The Other Side of the Frontier: Economic Explorations into Native American History

By Linda Barrington | Go to book overview

3
Institutional Change in the Indian Horse Culture

TERRY L. ANDERSON AND STEVEN LACOMBE


Introduction

Institutions that governed American Indian society prior to European contact demonstrate how dynamic these premodern cultures were. Indeed, "long before Darwin and Wallace brought biological evolution to the attention of the world in 1858, observers of the American Indian had recognized that evolution occurs in cultures" ( Farb 1968, 6). This evolution produced a variety of institutional arrangements as varied as any found in human history.

And just as Darwin's theory of evolution predicts that surviving species must adapt in response to ecological constraints, necessity was often the mother of institutional invention for American Indian tribes. All societies must find ways to adjust to changing resource endowments, but the evolution of culture and institutions was particularly important for those societies that

lived at the margin of subsistence. In more developed societies, departures from optimality mean lower living standards and lower growth rates -- luxuries these societies can afford. By contrast, in societies near the margin of subsistence, with populations under Malthusian control, such departures had harsher effects. . . . Unsound rights structures generally implied lower population size and, perhaps, the disappearance of the society. ( Bailey 1992, 183)

Certainly not all North American Indians were living at the subsistence margin, but those that were had to adapt. If they could not or did not, they would either be conquered or starve. For those not living at subsistence lev-

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