Was American Indian Overhunting Responsible for the Near-Extinction of the Buffalo?

Bison, Grand Teton National Park. Photo: Jeffrey St. Clair.

In the 1990s, there were repeated attempts to debunk the idea of an ecological Indian. Scholars and activists with seemingly little in common all sought to portray the Indian as wasteful of natural resources, if not even worse than the European settlers who have left the USA resembling a toxic dump as the 21st century stumbles forward.

My first encounter with this trend was with Frank Furedi’s sect in the early 90s that published a magazine called Living Marxism, better known as LM. (They still exist as Spiked today, long after dispensing with the idea that they are Marxist.) When I saw an LM article around that time denouncing Survival International as a group that sought to keep the Brazilian indigenous peoples “preserved in amber” like in the Museum of Natural History, I could not believe my eyes. The Yanomami were in danger of extinction as a result of mining and ranching excursions into their territory and these self-described Marxists were attacking the main group trying to protect them.

Furedi’s group in England was called the Revolutionary Communist Party that shared a name with Bob Avakian’s cult in the USA but little else politically except their belief that the left should not believe in the “noble savage”. In a debate with leaders of the American Indian Movement in 1980, Avakian’s spokesman referred to the “second harvest”, a practice from around 7,000 years ago when some indigenous peoples stored dried feces so that in the event of a famine, they could extract undigested seeds and other products for food. In other words, Indians ate shit.

The academic left wasn’t much better. In David Harvey’s 1996 “Justice, Nature & the Geography of Difference”, he wrote that stone-age hunters had no way of determining whether they were overexploiting prey. This was the result of their inability to make connections between current and future animal populations. This would account for the disappearance of the Woolly Mammoth, for instance. He also fretted over Indian claims for land that was stolen from them in the 1800s. He feared that such “militant particularism” could  can foster “nationalistic, exclusionary, and some cases violently fascistic” elements.

Harvey’s book attracted little support and he even disavowed it a few years after its publication. But one book stood out for its impact on American Indian scholars, the broader academy, as well as on Jonah Goldberg, the founding editor of National Review Online. That was Shepard Krech’s 2000 “The Ecological Indian: Myth and History” that should have been properly titled “The anti-Ecological Indian”. It was an assemblage of all the charges ever levelled against the Indian, including the business about killing off the Woolly Mammoth.

In a knock-out review of Krech’s book, Vine Deloria Jr. pointed out that if the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth was a function of being killed off by hunters in search of food, how does that explain the 5,000 sabre tooth and dire wolf skulls on the walls of the La Brea Tar Pits, hardly the sort of thing that would grace a Pleistocene dinner table?

I was shocked to see a favorable reference to Krech’s book in George Wuerthner’s June 9th CounterPunch article that reverted back to the “noble savage” debates of the 90s. Wuerthner, an author whose defense of publicly owned lands are commendable, decided to wise up the left that American Indians were far more responsible for the near-extinction of the buffalo than people like William “Buffalo Bill” Cody who once told a wealthy hunter that felt a twinge of guilt after he shot 30 bulls in one trip: “Kill every buffalo you can! Every buffalo dead is an Indian gone.”

Wuerthner begins his article:

Many authors today suggest that Indigenous people somehow behaved differently from other humans, particularly western culture that now dominates the globe in their relationship and exploitation of natural lands. The general theme is that while the human influence pre-European contact was significant, human exploitation was tempered by cultural values and techniques that did not disrupt ecosystem processes. Some suggest that conservation lands would be better managed with more positive outcomes for ecological integrity if Indigenous peoples were given oversight and control of these lands.

Does Wuerthner really believe that there’s a danger of wasteful Indians turning the Dakotas or Montana into something worse than exists today, with fracking, ranching and mining despoiling these states? He considered such ills as preventable as long as a small population and primitive technology prevail. But as soon as modernization kicks in, Mother Earth will suffer. He writes, “With modern technology, medicine, food availability and other factors, including dependency on the global economy, almost all indigenous people are freed from these prior constraints. Indeed, have been freed for several centuries in most places.” Implicit in these words is the notion that socialism will not change anything. There is almost a Deep Ecology interpretation that would have us returning to the stone age to prevent environmental woes.

It should be mentioned that this is almost exactly what Krech wrote: “The native people who molded North America were fully capable of transformative action in ecosystems they knew intimately, but in almost all instances their population was too small to have made much of a difference”.

