The Legacy of the North American Fur Trade:Market Economy vs. Subsistence Economy

One of the most amazing things one must acknowledge when studying human evolution is man’s sense of priority regarding elements that make up the daily struggle for survival. This is most obvious when focusing on primitive man’s instinctive reactions to environmental changes. Changes forced him to adapt and prioritize his life differently in order to continue his existence. A cyclical pattern emerged, whereby primitive man assumed habitation within an environment for as long as that environment could support him. Once it could no longer he either adjusted his methods of living to meet the new demands for survival, or he moved to another suited for his preferred way of life, or he perished. The primary goal was subsistence. Subsistence economics and the culture it produced remained the driving life force for primitive man and so too for Native Americans. That is, until the introduction of European traders and the market economy.

The various nations that inhabited North America prior to the greatest influx of European influence had created their respective cultures around the subsistence economy. The subsistence economy dictated the rules that balanced life and death. Generations of continuous struggle with nature for sustenance brought about the development of social, political, religious and economic patterns. Eventually separate and distinct cultures emerged and attached themselves atop the foundations established by these patterns: gender roles were dictated by methods of collecting available foodstuff, leadership was determined in the most natural way that facilitated the best physical protection, deities were super-imposed natural characters that provided all of existence through spirituality, and the economy centered on products that facilitated life. These basic themes and traits may have been stressed in importance at varying degrees from one group of natives to the next, but they can be found in every culture that revolved around subsistence.

The Europeans brought to North America the fur trade and the market economy, at which centered the transfer of commodities not necessarily essential for the extension but more for the embellishment of life. This, in practical definition, new way of envisioning the environment presented an alternate window of reality where the culture of native America would not survive. The introduction of the market economy served to alter native culture in many ways. Some nations were able to absorb the changes, adapt and prioritize their lifestyles to prolong cultural survival. Some found necessity in moving on to continue life as they felt it suited them. Many perished. The effects were almost immediate. But the causalities of the drastic transformations that erupted to deface the sudaric cloth of the native past would take many years to surface and still is topic for debate. However, it can be safely said that the replacement of or intrusion upon the subsistence economy by the market economy was the conflict that raged to undermine Indian culture.

The European-Indian fur trade was the most powerful and most documented era where many different cultures could be found at any given stage of evolution into the market economy. There are thousands of histories on Native American culture and they all offer testimony to the affects European and American trading had on their societies. One such study is Richard White’s 1983, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaw, Pawnees, and Navajo. White’s argument is that the triumph of the market economy was neither easy nor inevitable. The Indians resisted in order to preserve their culture, but ultimately entrapment in the market, environmental and social catastrophe, and inappropriate political customs set the stage for Native American dependence on Anglo products.

White’s study of the three nations of natives attempts offer explanation for the collapse of the aboriginal subsistence system while examining how human societies influence environment and the social consequences of human induced change. Additionally, his research involves the political, social, and economic relations that motivated human actions on the land. The fundamental cause of the “social consequences” that transformed native culture was the white man’s attempt to bring Indian resources into the market economy.

The subsistence cultures of the Choctaw, Pawnee, and Navajo were only as different as the environments in which they lived. The Choctaw of the Mississippi Valley, Pawnee in the Kansas and Nebraska plains, and Navajo in the Arizona and New Mexico deserts had built their subsistence system balancing food collection through horticulture and hunting. The European and American fur traders, questing for the profits of the hunt, incorporated natives to assist in gathering skins. In exchange, traders offered products and goods that Indians saw as useful within the context of their subsistence economy. As demand grew for furs and skins, the Indians failed to meet the market demand because their priorities were in only obtaining the product they needed. Items like pots, woolens, guns and horses were not perishable and so once they had been obtained it was only necessary to meet the demand of the trade market once those items need to be replaced.

The initial introduction, it seemed, of the market economy had very little influence on the established native economy. Trade was only a new peripheral aspect of Indian culture. It did not seep into the core of societies that remained preoccupied with survival. However, the intense pressure for conformance to capitalistic values, the issuance of credit, and the introduction of liquor (a perishable) caused “structural distortions – political, economic and social” to result. This conditioning, of one economic system over another, caused a “syndrome…of characteristics” which denied natives the ability of expansion or self-sufficiency. The results were dependency, loss of control over resources and increased pressure to lose group identity.

The greatest factor in directing native inability to maintain self-sufficiency was the change in the environments that was brought about by the increased demand from the market economy. The Choctaw and Pawnee staples of white-tailed deer and buffalo respectively were practically hunted to extinction and the Navajo land that supported goat and sheep was invaded and left barren by massive herds of cattle. These events forced an imbalance in the subsistence cycle causing a reprioritization and adjustment that best facilitated continued survival. That adjustment in White’s view was dependency.

The problem with this notion is that while yes the market economy did irrevocably alter native life, White assumes the same perspective of Native Americans that ultimately led to Native American subjugation and exploitation. That assumption is that societies that had maintained and perpetuated their existence for thousands of years must have been overcome by a more superior force (in this case economic) rather than instinctively adapting and prioritizing, adjusting to meet the demands of survival. Granted the results were catastrophic and unfortunate in terms of the loss of ancient histories and even life, but it is important that natives be given the credit of still being in control of their destiny…for without that they became extinct the minute the first European landed.

