Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History

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Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History. By Alexandra Harmon. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, c. 2010. Pp. [xii], 388. $39.95, ISBN 978-0-8078-3423-7.)

In this well-crafted discussion of Indian wealth, Alexandra Harmon explores many facets of the topic from colonial Virginia through modern tribal casinos. Long-held stereotypes about poverty-stricken Indians may cause most readers, other than a few academic specialists, to raise their eyebrows when they see a book about "rich" Indians. Yet, as the author illustrates effectively, many native societies in America and some individuals within them acquired a lot of property and other assets. Harmon's narrative considers issues related to both individual and group ideas about affluence and how to handle it. In particular, she posits that when tribal people became rich, their economic success often led to extended debates within tribal society, and among non-Indians as well, over the moral issues that influenced their motivations and actions as they gained and managed their property.

Harmon grounds her study in a careful analysis of what the Virginia coastal people and the invading English colonists at Jamestown saw as wealth. In her view, each group recognized different resources as valuable, but at the same time both sought to acquire material items from the other. The English, in particular, tried to denigrate the value of Indian goods both for their own profit and to help justify their aggressive tactics. Following the Virginia case, the discussion examines a variety of examples chronologically to the near present. The chapters introduce individuals such as Coosaponakeesa (also known as Mary Musgrove and Mary Bosomworth) in early Georgia and wealthy and highly acculturated leaders among the Cherokees, Choctaws, and nearby southern tribes. The author describes how the wealthy individuals in those same groups accepted white economic tactics during the Gilded Age. For the twentieth century, her narrative offers specific examples such as the Osage Indians' experiences with oil wealth in Oklahoma and native peoples' gradual and halting efforts to take control of tribal property and resources that culminated in the founding in 1975 of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes. …


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