Lecture #5: Selling Animals

Suggested Readings:

Calvin Martin, Keepers of the Game (1978)

Shepard Krech, Indians, Animals and the Fur Trade (1981)

Eleanor Leacock, "The Montaignais 'Hunting Territory' and the Fur Trade," Memoirs of the American Anthropological Association (1954)

Lynn Ceci, Effect of European Contact and Trade on Settlement Patterns of New York Indians (1977)

Arthur Ray, Indians in the Fur Trade (1974)

Carolyn Gilman, Where Two Worlds Meet: The Great Lakes Fur Trade (1988)

Shepard Krech, The Ecological Indian: Myth and History (1999)


I. Epidemics and Historical Causation

One key problem in tracing out the cultural consequences of epidemics: what possible links might there be to the coming of the fur trade?

Across the continent, most native hunters became involved in the fur trade, eventually helped destroy the animal populations on which their own well-beings depended: why?

There's a series of questions we typically ask no matter what area of historical inquiry we're engaging :

  • What happened in the past, and how did it happen?
  • How do we know this?
  • Why did it happen?
  • What does it mean?

Use today's lecture as an occasion for reflecting on the role of historians as storytellers: stories and substories linked together to trace out causal chains.

Here's one classic story of the fur trade, which I sometimes jokingly call the "cool stuff" narrative: Europeans brought "superior" technologies (the gun is usually offered as a self-evident example). Indians recognized this "superiority" instantly, hurrying to trade as quickly as possible in order to acquire such goods. In the process, they eventually killed off their own subsistence base, depopulating animal species like beaver and deer.

Implied moral: primitive encounters with advanced civilizations are doomed.

Trouble is, there are lots of problems with such just-so stories, as ethnohistorians starting in the middle of the 20th century began to point out: European technologies were only superior in limited ways under particular circumstances. Remember that many European colonists initially starved when they arrived, surviving in part because they were helped by their new Indian neighbors, and also because they began to adopt Indian crops and technologies like maize agriculture. Furthermore, Indians adopted such technologies quite easily as their own, as the example of the horse demonstrates. Plus: the rise of trade networks was by no means instantaneous.

II. Epidemics and Holy War

Calvin Martin's spiritual argument in his controversial 1978 book: "keepers of the game" were linked in Indian cultures with disease.

Indians saw hunt as gift relationship regulated by sanctions of animal death on the one hand, and human disease on the other.

(As we've seen, there was at least some plausible link in diseases that animals and humans both shared: e.g., 1803 tularemia epizootic described by trader John Tanner.)

So: European diseases could be perceived as an attack by keepers of game. Native peoples responded by making the fur trade a religious holy war against creatures who had broken their sacred compact with humans.

Despite the apparent elegance of this argument, and the apparent respect it paid to spiritual beliefs of native peoples, it faced major problems in its lack of primary source evidence: very few documents, most of them from the 19th & 20th centuries, not the 16th century when the fur trade began...3-4 centuries earlier.

III. Indians and the Coming of Capitalism

Alternate story: Eleanor Leacock's Marxist portrayal of Montagnais of eastern Canada in her 1954 dissertation: Indians were originally primitive communists, with no participation in market economies, and no private property.

Motivations were becoming involved with the fur trade were essentially materialistic in response to superior technology and violent conflicts with neighbors.

Cf. Iroquois wars of 17th century, competition over hunting areas, efforts to control access to European traders.

Leacock's chief intent: explain emergence of hunting territories as earlier described by the anthropologist Frank Speck, division of collective tribal space so individual families would own animal resources.

The goal was to partition communal space into market territories controlled by individual families; resulting practices may or may not have conserved resources.

Leacock's thesis now appears too simplistic: property divisions and trade certainly predate Europeans, though fur trade surely amplified earlier patterns in complex ways.

Important to compare Adrian Tanner's Bringing Home Animals here (the book I used in second lecture to discuss seasonality and partitioning of domestic and exterior space among the Mistassini Cree of James Bay. Tanner, doing field work among the Cree in the early 1960s, found an intricate integration of Cree market labor, Hudson's Bay Co. post residence during summer, with spiritualized subsistence hunt in winter. Contrary to what Leacock's thesis seemed to imply both market exchange and wage work seemed able to coexist with traditional spiritual relationships with animals even as late as the 1960s.

IV. Commodities of the Hunt

Cronon's dilemma of Changes in the Land: diseases seemed unquestionably important, and must certainly have affected interactions of New England Indians with environments of the region, but probably not so directly as Martin suggested. European goods did exercise attractions, but not so directly as Leacock thought. Expansion of trade networks and growth of market exchange were somehow connected to this, but Indians were not primitive communists. So how to locate a middle ground?

Possible solution: start with epidemics, reflect on the massive disruptions of native life they entailed, especially social hierarchies.

Important to recognize that natives were attracted to European goods only partly because of the inherent technological virtues of those goods (e.g., the ability of a metal pot to boil water over a fire without shattering, or the ease with which woven textiles could dyed or washed); European materials were quick absorbed into the symbolic systems that gave them meanings in native societies that no Europeans would have recognized. In a very real sense, they cased to be "European" in the process.

European goods weren't just attractive technologically, but also as status goods; note role of wampum in this as Indian good that also functioned as status item. Its use significantly expanded with the coming of the fur trade.

From this point of view, we can interpret European merchants as marketers of status goods, shuttling between wampum makers on Long Island Sound and fur hunters in the northern interior.

So: trade goods had their own attractions, but disease amplified search for status, helped proliferate market along existing trade networks. Accurate or not, this argument tried to identify a middle-of-the-road position between material and spiritual explanations.

But it's important to note the problems here: the arguments of Changes in the Land are pretty deeply materialist, obscuring spiritual universe of Indians and colonists alike. The book relies on relatively few sources to make its case about trade goods as status objects, and it portrays New England Indians primarily in economic terms. Contemporary ocuments are relatively weak on wampum, social hierarchies.

V. Consequences

Another strand of stories narrate the consequences of the fur trade. The most obvious of these was the death of fur-bearing mammals. In southern New England, beavers, otters, foxes, martens, minks, muskrats, turkeys, gone by the end of the 18th century.

Jeremy Belknap offered a striking description of the environmental consequences resulting from reductions of beaver populations: clearing land, accumulating soil, emergence of new grazing grounds for colonial livestock.

Cycle of Indian dependency: as dependence on trade goods grew, animals populations needed to buy them declined.

Famous lament of the Mohegans in 1789: "The times are Exceedingly Alter'd, Yea the times have turn'd everything upside down, or rather we have Chang'd the good Times, Chiefly by the help of the White People, for in Times past, our Fore-Fathers lived in Peace, Love, and great harmony, and had everything in Great Plenty... But alas, it is not so no, all our Fishing, Hunting and Fowling is entirely gone."

In far north of Canadian Subarctic south of Hudson's Bay, persistence of trade across boreal forest/edge/grassland between Cree, Assiniboin, Plains tribes: goods (including weapons) were traded far in advance of Europeans; Indians adapted well, integrated trade with other cultural practices.

Important to remember that when given the chance, native peoples often made very creative choices about which European technologies and goods they integrated into their ways of life while retaining practices, rituals, and core values that were central to their own sense of identity. There was rarely an either/or choice between "Indian" and "non-Indian," and hybrid cultural systems and beliefs were common.

Complexity of stories of disease > trade > depopulation: how do we test their truth value?

Close with story of Pilgrims robbing grave on Cape Cod of one of the earliest recorded "white Indians" of North America: probably a shipwrecked sailor who had joined and been honored by the tribe that buried him: a very different model from more familiar stories of conflict between these groups.