Also published in 1983 was Sylvia Van Kirk’s study of the fur trade and market economy affect on gender issues, specifically the social changes made involving native and mixed blood women. Her book, entitled Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870, examines the growing social, political and of course economic influence north western Canadian women exerted as a direct result of the domination of the fur trade. Van Kirk asserts native women who became spouses of fur traders were vital in the advancement of the market economy. Additionally, because there was very little distinction between a woman’s “home sphere” and “work sphere” they supplied an integral socio-economic role that served to not only expand capitalism among natives, but also woman’s rights among the European.

Van Kirk claims that in fur trade, white and Indians met “on the most equitable footing that has ever characterized the meeting of “civilized” and “primitive.” She also stresses less the total capitulation of the subsistence system in favor the market economy instead she insists that the changes that evolved were results of shifting influences of dual cultural roots. Because of their isolation from European culture and because of their quest for commercial success, traders adopted many Native American traditions and customs. To accentuate cross-cultural cooperation many traders accepted wives from tribal leaders, establishing a kinship and reciprocal privileges between the two cultures. As the “tie” that bound the two, women were firmly established in a position of influence and reverence. In addition to being the “unofficial” work force of the fur trade industry, they were also relied on for their domestic skills. These skills included the making of moccasins and snowshoes, curing produce, collecting alternate foods, dressing furs and skins, and serving as guides and interpreters.

These women assisted propelling the market economy forward because they felt that it was in their best interest that trade succeeded. Many of the goods that were traded for by Indians directly revolutionized women’s work. Metals for agricultural tools, pots for cooking, and horses that took the burden of pack animal off their shoulders were advancements that native women felt they could not live without. The Victorian values and chivalristic notions carried by many of the European traders were also influential to some Indian women’s notions that their fate would be better with traders. Many native women who became trader’s wives saw an increased range of autonomy and freedom from cultural taboos. It is this perspective that Van Kirk has offered that is most historically ground breaking. The idea that capitalism and the market economy were supported by women not because of one’s superiority over the other, but because they provided an outlet for gender equalization and elevation is very revolutionary. However, it only reinforces the theory that man (in this case woman) continues the prioritization concept within the context of an ever-changing environment.

Van Kirk’s non-emphasis on native victimization is bold and may help explain, as she says “the dynamics of social and economic interaction.” But perhaps she does more to explain the subtleties and nuances that lay at the crossroads of historical alternatives. These nuances do more to shape the future than they are perceived credibly capable. The problem, however, is that they must be studied within the larger historical trends to be significantly appreciable. In this case proper contextual relevance must be applied to the study of women’s influence in the fur trade by establishing the larger issue of the competing economic philosophies. Only then can any singular group’s influence be given proper reflectance.

More current examination of the influence of the fur trade on Native American culture lies in Kathryn E. Holland Braund’s 1993 Deerskins and Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815. Braund’s thesis is that the market economy represented by the fur trade was prosperous to both the Europeans as well as the Indians as each adopted the styles, interests and valuables of the other. Reminiscent of White, Braund states that trade goods ceased to be novelties and became necessities for the Indians forcing economic dependence on trade (somehow translated into a mutually prosperous relationship). This dependence, in turn had “irreparably changed” native culture.

What is different about Braund’s approach as compared to White is that she employs cultural histories as well as ethnological studies to present a “before market economy” and an “after market economy” picture of native culture. Braund presents the transformation of the Creek culture, highlighting elements of the fur trade as the primary impetus of that transformation. Her “pre-trader” and “post-trader” portrayal of the Creek nation includes outlines of gender roles in the social, labor, and domestic arenas as well as an overview of the Creek political and religious mechanisms.

Following European advancements into Creek culture, a “notable contrast” occurred that improved and complicated Indian life. The Creeks most notable contrast between their “pre” and “post” trade contact was their increased tribal power in relationship to other tribes. Maintenance of that power was essential to the Creek leaders who began an increasing reliance on the fur trade to supply the tribe with weapons and horses. Creek warriors over hunted the deer population (for trade) causing an imbalance in the environment and the subsistence cycle that supported them. That reliance and the introduction of liquor spiraled into eventual dependence on European goods.

Braund’s history applies the advantage of being the latter version out of the box. She combines the strengths White and Van Kirk respectively share in their narratives. However, each approaches the study of the fur trade from the same general vantage. In each example we are correctly led to conclude that the forces that direct an economy directly affect if not dictate the culture that employs that economy. Any alterations, or as with Native Americans, substitutions of economies lead to dramatic and monumental cultural adaptations. White, Van Kirk, and Braund offer examples of how alteration of American Indian economics rapidly disrupted environmental, gender, and ethnological patterns. These patterns had been established over thousands of years of consistent practice of a subsistence-based economy. However, each authors’ conclusion, while although technically correct, leave the reader and the discipline of history with a false sense that these cultures continued in their somewhat altered form. If the logic is followed through the result is not altered culture, but new culture…first generation mutated offspring of the dynamic conflict between two economies.

As was alluded to above but will be more directly stated now, economics derive culture. The subsistence economy created and formed Native culture. Its replacement with the market philosophy was followed by Indian’s failed attempt to continue the application of that culture supported by a surrogate economy. While many customs and traditions were maintained (most altered in purpose), Native Americans who did not practicing subsistence economics found their ancient cultures replaced with new ones. These new cultures reflected the instincts of priority. This is how Native American culture should be studied, as new additions in man’s evolutionary adaptation to the environment.

Native culture was the strongest and most virile culture for the economy from which it sprang. That is its historical significance. The cultures that exist today are their testament to the evolutionary laws that govern man’s continued survival.

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