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
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.