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Tribal Historical Overview - Trade

Intro | Trade | Laws and Treaties | Early Reservation Life | Change | 1900s | Economic and Social Change | Present Day


Centuries before Euro-American penetration of the Far West, Native Americans had established networks of trails and trade relationships. Prized trade commodities such as marine shells, obsidian, and turquoise were located hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of miles from their origins. Among closely related tribal groups, intra-regional exchange of commodities bearing common social and ceremonial value was well organized throughout the continent. In addition, certain places served as important “trade centers” (Ewers 1968) with routes to other elaborate “trade nets.” (W.R. Wood 1972, 1980)

The tribes of the Mississippi River and the West were linked by a web of commercial relationships prior to European contact. Indian-white trade relations were an outgrowth and creation of Native trade patterns rather those of European design. (Ewers, 1968)

Primary Trade Centers for the Southwest and Plains (United States). Primary Trade Centers for the Southwest and Plains. (Map by Cassie
Theurer, adapted from N.R. Wood, 1972 and 1980, from Swagerty, in the
Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 4, page 352.)

Pre- and proto-historic patterns of Indian trade persisted at traditional primary and secondary centers. Although later modified by European ideas and commodities, inter-Indian trade among the Plains, Southwest, and Great Basin tribes in historic times was significant. (Vol. 9:201-205; Vol. 11:238-255)

It is not clear how many and from what distance separate groups traveled to the trading places of the Missouri River (Bowers, 11950:14-118; W.R. Wedel 1961:181-193), however by 1805 Crow, Assiniboine, Plains Cree, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Kiowa, Kiowa-Apache, and Comanche of the Plains traded dried meat, deer hides, bison robes, mountain sheep bows, and other leather goods for garden produce and Knife River flint at the Mandan-Hidatsa center and were occasionally joined by bands of Teton Sioux at the Arikara center on a regular basis. (Ewers 1968: 17-18; Wood and Thiessen 1985:4-5)

All major trade centers were located among established and sedentary native populations with surplus-abundant economies able to selectively harvest and trade food and other commodities.

On the northern Plains, well before horses and European trade goods intensified the frequency and diversity of intertribal exchanges, a self-sufficient and surplus-abundant trading system as elaborate as that of the Southwest had been long established. The primary focuses of this system were the earthlodge villages of the Mandan-Hidatsa near the mouth of the Knife River in present-day North Dakota, and the Arikara near the mouth of the Grand River in present-day South Dakota.

The geographic location was as a valuable resource as was the craft specialization that enabled the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara to assume the position of middlemen linking riverine horticulturalist with upland hunters. (Ewers 1954; 1968:14-33) This east-west network was labeled the Middle Missouri System. (W.R. Wood 1972, 1980)

Fur Trade

The significance of the fur trade was an involved and complicated part of Indian-white relations. Euro-American efforts to find and extract resources from lands occupied by Indian tribes had its greatest impact on Indian tribes universally.

Among the more extractive industries was the fur trade. (Chittenden 1902; Innis 1962; P.C. Phillips 1961) The fur trade of the Far West extended and was built upon by long established Indian trade networks that involved the exchange of numerous commodities in addition to undressed pelts and hides. Second, there is no single contact experience or pattern of response in the Mississippi River area and the West even within culture areas or among close linguistic relatives.

This relationship was felt in other than economic terms. The ecological impact of commercial fur hunting was greatest on previously stable ecosystems (Wishart 1970; Kay 1979), the cultural impact because of the significance of fur-bearing animals played in the mythology, religious observances, diets, and material cultures of various Native Americans societies.

The trade may well have been the most important meeting round between Indians and whites from first encounter to the beginning of the reservation era. (Peterson and Anfinson 1984)

The role and impact of the fur trade on the Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara is succinctly described by author Adrian Dunn in 1969:

“The fur trade era with the Mandan, Hidatsa,
and Arikara was the motive for much of the early
exploration of the frontier. It was also a prime
factor in the destruction of their traditional
cultures. The trade in the Upper Missouri became
highly competitive, and in their quest for profits,
corrupt traders resorted to the most brazen forms
of deceit and trickery. Most harmful was the
unrestrained use of whiskey in trading with the
Indians, who were physically and spiritually
defenseless to alcohol. Little regard was shown
for the Indians’ welfare by the fur companies,
but the damage could not have been nearly so
devastating had it not been for the cooperation
of the Indian agents of the United States
government. The crime of traders, politicians,
and other exploiters during this era, was that
not only did they steal the Indians’ land, they
crushed their spirit and destroyed their cultures.”

(Dunn, 1963, p. 235)

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