For Wuerthner, the Indians were harmless until they started to use the horse to kill the buffalo with industrial-like efficiency just as sailing ships in the 1800s nearly led to the extinction of the whale. He argues that most buffalo were killed off before the hunting expeditions by Buffalo Bill and others delivered the coup de grace.

He adds a further factor that might have made the Indian more susceptible to the wanton destruction of the buffalo. It was their fierceness that was comparable to Napoleon Chagnon’s characterization of the Yanomami as the “fierce people”. He takes considerable pains to dredge up their detractors including one Duane Schultz whose “Month of the Freezing Moon” included this reference to such ferocity: “the Cheyenne boys were taught to fight and die gloriously, and their goal was to become the bravest warrior… To the Cheyenne, anyone who was not of their own tribe was an enemy….” Wuerthner might have thought twice about citing Schultz who also wrote a George Custer biography hailing his “leadership” qualities.

There’s one sentence in Wuerthner’s article that cries out for expansion, however. He wrote:

Tribal people like the Blackfeet, Crow and other plains tribes considered beaver trapping beneath their dignity. They were bison hunters, and hunting bison is what they did not only for their subsistence but also for trade to obtain everything from pretty cloth to rifles.

What does it mean to exchange buffalo hides for manufactured goods? It simply means that the Indians used their labor (riding horses and firing rifles) to produce commodities that could be exchanged for goods manufactured in the USA or England that produced super-profits for the capitalists. For example, it took five buffalo hides to generate the money to buy a gallon of whiskey. The whiskey cost $16, while those hides produced about a hundred dollars for the exporter. Not  bad.

All along the Missouri River, there were trading posts that lured the Indians into what Samir Amin called “unequal exchange”. When you keep in mind that the main source of leather before the emergence of cattle ranching in the late 1800s was buffalo hides, you can understand why companies like the American Fur Company poured money into the spread of trading posts throughout the American grasslands. Founded by John Jacob Astor in 1808, it was one of the earliest sources of capital accumulation in the New World.

In Andrew Isenberg’s magisterial “The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750–1920”, there’s a chapter titled “The Ascendancy of the Market” that describes the transformation of Indian tribes into nomadic bison hunters of the Great Plains that supplied hides to American and European textile manufacturers.

At the beginning of the 19th century, the Indians had little use for trade goods. Until the early 1830s, Indians created their own household goods rather than purchasing them from the trading post.  Knives were made from the hump rib of a buffalo, hatchets from flint stones, cooking utensils from clay or skin, awls from bone, and arrow points or spear heads from stone.

But as the Indians were drawn into commodity exchange, they succumbed to what Isenberg called “consumerism”. Drawing from some of the same sources as Wuerthner, he paints an entirely different picture:

By 1855, Denig testified to the extent of consumerism among the northern plains nomads. He wrote that “the Blackfeet and Crow nations perceive at once the convenience and utility of European articles, especially portions of clothing, the rise of consumerism: Lone Dog’s calendar marks the winter of 1853-54 by the first appearance of Spanish blankets as an article of trade. As traders invaded the northern plains, the nomads’ consumption of Euroamerican goods increased exponentially. Consumerism moved from the margins toward the center of the nomadic societies.

Beginning in the 1830s and continuing into the 1870s, buffalo skins were the most marketable natural resource in the Great Plains just as northeast beaver skins, also supplied by Indians, were the source of earlier capital accumulation. In an article titled “What Do Beavers Have to Do With Manhattan Real Estate?” that appeared in the NY Historical Society magazine, Jaya Saxena points out that the American Fur Company didn’t get started with the buffalo:

The Astors were a powerful family in early New York history, making their fortune from the beaver pelt trade, and eventually owning a ton of city real estate.  They’re why we have Beaver Street in the FiDi, and why Astoria is called Astoria. (He didn’t even put up a lot of the money for developing Astoria, they just wanted his name and he obliged.) The name “Astor” is everywhere in this city–almost like “Trump”!

In effect, American Indians became petty capitalists in the mid-19th century by accumulating wealth through buffalo hunting. The Plains Indians became class-divided with some using multiple wives as virtual hired hands who tanned the hides. Those who had fewer horses had fewer wives, thus reducing them frequently to the edge of starvation. None of this would have happened if Astor and the other big bourgeoisie had not transformed the heartland of the USA. Instead of blaming American Indian machismo for the near extinction of the buffalo, Wuerthner’s time would have been better spent reading scholars like Andrew Isenberg rather than General Custer biographers.

