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The Other Side of the Frontier: Economic Explorations into Native American History

Author(s):Barrington, Linda
Reviewer(s):Weiss, Thomas


by EH.NET (January 1999)

Linda Barrington, editor, The Other Side of the Frontier: Economic

Explorations into Native American History. Boulder, CO; Westview Press,

1998. xiii + 301 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0813333954; $25.00 (paper),

ISBN: 0813333 962.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Thomas Weiss, Department of Economics, University of


This is a welcome and useful collection of articles, even though the articles

are not new and original pieces and are not focused on any one the me of Native

American history. Although most of the essays were published previously, their

concentration in one place helps to get across the key idea that Native

Americans responded to economic signals in much the same way that economic

theory would pr edict for any rational economic agent. The essays cover a wide

swath of time, space and issues, and this diversity helps underscore the

universality of their responses to economic forces.

The collection appears to have been motivated in part to provide

material for those interested in providing a more “diversity-friendly”

economics curriculum, in part to disseminate more widely recent literature that

examines Native American history from an economics perspective, and in part to

stimulate further research along these same lines.

I doubt that the essays will be much used to diversify the economics

curriculum. With the exception of the articles by Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis,

“Property Rights and Competition in the Depletion of the Beaver,”

Leonard Carlso n, “The Economics and Politics of Irrigation Projects on Indian

Reservations, 1900-1940,” and by Terry Anderson and Fred McChesney,

“The Political Economy of Indian Wars,” the analysis is not developed in ways

that would make it suitable to teach some particular economic concept or

behavior. And the latter article, although a nice example of the application

of political economic models, is not likely to be the sort of topic covered in

many introductory economic courses. If the idea is to diversify the curriculum

in economic history courses, then the collection fares much better.

In addition to these three, several other articles would be useful as well.

The book should serve to stimulate further research on the economic behavior of

Native Americans wi thin institutional constraints rather than that of an

exploited people decimated by the advance of western civilization. The latter

is a well known story. It is now time to better understand how Native

Americans behaved under those pressures and how those developments and their

reactions have bearing on current issues facing Native Americans and U.S.

society. Most of the articles make clear where some further research is

called for, and the totality of the collection provides a sense that all this


a line of inquiry well worth pursuing.

The authors are, of course, careful to point out that any research will be

hampered by a lack of evidence, especially evidence about how the Native

Americans saw these events. An overriding difficulty with any such research is

the great diversity within the Native American population. It is one thing to

imagine that economic principles can be used to explain behavior, it is quite

another to see how it actually worked out in specific cases across a long time


a wide spectrum of events, and involving diverse tribes and cultures.

Given the great diversity and long time period, the book attempts to focus on

key episodes of Native American economic history and salient issues of the

different time periods. The long history is compartmentalized into four

periods: Pre-Colonial Civilizations, Trade and Colonial Economies,

Westward Expansion, and Twentieth Century Federalism. Each section has a short

introduction and two or three articles. Barrington provides a useful overview

of Native American history and its relation to U.S. economic history more

generally, out of which comes the rationale for the four-part categorization.

Vernon Smith’s article covers the entire pre-colonial period, with a sweeping

analysis of the role of economic forces and institutions throughout mankind’s

history. If he is to be believed, economic forces,

such as changes in relative costs and accumulation of human capital,

explain just about everything, including not only inventions, but

also language and bipedalism. To be fair he eventually allows that bipedalism

was a bioeconomic response (p. 72). Much of his story will strike many readers

as nothing more than a relabeling of causes. After all, if we do not know what

brought about certain changes 5 or 10 million years ago, we might just as well

say it was changes in relative costs rather than some biological mutation or

climactic disaster. He does, however, make a plausible case for many of the

developments that took place, and perhaps we should rightly think of it as

economic behavior. At least this will get people to start looking at these

sorts of things from a different perspective, with perhaps fruitful results.

As much as I might laud his efforts to recast these long evolutionary

developments in economic terms, it is easy to see why many non-economists will

be skeptical. Some of the responses, such as the inventions of weapons for

big-game hunting or the shift from hunting to agriculture for example, took a

very long time to evolve. Along the way not all developments were obviously

conscious decisions being made by rational economic agents; they just happened.

Indeed, they would not seem to be the sort of calculating economic actions

described by Demsetz in which

“Property rights develop to internalize externalities when the gains of

internalization become larger than the cost of internalization” (p. 104).

It is hard to imagine early Cro-Magnon people working these things out in their

heads. And, Smith admits that some responses were unconscious (p.

68). As valuable as it might be to now try to describe those unconscious

decisions, most non-economists will prefer to think of some of these things as

the result of biological evolution, the survival of the fittest,


factors, or simply chance.

The main thrust of Smith’s argument, however, is extremely pertinent and he

presents a plausible case for reconsidering enormous and far-distant

developments in economic terms. He argues neatly that “culture and


can be interpreted as providing the information system for transmitting the

learning embodied in the unconscious response to opportunity cost.” (p. 68).

