Making Money

With the arrival of the French, Native people began to produce furs and hides for the international and regional markets. While the creation of social ties rather than the profit motive was initially at the forefront of Indian transactions, they soon became good at trade negotiations, playing the French and English off against one another to get the best result. By the mid-18th century, both Indian women and men were key players in the regional economy. Traders and officials bought the surplus food that Indian villages produced for the market. Women sold corn and other garden produce, sugar, and wild rice. Men sold meat and fish (often preserved by women). Europeans bought canoes, traps, nets, and snowshoes from men. They bought moccasins, feathers (used for featherbeds by Europeans), and other items from women. Indian men also hired themselves out as boatmen, soldiers, guides, hunters, and laborers, and both men and women worked as interpreters. Métis traders had settlements where they traded with Indians for food and hired Indians, Métis, and Europeans for various kinds of work. They also had slaves (Indian captives who largely did the same work as the hired help).

In the late 18th century, Indian groups diversified their economies, relying less on selling furs. Women continued to sell food and feathers, and they increased their production of slabs of lead, which they dug from ancient mines. The French had taught Indians to make musket balls, and the sale of ammunition became a large part of the economy of several Indian groups. Indian communities hoped to continue to play an important role in the regional economy after the Americans gained ascendancy.

The influx of settlers and entrepreneurs into Indian country in the 19th century instead led to the economic marginalization of Native people. Their land base was reduced, first by the cession of most of the territory used by Native communities. Then, after the reserved land was allotted to individuals, subsequent legislation allowed allotments to be sold against the wishes of the Indian owners. Eventually, commercial farming became impossible and subsistence hunting and gathering more difficult. Americans gradually crowded Indians out of lead mining, commercial fishing, selling wild rice, and logging. Indians were hired only for the lowest-paying jobs. Craft production for the tourist market produced only small supplemental income for households. Indians survived by continuing their subsistence economy, by making money through a variety of largely seasonal occupations, and by cooperating and sharing with one another. The training that Indians received during and after World War II and the urban relocation program led to many Indians leaving their reservations for cities, where they obtained employment or started small businesses.


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Listen to Dakotas Talk about Making a Living, including Selling Art Work. Help

4:32 mi.

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