Leonard Carlson
Emory University

The official policy of the federal government throughout much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was to promote farming by Indians. Both in the 1880s and today, scholars and policy makers were concerned that it would be difficult for Indians to become farmers. Two concerns centered on the possibility that Indian institutionzs would hinder the success of Indian farmers. The first arose from the belief, shared by most reformers in the 1880s, that Indian tribes did not recognize individual rights to land. Instead, the reformers believed that Indians held land in the form of what economists today call a common, and as long as it was the reformers were convinced that Indians would neither succeed as farmers nor assimilate into white society. Senator Dawes expressed this belief when he concluded about the Five Civilized Tribes that "Till this people will consent to give up their lands, and divide them among their citizens so that each can own the land he cultivates, they will not make much progress."1

The second concern, often expressed by modern scholars, is that it would have been nearly impossible for Indian institutions to change rapidly enough for Indians to successfully learn to farm in the time frame specified by policy makers. Indeed the consensus of modern scholars is that efforts to teach Indians to farm were fundamentally in error because Indians simply lacked the necessary cultural background to become farmers. Thus Hurt, in the most recent comprehensive survey of Indian farming concludes that ". . . government policy designed to fashion the Indians into subsistence farmers required too great a cultural change for most of them, even under the best of circumstances."2 Hurt also stresses the economic constraints faced by Indians poor lands available to many tribes and the low return to subsistence farming which everyone agrees are very important in explaining the failure of Indian farming. But Indian culture is presented as an important and slow to change factor which made it difficult for Indians to become farmers. Similarly recent a recent paper in the JEH also notes in the same spirit that efforts to promote farming ". . . flew in the face of almost all . . . Indian values."3 More broadly, Indians are sometimes cited as an example of a people who have low per capita incomes in part because their cultural attitudes conflict with "the demands of a highly technocratic, rationalistic society."4

Not only did the government promote farming, its policy inevitably placed all its resource behind making Indian men into farmers. This was the norm of the household division of labor in Anglo-American society. But in most tribes outside the Southwest, agriculture was women's work. Josephy, for example, concludes that one of the reasons for demoralization among plains Indians was that "The hunters and warriors, stripped of their dignity and self-respect, were given few manly diversions, and many of them, losing the respect of the women and children, sank into an indolence that withered their souls and turned them, ultimately, to alcohol as an escape and violence for an outlet for their hurts."5 (emphasis added) Similarly, Novak concludes that "Sex roles were also strictly defined. . . in general men hunted and women farmed." (p. 641)

Thus farming as promoted by the federal government meant that not only would Indians have to change their way of making a living, but the division of labor within the family as well. It is not surprising that many have concluded that the needed changes were simply too great. In the end, however, whether or not Indian institutions were able to change rapidly enough is an empirical question.

If institutions matter and constrained Indian efforts to use their available resources, we need a clear understanding of which institutions mattered and how if we are understand the interaction of culture and material economic success. This essay extends my previous work to examine how pre-reservation Indian land tenure and other arrangements influenced the success or failure of Indian farming prior to allotment under the Dawes Act. Two main questions are examined: (1) what was the nature of Indian agricultural traditions, especially land tenure, but also the household division of labor, prior to allotment; (2) were Indian institutions sufficiently flexible to allow any tribes who were not already farmers to succeed in the late nineteenth century as subsistence farmers?

Indian Land Tenure Prior to the Formation of Reservations

Because reformers in the 1880s did not believe that Indians had the necessary institutional background for settled agriculture or that Indians were capable of establishing the "proper" set of institutions themselves, reformers in the nineteenth century tried to push Indians to become farmers and at the same time assimilate American values by imposing a modified version of Anglo-American property right on them through the Dawes Act of 1887. The result was a heavily restricted and inefficient form of property rights.6 This policies rested on a misreading by the reformers of the nature of existing institutions devised by Indians to limit access to resources and organize their use. In fact neither the reformers or their critics in the 1880s and 1890s had a clear understanding of how Indian land tenure worked prior to allotment. According to D.S. Otis "Friends and enemies of allotment ...(b)oth were prone to use the word "communism" in a loose sense in describing Indian enterprise. It was in the main an inaccurate term." (Otis, p. 11.)

Today relatively few Indians make their living as farmers and the years following allotment saw a decline in the land base available to Indians. The failure of Indian farmers in the twentieth century is compelling evidence to many that Indian institutions were a major barrier to Indian farming. But the failure of Indian farming after the Dawes Act is not necessarily mean that Indians could not have become farmers under a different set of circumstances. Since they did not understand the richness of Indian institutions for controlling access to and use of resources, the reformers who were the guiding force behind the passage of the Dawes Act of 1887 simply did not allow Indians to make use of institutions that might have worked on reservations.

