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The Encyclopedia of Native American Economic History

Author(s):Johansen, Bruce E.
Reviewer(s):Wishart, David M.


Bruce E. Johansen, editor, The Encyclopedia of Native American Economic

History. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1999. xvii + 301 pp. $85, ISBN:


Reviewed for EH.NET by David M. Wishart, Department of Economics,

Wittenberg University.

Compiling any sort

of volume on Native Americans with “Encyclopedia” in the title is a daunting

task given the diversity of Native American cultures and experiences. Johansen

is the Robert T. Reilly Professor of Communication and Native American Studies

at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and would seem to be a good choice for

editing a work such as this one. He has written extensively about topics

related to Native Americans over the last two decades including five books

(three co-authored), one of them titled The Encyclopedia of Native American

Biography (New York:

Henry Holt, 1997). Contributors to The Encyclopedia of Native American

Economic History include Donald Grinde, Jr., Fred Leroy, Barbara A. Mann,

Jerry Stubben, and Michael Tate. Grinde, Mann, and Tate a re historians,

Stubben is a professor of political science, and Leroy is chairman of the Ponca

Tribe of Nebraska. Unfortunately, there are no economists among the

contributors and it shows in the product. If good economic history consists of

a combination

of history and economic theory on every page, as McCloskey has suggested, then

this book falls short of the mark by quite a distance.

The absence of any attempt at an analytical treatment of the economic history

of Native Americans is glaring. One could

convincingly argue that the title of the book should be simply The

Encyclopedia of Native American History. The history that is presented is

as much social, political,

military, environmental, demographic, and epidemiological as it is economic.

Certainly, the types of history covered in this volume represent important

lines of inquiry for students of Native American history and economic history.

But a proper synthesis of economic theory, quantitative analysis, and Native

American history remains to be presented.

Johansen’s volume begins

with the all-too-short entry (four pages) “Agriculture, Native American” and

continues through the alphabet with just

under two hundred entries contained in 300 pages including a bibliography and

index. Each entry is followed by a list of several references. This approach

could work. However, with few exceptions, the entries are too short to offer

anything but a cursory introduction to the topic discussed.

In many cases, important works are left out of the list of references. For

example, R. Douglas Hurt’s excellent book, Indian Agriculture in America:

Prehistory to Present (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1987), is

absent from the first entry on agriculture. Theda Perdue’s work, Slavery and

the Evolution of Cherokee Society: 1540-1866 (Knoxville: University of

Tennessee Press, 1979), is missing for the Cherokee economy entry. The Slavery

and Native Americans entry contains no reference to the enslavement of African

Americans by Native Americans in the southeastern United States,

surely an important issue in the economic history of Native Americans. No

mention is made of Mary Young’s classic volume, Redskins, Ruffleshirts and

Rednecks: Indian Allotments in Alabama and Mississippi, 1830-1860 (Norman,


University of Oklahoma Press, 1961), in the history of land allotments to

Native Americans that is presented.

These criticisms aside, some of the entries are quite good. For example,

the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) economy receives more detailed treatment over 15

pages and comes the closest of any of the entries in the book to representing

an analytical approach to Native American economic history. The entry stresses

gendered production in its explanation of Iroquois women’s

agriculture and men’s forest husbandry. The view presented is that gendered

production should not be interpreted as stemming from male domination, but

rather from a theory of cosmic balance, the “principle of the Twins,” that

undergirds Iroquois institutions. This essay is especially engaging because it

provides an explanation of Native American economic behavior in the context of

Native American institutions. Judging from contemporary reports, the Iroquois

institutions were highly successful at organizing the production of substantial

surpluses of food to support prosperous and powerful communities.

The gambling entry provides considerable information on an important

contemporary economic topic in Native American society. With the exception of

the Akwesasne Mohawks of St. Regis in Upstate New York, where violence erupted

between supporters and opponents of gambling, the portrayal of gambling

operations on Native American reservations is largely positive.

Communities previously mired in poverty have seen astounding increases in their

incomes as a result of casino gambling. The operations are typically

associated with significant expansion of employment opportunities.

Despite the wide diversity of experience among Native American people,

commonality exists, so there is, understandably,

considerable overlap in the topics discussed in many of the entries. For

example, all communities had first contact experiences with whites. Typically,

these first contacts involved trade, which for an economic historian, sets the

stage for consideration

of attitudes toward exchange among Native Americans and Europeans. Exchange

was usually followed by the introduction of disease to Native Americans and

warfare between Native American and European communities, again setting up an

opportunity for an economic historian to consider the impact of huge losses of

human capital and land on Native Americans. Succumbing to the depredations of

disease and warfare, most Native Americans have more recently accepted removal

to reservation lands followed by attempts at rebuilding their cultures often

with the involvement of the federal government. Here, the challenge for

economic historians is to describe the political economy of interaction between

Native Americans and the federal government.

Rather than attempt to

present an introduction to Native American economic history via an

encyclopedia, it may be more fruitful to pursue an approach that emphasizes

these common experiences. A fuller, more coherent presentation of Native

American economic institutions and their performance prior to and after

contact with Europeans would be possible with the discussion arranged around

economic processes such as exchange, gains and losses of human and physical

capital, and the political economy of relations between Native Americans and

the federal government.

While Johansen’s volume fails to fully satisfy the need for an economic history

of Native Americans, it does bring together a wide array of accounts and

sources that will no doubt be a part of future work in the field. In

doing so, this book will prove useful to many students of Native American

economic history.

David M. Wishart Department of Economics Wittenberg University

Wishart is currently at work on a paper that compares Cherokee and white

agriculture during the antebellum period in Georgia and Alabama. His article,

“Could the Cherokee Have Survived in the Southeast?” appears in

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

History, edited by Linda Barrington (Boulder, CO: Westview P ress, 1999).

David M. Wishart should not be confused with David J. Wishart, who also writes

on topics related to Native American history.

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