed for the previous loss of land suffered by Native American societies. All of these factors, along with environmental changes, required that Native peoples find new ways of getting needed resources. While some continue historical methods of getting resources part-time, most are also engaged in the wage labor force of the United States and Canada. Unfortunately, many governmental policies in both countries limit the success of Native communities to sustain themselves and their self-determination.
In the twenty-first century, most peoples of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic area are members of the wage-earning population of Canada and the United States, but some are still foragers, if only for part of the year, to supplement low wages for the little work available. Consequently, the First Nations of these areas are very concerned about governmental policies that could affect their ability to obtain resources in traditional ways, or that would alter their environments. One of the most significant of such projects is the Hydro-Quebec project to get power from dams on lakes and rivers in the reserve areas of the James Bay Cree of northern Quebec. This project flooded thousands of acres, displacing not only the James Bay Cree, but also the flora and fauna of the area.
The Cree and Inuit populations of northern Quebec, along with sympathizers from around the world, organized to stop the development of the hydropower program that would harm them. They won the first round of legal battles in the Canadian Superior Court, only to have the ruling overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeals, not on the legal issues of the case, but because the Court cited the “interests of the larger society.”
The Cree and Inuit population negotiated the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement in 1975, which relinquished their rights to the land in exchange for an immediate payment of $60 million, and an additional $30 million to be paid in the future. The impact of the James Bay hydroelectric projects on the environment was enormous. Beaver, muskrat, otter, hare, and mink became nearly extinct. Migration routes for both birds and animals were changed, resulting in the deaths of thousands of caribou. Rotting wood and silt build up in the rivers caused the death of fish and water birds. As a consequence, when Hydro-Quebec proposed another James Bay project in 1983, there was overwhelming opposition. The primary beneficiaries of the project, the states of New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, canceled their contracts with Hydro-Quebec, defeating the project.
After the James Bay project, the First Nations of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic areas realized that by working together they could influence the government of Canada. In the Northwest Territories, the Canadian government and multi-national companies had been mining various minerals (zinc, nickel, uranium, and diamonds) that disturbed the environment and did not benefit the First Nations peoples whose land was being mined. Projects such as these and the James Bay project made it virtually impossible for the peoples of the Arctic areas to continue their traditional lifestyles that had provided for them for over 10,000 years. In 1979, the Inuit filed a legal suit against the multi-nationals and the Canadian government to stop further mining. The court ruled against the Inuit, however, claiming that the 1670 royal charter to the Hudson Bay Company stripped them of property rights. The court maintained the people had land-use rights but not land-ownership rights.
Justifiably angry, the Inuit started advocating for self-determination, the ability to determine for themselves the relationships they would have with the government and businesses. They formed the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC), while Canadian First Nations peoples formed the Committee for Original People’s Entitlement. The goals of both organizations are to protect and advance First Nations rights and to better their economic, political, and social welfare. In the early 1980s the ITC proposed dividing the Northwest Territories into two regions: one to be under the control of the Inuit (and to be known as Nunavut) and the other to remain under the control of the provincial and federal governments. In 1982 a plebiscite was held in which 85% of the Inuit voted in favor of the formation of Nunavut, while the majority of Euro-Canadians voted against the plan. The Inuit and Canadian governments reached the historic “Nunavut Final Land Claim Agreement” in 1993. As agreed, the territory of Nunavut was established April 1, 1999, with ceremonies in the capital of Igqluit.
While the establishment of a First Nations territory is worthy of celebration, it by no means solves the problems of the peoples of the Arctic. These are still very poor, remote communities suffering from the problems of limited educational opportunities, few wage-earning jobs, and severe health problems. Additionally, the environment continues to suffer contamination and the loss of plants and animals, not to mention the increasing effects of climate change. The First Nations peoples of the Arctic and Sub-Arctic will have to continue fighting the impact and consequences of Manifest Destiny well into the twenty-first century.
Like that of the Inuit and James Bay Cree, the lands held by Native American communities are often poor and polluted by mining and other industries that have not and do not benefit them. Indigenous-held lands (reservations in the United States and reserves in Canada) are often in remote areas, in which education, employment, and health facilities are scarce. Native peoples are often in the conflicting situation of no longer being able to practice the traditional resource-getting and production methods of their ancestors, but not having the resources for typical wage-earning jobs that would give them the same standard of living as the majority of Euro-Americans and Canadians.
Currently over 60% of Native peoples in the United States live in urban or suburban areas. Growing numbers of them have the educational opportunities for well-paid wage jobs. But most still feel a connection with their homelands; returning for pow-wows, potlatches, give-aways, and other family celebrations. Many of them return to their families’ traditional homelands to teach, practice medicine, and as lawyers who work to protect what remains of those homelands.
The earth will no longer support large numbers of egalitarian foraging societies in which all people have equal access to resources. Can human societies find ways to make sure all people have access to enough resources to survive? This requires much more than reciprocity within a community; this requires that all of us think differently about the resources we consume, and those that are available for others and for the future. The Iroquois believe that decisions should be made with consideration for seven generations: our generation, the three generations that came before us that will hold us accountable for our decisions, and the generations that come after us who will have to live with the consequences of our decisions. Perhaps even more difficult is to think differently about the access to power that some people have because of their access to resources. That is the subject of the next chapter.
What resources do you depend on? How do you get them? What would happen if the stores in which we get our resources were to all close: how would you get needed resources?
We are beginning to see consequences to climate change in our time. Can you name some of these consequences?
Climate change has occurred in the past and has had consequences for historical societies. For example, early societies in the Southwest experienced cultural changes and migration because of climate change. What might we experience in the future because of climate change?
We all want to have good jobs in our future. What is a “good job”? What jobs have high status; what have low status? Why do some jobs have greater status than others?
Diseases go through an evolutionary process, as do any other life forms. New diseases evolve, old diseases mutate. Can you think of any recent examples of this?
The Mohawk leader Joseph Brant visited England several times in the Seventeenth Century. He was impressed by Britain’s military power, but shocked by the sight of people begging and living on the streets. Why do you think he was shocked? What would be the expectation about resources in a Native American society?
How might factors like climate change and the need for new sources of energy effect the way humans get their resources in the future?
For more information about the role of women in pre-historic economies, see Woman the Gatherer, edited by Frances Dahlberg, which includes the article “Woman the Gatherer: Male Bias in Anthropology,” by Sally Slocum.
Peggy Sanday’s works previously sited are also good references for the role of women in economies.
Richard White’s The Roots of Dependency offers excellent case studies of the economic flexibility of indigenous American societies and how those economies were undermined by European intrusion.
Robert Jarvenpa’s Northern Passage illustrates how the contemporary Na Dinéh people attempt to maintain their economy within the larger political structure of Canada.
While not about indigenous American societies per se, books by Jared Diamond, such as Collapse and Guns, Germs and Steel, offer insights into how and why indigenous societies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas were overwhelmed by European intrusions.
The pre-historic societies of the southwestern part of the United States are good case studies for the consequences of climate change. In addition to the previously mentioned Life in a Pueblo by Kathy Kamp, I also recommend Those Who Came Before: Southwestern Archaeology in the National Park System, by Robert Lister and Florence Lister, and its companion video of the same title.
Excellent studies of the food and medicinal resources of the Americas are Indian Givers and Native Gifts, by Jack Weatherford.