Thus it is important to understand the nature of Indian institutions both before and after the creation of reservations and to examine closely how Indians fared as farmers at different times. While there was a wide variety of these institutions, land tenure arrangements can usefully be categorized into a few types. According to Linton ". . . the linkage between ecologies and basic economies in North America is close enough to make a description of land tenure by culture areas fairly valid."7 Which is what we would expect where tribes adopted institutions suited to their environment.

In the East and Midwest, many tribes, classified as eastern agriculturalists, had economies which depended on a mixture of hunting, by men, and horticulture, by women. A tribe typically controlled a recognized territory. Within a tribe's territory, fields were cultivated by an individual woman or by a matralineal kinship group, with a usufructory right being held by the individual family or kinship group.

Because of external military threats, the Iroquois lived in central villages practicing settled agriculture. Fields were farmed by lineage groups of women who resided in the same long house under the direction of the oldest woman, the lineage head. Shirking was constrained by the fact that work was done by women who were related to one another and living together

Another important eastern group were the so called "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, and Chickasaw) most of whose members were forcibly moved to Oklahoma from the Southeast in the 1830s. The largest of these tribes was the Cherokee. At the time of their removal the Cherokee had had substantial contact and intermarriage with Europeans. A small group were planters with extensive commercial holdings and slaves, while a large number had a more traditional orientation and generally had small subsistence farms of roughly five to seven acres cultivated by women, while men engaged in animal husbandry and hunting. Using quantitative materials, however, Wishart finds that a significant number of Cherokee who could be classified as "yoeman" -- that is farmers who produced more than a minimum subsistence level.8

In the more arid Southwest, land use rules among agricultural tribes were more complex, but there, too, use rights to land were typically recognized by the tribe. The Pueblo and Hopi peoples lived in settled villages with sophisticated irrigation technologies requiring relatively centralized decision making. The Apache and Navajos, on the other hand, were raiders and herders and who had no need for a system of centralized decision making.

For those engaged in settled agriculture, ownership of the land itself rested with the tribe or the clan, but again the use of the land and its improvements was recognized as belonging to the individual or the family. Centralized control of resources or direction of communal labor by tribal leaders existed for the provision or maintenance of public goods such as an irrigation system. Among the Pimas, bringing a new tract of land under cultivation required the labor of all men in the affected villages to build the irrigation system and related improvements. This was done under the supervision of the tribal elders, who also supervised its own going maintenance.9 Following the construction of the canal, the village headman, with the aid of an advisory council of community leaders, assigned farm plots to those who had participated in the work. Those farm plots became the inalienable property of the assignee and his heirs although, it could be loaned to others.

Among the Pueblos, land also was used by individuals but it belonged to the tribe. There were obligations to provide labor to support religious leaders and to participate in community labor to help the needy. The Pueblos always recognized individual ownership of the animals, which grazed upon village lands, although the number of animals an individual could graze was limited.

Among the Hopis farming was carried on by individuals or families on land which belonged to the clan of the wife. Land which did not belong to a clan could be farmed by anyone but without right to will or sell the land. Interestingly, the introduction of peach trees by the Spanish led to a modification in this system because the trees required a longer term investment. The person who planted and cared for orchards could sell or will the trees.

In summary, land tenure arrangements found among native peoples in the Southwest were consistent with the relative scarcity of resources and the costs of enforcing property rights. Rangeland, which was abundant and difficult to enclose, was treated as a common, but improved farm land was scarce and therefore individually owned even when allowed to lie fallow. Economic activities were largely conducted by individuals or families with individual rights to land and animals which were recognized by the tribe. Centralized management of group activities -- which meant monitoring individuals who might shirk -- were common only for the construction and maintenance of public goods such as irrigation systems.

Other tribes, such as those of the Great Plains or Rocky Mountain Plateau, were more nomadic, did not engage in settled agriculture, and did not recognize individual claims to land. By the eighteenth century, Plains tribes had an economic system based on using horses, introduced by the Spanish, to hunt bison. Prior to the eighteenth century, the western plains tribes had either been hunter gatherers while eastern plains tribes had lived in villages practicing mixed hunting and farming. Most bands of the Sioux nation pushed west by the Chippewa completely adopted the lifestyle of a plains tribe and ceased entirely to plant crops. The Santee Sioux, however, continued to live in settled villages. The adaptation of the plains culture in the early eighteenth century illustrates how rapidly and successfully agricultural tribes could adjust culture and institutions to new conditions.

