In the 1970s, there was a trendy movement in academia to romanticize Native Americans into pure, innocent, saint-like beings. Richard White wrote The Roots of Dependency to butt heads with the romantics, while at the same time presenting the European invaders in a manner that was anything but flattering. He sought to pursue an approach to history having greater balance and accuracy. White examined the history of three tribes, the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. He described how their traditional subsistence way of life collapsed, and how they eventually became dependent on white society for their survival.
The traditional home of the Choctaws is now the state of Mississippi. Before the whites arrived, they had become addicted to a dangerous habit, agriculture, which had harmful side effects, like population growth and ecological destruction. When the chaotic dance of climate delivered drought seasons, the food supply was threatened. All tribes in the scorched regions intensified their hunting, which inevitably lead to conflicts. There was not enough wild game to feed excessive numbers of corn eaters. Famine helped to restore balance.
In the sixteenth century, disease-ridden Spanish tourists trekked through the southeast. Before long, 80 percent of the natives had dropped dead. In the absence of significant hunting, the numbers of deer and buffalo exploded. Abundant game allowed the Choctaws the luxury of depending less on farming, a dirty and toilsome occupation. Things were fairly cool for a while, until French and English traders moved in and trashed the neighborhood.
In the early days, business activity at the trading posts was modest. The Choctaws brought in some deerskins from time to time. Once a hunter owned a decent knife, he saw no point in acquiring ten more knives. Their frugality mystified the Europeans, because the woods remained crowded with deer — exploitable wealth. The whites believed that the “love of gain” was a universal human trait: work more, get more stuff. They suffered from a soul-killing mental illness that came to be known as the Puritan work ethic.
Around 1740, trading posts in Creek country were handling 100,000 deerskins per year, while Choctaw country produced a mere 15,000 skins. In order to boost Choctaw business, the traders decided to break two laws: they started carrying liquor, and they offered credit to the hunters: drink now, pay later.
Unfortunately, many Choctaws found rum to be irresistible, and they tumbled into an era of drunken brawls, murders, and social breakdown. The proceeds from months of hunting could be guzzled overnight in a whirlwind of oblivion drinking. The hunters had little understanding of numbers or interest rates, and they essentially became slaves. Before long, rum constituted 80 percent of the trading.
The traders were aggressive about collecting debts, and they sometimes got land cessions for payment. Crushing debt and rum fever sparked intensive overhunting. Using his new musket, a hunter could kill 20 times more deer than his bow-hunting father. In 1770, a visitor to Choctaw country commented, “Almost half of the men had never killed either a deer or a turkey in their entire lives.” They were forced to become full-time farmers, making them helpless sitting ducks for the crop-roasting droughts of 1777, 1778, 1782, and 1792.
The trading economy blindsided traditional Choctaw society, making a few rich, and more poor. The traditional culture of sharing and cooperation was seriously damaged. Murders became a daily affair. In 1830, the whites seized their land, and sent the tribe off to Indian Territory.
Credit has a powerful crazy-making juju. Once upon a time, the major multinational religions banned usury — Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity. It was virtuous to help others, but charging interest on loans was a devilish enterprise (making money whilst doing no work). In the words of the venerable wise guy Benjamin Franklin: “Who goeth a borrowing goeth a sorrowing.” It’s vitally important to remember that. Borrowing has destroyed countless lives, and brought many large economic systems to their knees.
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The Pawnees lived in western Nebraska and Kansas. They weren’t very interested in trading, and they largely refused liquor. Neighboring tribes were more eager to trade, which led to sharp reductions in the numbers of beaver, otters, elk, and deer. Diseases arrived in the 1750s, and a smallpox epidemic in 1831 killed half of the tribe. Droughts periodically dried up the bliss.
The arrival of horses around 1700 created many serious problems. They were seen as being private property, leading to wealth disparity, and the consequent social strains. Prior to horses, the only animals you owned were the ones you killed. Nobody owned the vast roaming herds, and this belief was a mainstay of all happy and sustainable societies.
