How We Know

To understand the place of Native people in the regional economy today, scholars take a long-term or historical approach. Before the American era, Native people worked for wages and produced goods for the market, playing a vital part in the Great Lakes economy.


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Video Transcript

In the mid-19th century, they lost access to resources and to jobs. Historians, such as Melissa Meyer, have documented the marginalization of Native people and the subsequent poverty that resulted. Meyer drew on many different kinds of sources as she came to her conclusions, including transcripts of Congressional hearings that established how this marginalization occurred.

More recently, historians and others have challenged the view, held at one time by federal officials in Indian Affairs, that Native people are unable to compete in a market economy today or that, if individuals do make a good living in a money economy, they have somehow lost their identity as Indians. Historian Brian Hosmer studied the Menominee’s successful logging and sawmill business, which the Menominees achieved by pushing the federal government to implement sustained yield management and by rejecting the federal government’s goal of encouraging private property and the accumulation of individual wealth. In contrast, Menominee leaders in the 20th century linked cultural survival and the commercial development of logging so that the wage work of individuals was compatible with community values. Logging and sawmill employees worked for the community, not outside corporations. Profits went to the community as a whole in the form of a “poor fund,” hospital, and per capita payments to tribal members. Menominees insisted that the community as a whole owned the trees.

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The Menominee attitude toward economic development—that is, development as a means to an end not a goal in itself—is widely shared among the Native communities in the region. What are the culturally valued ends? The research of social scientists, including anthropologists and political scientists, documents the many ways that Native cultural values guide economic decision-making, including decisions about how to produce for the market and how business profits should be allocated. Economic profits support tribal sovereignty. The concept of “Seven Generations,” or the protection of resources for future generations, shapes tribal management of forests, water, fish, rice, and game animals. Commercial activity coexists with subsistence practices, such as hunting, fishing, and ricing. Profits from tribally-owned businesses, including casinos, are widely redistributed so that all members of the community benefit. Tribal income is used to perpetuate cultural identity and a distinct way of life. Scholars stress that this economic philosophy should be viewed as “indigenous capitalism,” a specific variant or type of capitalism and of development that expands our understanding of what capitalism is and what it can be and that challenges the idea that indigeneity is inevitably linked to poverty.

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