Although his article has little to do with Native Americans, its value is to

set the tone. If way back when economic forces were at work shaping language,

culture, and mankind–indeed man–then a fortiori these forces must have

influenced Native American behavior. Subsequent essays develop these ideas

more fully.

Barrington in “The Mississippians and

Economic Development Before European Colonization,” argues that in the

precolonial period the existence of Indian towns, such as Cahokia, is part of

the evidence that not all indigenous societies were hunters and gatherers prior

to European contact.


practiced a sedentary agriculture, and there was long-distance trade,

specialization of labor, taxation and social hierarchy. The latter may have

had some influence on the subsequent development of the southeastern United

States, although the link with

slavery seems rather tenuous.

Anderson and LaCombe’s piece, “Institutional Change in the Indian Horse

Culture,” delineates carefully how economic behavior must have been manifest in

the hunting techniques and how they changed with the introduction of the

horse. They also argue that much of this change occurred before there was

extensive contact with Europeans.

The essays on the colonial period are both concerned with trade–the fur trade

in the North and the skin trade in South Carolina. Carlos and Lew is try to

show that Indian behavior that led to the depletion of the beaver stock was not

irrational or culturally-determined, but rather was the outcome of a very

predictable response to changes in the prices received for beaver, and those

changes reflected differences in the competition faced by the Hudson’s Bay

Company. Murphy puts forth a similar sort of economic argument in “The

Eighteenth-Century Southeastern American Indian Economy.” To be sure there

were political influences at work, but he argues that Indians were clearly

motivated by market forces. They were involved in a large commercial hunting

market and their production rose and fell as the real price of skins rose and

fell. At its peak, the deerskin trade provided export earnings that

rivaled those of the Middle colonies,

and as prices fell Indians shifted into alternative economic activities.

David Wishart provides compelling evidence that the Cherokee were responding

well to economic forces; they were successful farmers and heavily

involved in commercial agriculture. In “Could the Cherokee Have Survived in

the Southeast?” he uses evidence from a special census of 1835 to show that at

least half, and perhaps three-fourths, of Cherokee households were producing

substantial agricultural surpluses. From an economic perspective there is

little doubt that they could have survived and thus the argument that they were

to be removed to Oklahoma for humanitarian reasons seems dubious. For

political reasons, however, they might not have be en able to survive and for

that reason the Removal may have been in their interest. James Oberly presents

an interesting and succinct analysis of the demographic history of the Lake

Superior Ojibwa in

“Land, Population, Prices and the Regulation of Natur al Resources.” Unlike

the other authors he does not stress how this tribe responded to economic

forces, but does show that until the late nineteenth century they performed

well economically. He also makes the point that in their treaty negotiations


exhibited astute economic thinking, and had estimated quite accurately the

time it would have taken whites to cut the timber on their lands and thus

probably had a good idea of the present value of their assets (p. 198). The

final essay in the Westward

Expansion section is that by Anderson and McChesney, in which they lay out

nicely how political economy models can explain the increase in conflict

between Indians and whites between 1790 and 1897, much of which can be traced

to the acquisition of the horse which turned otherwise sedentary tribes into

nomads. As Smith put it, “For a century and a half the history of the American

West was a history of fear and terror of the Comanche, who, prior to the

arrival of the mustang, had picked berries and dug roots” (p. 75).

The twentieth century economic history of Indians is primarily that of

Federalism. Leonard Carlson provides a succinct history of the key elements of

the Indian-government relations and then analyzes more thoroughly the allotment

program and irrigation policies that were in place between the passage of the

Dawes Act (1887) and the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. He uses a public

choice approach to show that these programs and policies did not work

primarily for the benefit of the Indians.

Although some Indians did benefit, there was also a waste of resources, and

perhaps more noteworthy, a transfer of resources to bureaucrats in the Bureau

of Indian Affairs and to non-Indian ranchers and farmers. LaCroix and Rose

come to similar conclusions regarding the Hawaiian Home Lands Program. Both

of these papers raise the specter of some counterfactual analysis, but do not

pursue such inquiries in these papers. Carlson notes how difficult it would be

to imagine what alternative organizational scheme might have worked better

than relying on newly formed tribal councils (p.

254). LaCroix and Rose elsewhere propose some reforms of the HHL program,

implying they have in mind some counterfactual that might work better, but they

are skeptical that any such reforms will be adopted soon.

In all this is a useful book, setting out pertinent issues and showing the

sorts of analysis that can be applied. It also makes clear that careful

economic analysis of Native American issues is in its infancy, with much room

to grow. All of these pieces have been written within the last five years, and

they are among the best there is.

Thomas Weiss Department of Economics University of Kansas

Weiss is currently engaged in a joint research project to estimate

GDP for the colonial period. His co-investigators are Joshua Rosenbloom and

Peter Mancall, both of the University of Kansas. A related article “Was

Economic Growth Likely in Colonial British North America” by Mancall and Weiss

is forthcoming in the Journal of Economic History.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):General or Comparative