The horses raided the crops, which infuriated the women, and led to the breakup of many marriages. The ecosystem was poorly suited for keeping large numbers of horses year round, and the Pawnees did not cut and store hay. Tall grasses lost their nutritional value when they dried up, and many horses perished during harsh winters.
Horses made it much easier to hunt buffalo, but they also made it easier for enemies to visit, and the spread of firearms increased the level of violence. Living in a remote location was no longer safe and secure. In this era, horse-mounted slave raiders snatched Indians from many tribes.
The Pawnee’s problems became serious when the whites decided to hunt buffalo on an industrial scale. Competition for food became intense. It was not uncommon for hunters returning home to find their women, children, and elders dead, their horses missing, their fields burned, their lodges destroyed, and their stored food gone. The Sioux and their allies were powerful enemies, and they eventually defeated the Pawnees. Three years later, the Americans conquered the Sioux. The Pawnees moved to Indian Territory in the 1870s. By 1900 the tribe had dwindled to 1,000.
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The Navajo or Diné remain on their own land. Their reservation covers portions of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. They were farmers when the Spanish colonists arrived with their livestock. Eventually the Navaho acquired livestock and became ranchers, raising horses, goats, and especially sheep. The Navajo were able to thrive on land that the whites thought to be nearly worthless. In 1869 they owned 15,000 to 20,000 sheep, and fifteen years later they had almost a million sheep and goats. Periodic droughts and severe winters killed hundreds of thousands of animals, but the herds were back to a million or more by 1930.
Overgrazing contributed to increased erosion and land degradation, and this made the whites nervous. The expensive new Boulder Dam (later called Hoover Dam) was collecting a lot of silt, much of it running off Navajo land. Experts recommended exterminating the vegetation-gobbling prairie dogs, and sharply reducing the size of Navajo herds. Hundreds of thousands of sheep and goats were killed or removed, and countless prairie dogs were poisoned.
This did not make the natives happy. They agreed that the range was in poor condition, but believed that the cause of this was drought, not overgrazing. The government aggressively took measures to reduce herds, at the same time that drought made farming nearly impossible. The drought ended in 1941, and the reservation exploded with lush green vegetation. After World War II it became clear that stock reduction had not healed the range, and that the livestock business had a limited future.
The tribe became dependent on American society in the 1950s, as wage work and welfare expanded. “The Navajo reservation today remains overgrazed, but on the reservation strip-mining, radioactive rivers, and mines which cause cancer dwarf overgrazing as an environmental problem.”
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In the end, the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajo became dependent on white society. All three had enjoyed greater stability and freedom prior to 1492. All three were slammed by contagious disease, and by the disease of the market economy — both were weapons of mass destruction.
White focused his attention on the notion of dependency, but another component of this process was disintegration. In traditional Indian society, nobody went hungry unless everybody did. Cooperation and sharing were essential components of every functional culture. The introduction of private property (personal wealth) inspired endless conflicts and roaring craziness. It always does. Harmony in the human sphere disintegrated. On a larger scale, traditional harmony with the ecosystem also disintegrated, as human society increasingly fell out of balance with the family of life.
All three tribes practiced primitive agriculture. Prior to 1492, they had no livestock to produce manure for maintaining soil fertility, a serious shortcoming that contributed to rapid depletion of the land. History informs us that agriculture is almost never sustainable in the long run. It creates more problems than it solves. It’s vitally important to remember that.
All three tribes were seriously affected by normal climate variations. Today, in our temporary energy wonderland, food is promptly shipped in to regions suffering from crop failures, and famine is avoided. Almost all societies in human history lacked this safety net. Instead, intelligent societies created a safety net based on deliberately maintaining a population that was well below the carrying capacity of their wild and healthy ecosystem. Remember that.
White, Richard, The Roots of Dependency, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 1983.