The mass slaughter of the North American bison in the 19th century, widely recognized as an ecological catastrophe, also delivered a crippling blow to the Indigenous peoples of the Great Plains, according to a new study led by Emory University.
The research sheds light on the long-lasting economic and social consequences the bison slaughter had on these Indigenous communities that once thrived on bison.
Researchers from Emory University, the University of Toronto, and the University of Victoria quantified the economic shockwaves that continue to affect Indigenous populations. The study exposes the economic disparities rooted in this nearly forgotten aspect of American history.
In the mid-19th century, the United States was home to an estimated eight million bison, a number that plummeted to fewer than 500 in just two decades.
While this decimation momentarily boosted the economies of settlers, hunters, and traders who profited from selling bison hides and bones, the Indigenous peoples who had depended on the bison for their livelihood for over 10,000 years experienced a catastrophic economic shock, the reverberations of which are still felt today.
The economic fallout manifested in several ways, including a striking decline in the average height of bison-dependent Indigenous men.
“Adult height across a population is one proxy of wealth and health given that it can be impacted by nutrition and disease, particularly early in development,” said study co-author Professor Maggie Jones.
Prior to the slaughter, bison-reliant Indigenous men averaged around six feet in height, making them “among the tallest people in the world in the mid-19th century,” said Jones.
However, in the aftermath of the slaughter, the average height of the most affected Indigenous populations dropped by over an inch within a generation. “That’s a major drop, but given the magnitude of the economic shock, it’s not necessarily surprising,” she adds.
The researchers also found that by the early 20th century, child mortality rates among bison-dependent Indigenous nations were 16 percentage points higher, and the likelihood of working-age males reporting an occupation was 19 percentage points lower compared to Indigenous nations never reliant on bison.
Furthermore, income per capita for bison-reliant nations remained 25% lower on average than other nations from the mid-20th century to the present day. This persistent gap could not be accounted for by variations in agricultural productivity, self-governance, or the application of the Dawes Act of 1887.
The study identifies limited access to credit as a key factor that hindered the economic adjustment of bison-reliant nations following the near-extinction of the bison.
“One role of economists is to provide quantitative evidence that people can turn to when trying to design more effective policies,” said Jones. “By providing data that benchmarks disparities among bison-reliant people and the sources and evolution of these disparities, we hope to support efforts to improve the situation.”
The slaughter of the bison was precipitated by the completion of the transcontinental railroad, advancements in European tanning technology, and a deliberate strategy by the U.S. Army to force Indigenous peoples onto reservations. The slaughter is described by the researchers as one of the most rapid and extensive losses of a critical industry in North American history.
“Centuries of human capital were built around the use of the bison, and within 10 to 20 years this economic underpinning disappeared,” said Jones. “And many channels of economic adjustment were cut off for Indigenous populations.”
For over 10,000 years, bison were integral to the livelihoods of many Indigenous communities, offering not just sustenance but also hides for clothing, bones for tools, and other invaluable resources. Their disappearance did more than just topple an economic cornerstone; it ripped apart a cultural fabric that cannot be quantified.
“Bison were not just key to the economies of some Indigenous nations,” said Jones. “The bison were also important cultural and spiritual symbols. You would expect a psychological impact when they were ripped away. That’s an important part of the story that this paper didn’t get to tell.”
Even though the study was focused on the economic impacts, the researchers acknowledge the complex toll the bison slaughter had on Indigenous communities, from immediate loss to generational trauma.
The research shines a light on an overlooked part of American history, and emphasizes the urgency of understanding and addressing the inequalities that continue to persist in Indigenous communities.
The research is published in The Review of Economic Studies.
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