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Culture of American Indians Essay

In Against the Grain, environmental journalist Richard Manning (2004) argues that notions of class and property are a direct result of the emergence of agricultural civilizations beginning 10,000 years ago. This is because of the social necessities demanded by distribution and storage of surplus. Conversely, he points out the contrastingly egalitarian nature of the hunter-gatherer lifestyles and the deeper social ties which result from cooperative food acquisition.
Consider for example, the Plains Indians of North America prior to the arrival of European settlers, who would utilize their knowledge of buffalo movement patterns to haze and herd them, towards a cliff. By diverting the stampede of a large number of animals to their sudden vertical death, they would obtain a caloric pay-off through minimal effort, but “required social organization and sharing, both of the labor and of the proceeds.” (Manning, 2004; South Dakota State Historical Society Education Kit, 2008)
Yet despite this element of uncertainty in hunting and gathering, Richard Steckel notes that towards the end of the 19th century, the Plains Indians were among the tallest people in the world and argues despite the numerous technological and agricultural advances they did not have, they were surprisingly well-nourished compared to whites, indicating that agriculture should not be taken for granted as the sign of social advancement it is purported be,
Manning notes that, in the absence of storage means and preservation technologies, it was impossible for the Plains Indians to hoard bison meat. Therefore wealth accumulation was impossible. As such, “communal feasting became the payoff for social organization,” argues Manning Agriculture on the hand, created social stratification in the form of governance, hierarchy and other institutions necessary for the management of food surplus.
Although there is certain room for question to be made about the true egalitarianism of the hunter gatherer cultures of the Plains Indians, they certainly lacked some of the rigidly defined political structures which characterized those belonging to the cultures of Europeans at the point of first contact. Comanche leadership was rather informal, usually identifiable by consensus rather than by any formal nomination to the position and the longevity of a war chiefs authority lasted only as long as they were at war. (Bial, 2000) The Blackfoot people maintained a flexible social structure, a band, which was in constant flux. As such, social relationships were not determined solely by kinship but by residence.
In modern times, the case for the difference between hunter-gatherer Native Americans such as the Plains Indians of pre-modern times and the agricultural Native Americans can be observed in the difference between the Inuit peoples, who live a predominantly hunter-gatherer lifestyle out in the Arctic regions (Snow, 1996) and the peoples of the Cherokee and Lakota.
The Inuit are noted for their strong sense of community and flexible division of labor among gender lines. The Cherokee and the Lakota, however, have now long been agricultural societies characterized by their class and gender divisions, as well as their contentious disposition towards identity and blood quantum laws.
Bial, R. (2000) Lifeways: The Comanche. New York: Benchmark Books.
Manning, R. (2004) Against the Grain: How Agriculture Has Hijacked Civilization. New York: North Point Press.
“Buffalo and the Plains Indians.” (2008, April 4) South Dakota State Historical Society Education Kit. Retrieved July 3, 2008 from:
Snow, D. R.. (1996) “The first Americans and the differentiation of hunter-gatherer cultures.” North America. Eds. Bruce G. Trigger and Wilcomb E. Washburn. Cambridge University Press, 1996.