Think of an Indian – a Native American – and many people will think of poverty. Not fine art, opera tickets, personal airplanes and ballet lessons for the kids.
But in a new book, Rich Indians: Native People and the Problem of Wealth in American History, UW American Indian Studies professor Alexandra Harmon explores historical and contemporary examples of wealthy Indians and how it came to be that the idea of a rich Indian is at odds with the conception that many people – Indian as well as non-Indian – have of Indians.
Harmons idea for the book came in part from reading news articles during the 1990s tech boom, when some Washington State Indian tribes became wealthy from large, profitable casinos. She noticed that media reports made it sound like rich Indians were extraordinary and novel.
But to Harmon, a historian, the concept of rich Indians was not new. “During the long stretch of Indian and non-Indian relations, nothing has been more important than control of wealth,” Harmon said. “When Indians apparently have controlled substantial wealth, it has prompted both peoples to discuss their own and each others economic aims as well as their conceptions of Indian-ness.”
Harmon examined non-Indian and Indian economic discourse – personal letters, scholars interpretations, media coverage, federal and state laws – from the colonial 1600s to present day. Across seven chapters, she argues that throughout history, Indians and non-Indians have grappled with differences in how the two cultures accumulate and distribute wealth.
Meanwhile the Native Powhatans – the Virginian Indians – wanted what the English colonists had. Powhatans were eager to acquire English possessions, but probably considered the English comparatively poor in key respects such as farming and living off the land, Harmon said.
English in the first decade of colonization were often starving. They also had no women along, and in Powhatan society, women produced much of the wealth (crops, in particular). But inferring how Powhatans perceived the English or assessed English affluence is just educated guesswork; that’s the point of much of chapter one.
Since non-Indians arrived, the question has persisted of whether Indian and non-Indian economic aims were compatible or reconcilable. “People in both groups have debated whether Euro-American profit-making enterprise and private property accumulation would or should have a place in Indian culture,” said Harmon.
In most of the cases of rich Indians that Harmon studied, they achieved their wealth by adapting to economic practices introduced by non-Indians, she said.
Cherokee James Vann, for instance, built a luxurious plantation in 1804 in Spring Place, Ga. Vann, half Cherokee and half Scottish, possessed about 100 slaves and herds of cattle, horses and pigs. His son, Joe, inherited the estate when James died in 1809, but was forced to leave when the U.S. government passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Joe received nearly $27,000 from the U.S. government to compensate for his plantation.
The gain and loss plight is a theme of Harmons book. “In Indians eyes, youre damned if you get rich and youre damned if you dont,” she said.
After Cherokees and other tribes moved to the Indian Territory, todays Arkansas and Oklahoma, it took five decades – until the early 1880s – for many of them to regain noticeable prosperity, mostly from farming and ranching. As railroads expanded, Indians could sell cotton, corn and cattle to consumers in faraway cities, wrote Harmon, in a chapter about Indians in the Gilded Age.
History also reveals other shared themes of discussions about rich Indians, such as whether Indians should be left to determine for themselves how to deal with growing disparities of wealth in their communities, and whether wealthy Indians deserved their riches.
The Osage Indians, who in the 1920s profited from oil found on their reservation in Oklahoma, received a lot of media attention for their wealth, in part, Harmon wrote, because of how they spent their money: modern brick houses, deluxe cars, stylish clothing, fine jewelry and furnishings. All very un-Indian in the view of non-Indians who thought of Indians as poor hunters and gatherers.
“It was fashionable to view Indians oil wealth as a comical fluke,” Harmon wrote.
Commentators at the time claimed that Indians did not value their wealth, asserting that Indians had “spent large sums on fleeting pleasures or impractical objects” and didnt save money.
The patronizing view indicated how much non-Indians relied on possessions to signal social status, Harmon wrote. The Osages might be wealthy, but their spending habits did not align with “rules of elite behavior,” and provided proof of Indians “weakness and moral inferiority.”
The Osages wealth in the 1920s was an anomaly, though. Most Indians at that time lived in “dismal conditions on reservations,” Harmon wrote. Federal aid targeted impoverished Indians for the next five decades. When it was reduced in the 1980s, Congress gave the go-ahead for Indians to use gaming and casinos to make money.
“Many of the tribes resisted commercial gaming as a way to make money, it seemed distasteful,” Harmon said. “But when they have so few other options, its hard to say no.”
And now, prospering Indians may be more savvy about leveraging their financial resources to boost their influence on politics, particularly in issues of self-government.
“Indians have actually earned enough money to wield political power,” Harmon said. “Thats never been the case in the past, as far as I can tell.” She added that “time will tell” whether the most recent episode of wealthy Indians, those rich from casinos, will become historic change in power for Indians in the United States.
The University of North Carolina Press published Rich Indians in October.