The integration of nomadic tribes into nascent American capitalism is a topic that first came to my attention when I began studying the Comanches, the tribe best known for being libeled in John Ford’s “The Searchers”. In my article for the journal Capitalism Nature Socialism (2013, Vol. 24, No. 3) titled “The Political Economy of Comanche Violence”, I saw the same tendencies at work, even if they were based on stealing horses rather than killing buffalo.

In the 1800s, the USA relied on horses and mules for transportation and farming that the Comanches were in a perfect position to supply. Raids into Mexico not only led to the seizure of many animals but the enslavement of campesinos and ranch hands who were traded once they were across the border. Just as was the case with the more successful buffalo-hunters, the top raiders built up considerable wealth.

As the wealth poured into the tribe, social stratification occurred with those Indians possessing the greatest number of horses being capable of supporting more than a dozen wives. This was the lifestyle of the Comanche bourgeoisie. Pekka Hämäläinen, the author of “The Comanche Empire”, reported:

The most successful elite men could retire almost completely from physical labor, becoming something of an anomaly in what was still, in essence, a labor-intensive foraging economy. They were protocapitalists in what was essentially a noncapitalist society, spectacularly wealthy ‘‘big men’’ whose extensive networks of social dependents and privileged access to the means of production enabled them to have other people performing servile work for them. They could mobilize the labor of several slaves, secondary wives, and social marginals, who hunted, herded, raided, and prepared food and robes for them under coercion or in the hope of improving their prospects through the association. Indeed, they could generate more wealth by simply controlling wealth, a position of privileged leisure where physical prowess was no longer a requisite for economic success. They could leave the life of a warrior-hunter, grow fat, and carry their bulk as a marker of masculine honor and privilege. They abandoned the standard warrior costume of plain buckskin shirts and pants and publicized their rank through extravagant displays of status goods and ostentatious clothing that included colorful coats, military uniforms, trousers, neckties, and fur sashes.

Ultimately, it was the system that was responsible for such abhorrent behavior. When the “civilized tribes”, including the Cherokees, found themselves embedded inside a society based on slavery, it was inevitable that they began owning slaves themselves. Was this “Indian” behavior or simply behavior that the capitalist system made virtually impossible to resist?

My interest in American Indian history and society was inspired by reading Friedrich Engels’s “Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State.” Relying on Lewis Morgan’s “Ancient Society”, Engels described Iroquois society as “communistic”:

And a wonderful constitution it is, this gentile constitution, in all its childlike simplicity! No soldiers, no gendarmes or police, no nobles, kings, regents, prefects, or judges, no prisons, no lawsuits – and everything takes its orderly course. All quarrels and disputes are settled by the whole of the community affected, by the gens or the tribe, or by the gentes among themselves; only as an extreme and exceptional measure is blood revenge threatened-and our capital punishment is nothing but blood revenge in a civilized form, with all the advantages and drawbacks of civilization. Although there were many more matters to be settled in common than today – the household is maintained by a number of families in common, and is communistic, the land belongs to the tribe, only the small gardens are allotted provisionally to the households – yet there is no need for even a trace of our complicated administrative apparatus with all its ramifications. The decisions are taken by those concerned, and in most cases everything has been already settled by the custom of centuries. There cannot be any poor or needy – the communal household and the gens know their responsibilities towards the old, the sick, and those disabled in war. All are equal and free – the women included.

As capitalist civilization lurches forward toward its inevitable doom, I for one still feel an affinity for the people who lived in America before the white man came. It was not because they were “noble” but because they co-existed with nature. Everything that capitalism has done to modernize and make the USA into an industrial and technological powerhouse has also created conditions for its ruin, especially when it comes to climate change.

If you think in terms of Hegelian dialectics, the contradictions between such “progress” and the type of world that existed before class society emerged 10,000 years ago at least, there must be a synthesis of the values of the Iroquois or the pre-capitalist Plains Indians and the “modern technology, medicine, food availability” that Wuerthner saw as an impediment to those values. I considered socialism as just such a synthesis in 1967 and continue to believe so today.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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