The tribes who lived in the plateau region of the Rocky Mountain states usually did not plant crops and migrated in search of a variety of food sources. nor did they recognize individual land tenure. These tribes had recognized land ownership of territory, but did not recognize individual land tenure. "Towards the south, where food became increasingly scarce, even band lines seem to have broken down and people lived in isolated families. . . Apparently existence was so precarious that all resources had to be shared by all." (Linton, p. 48)

The Indians of California, like those of the Rock Mountains depended upon wild plants, especially acorns, for much of their diet. Villages controlled well defined territories, but since they did not plant crops, these tribes did not recognize individual rights to land.

The primary economic activity of the Indians of the northwest was fishing. Villages were recognized as owning territory, with the village sometimes laying claim to offshore fishing grounds. According to Higgs, "Indian regulation of the fishery, though varying from tribe to tribe, rested on the enforcement of clearly understood property rights. In some cases these rights resided in the tribe as a whole; in other cases in families or individuals; sometimes in a mixture of the two."10 Planting and hunting were less important among these tribes, and rights to land were not well developed.

The evidence about Indian land tenure prior to tribes being confined to reservations is consistent with the hypothesis that Indian institutions were efficient. Hurt reaches a similar conclusion for agricultural Indian tribes "The Indian concept of land tenure enabled various villages to make the best possible use of the land in order to meet their own specific needs. Each people also developed a rational system for transferring land after the death of the owner" (p.75). In other words, these property rights adjusted to the time and place specific relative prices of each tribe. Tribes without settled agriculture did not develop individual rights to land, again because these were consistent with resource endowments and technologies.

Thus there is agreement that Indian institutions seem in retrospect to have been rich and well suited to solving a variety of economic problems. Looked at this way the view that Indians could not become farmers due to the nature of their institutions rests on the conclusion that these institutions, well suited to their original environment, could not change fast enough to adjust to settled European style agriculture. And certainly all tribes faced a dramatic challenge once they were confined to reservations. The largest changes, of course, were required by those nomadic tribes which lacked a tradition of private property rights in land and whose life style was predicated on constant movement. But even tribes such as the Cherokee which had long agricultural traditions faced challenges. With the expansion of European settlement, hunting, which had been the primary activity of men, was no longer a reliable food source, for example. Nor were they used to growing food for sale in a market. Indian Land Tenure On the Reservations

Once a tribe was confined to a reservation, a key question for this paper is what form of land tenure was established. On the closed reservations, the system that evolved was one of use rights. Typically, the agent and members of a tribe recognized an individual's title to animals and, where farming was practiced, a family's claim to the land it worked. More land could be added to the holding by bringing the land under cultivation. On reservations where cattle ranching was the preferred activity, cattle were individually owned with grazing land open to each individual. Such a system of use rights is consistent with common sense, a sense of fairness, and the common Indian practice of treating economic activity as individual endeavor. A remarkable and too little appreciated aspect of pre-allotment land tenure is how similar it was to that which existed among agricultural tribes prior to being confined to reservations.

It is often claimed that only the Cherokee or members of the other Five Civilized Tribes were willing to farm. This was true at first, but not later. Most measured output of Indian farmers in the 1870s was produced by members of the Five Civilized Tribes in Oklahoma. Not only did other tribes have much to learn and many changes to make, but initially there was often little reason to farm. Traditional means of earning a living were intact and Indian lands were far from markets and, hence, there was little incentive to change. But the environment in which Indian lived changed rapidly. Once the bison herds were destroyed or other similar traditional food sources eliminated by the Army, trappers, and white settlers, farming often became a more attractive potential occupation for many Indians and many more tired farming.

Indian Farming on the Reservations

Evidence to support the view that Indians who had few agricultural traditions were able to farm once there were sufficient incentives to make this an attractive alternative. are found in the Annual Reports of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs. Aggregate Indian output and acres cultivated by tribes other than the Five Civilized Tribes grew rapidly after 1875. Acres cultivated rose from 117,267 in 1875 to 369,974 acres in 1895, and an index of output of grain grew by 5.5% per year. Per capita levels were low but there was indeed growth in output. Another measure of the extent of Indian farming is provided by the Census of Agriculture for 1900. The Census reported a total of 19,910 farms for 1900. Of these, 4037 were in the North Central region, inhabited by tribes who were often nomadic or at least recently confined to settled reservations. The median Indian farm produced output 18% as large as that of white farmers in the same region. Thus while it would be incorrect to describe Indians as successful commercial farmers, a number were making progress doing just the sort of subsistence farming advocated by the federal government.

Another feature of the census reports is the fact that most of farmers were men. The census of 1910 found 20,841 Indian men whom it reported as farmers and 23,291 who were farm laborers; while it found only 1,156 women farmers and 3,197 farm laborers. The agents reports for 1900 similarly fail to mention Indian women who were farmers, although it seems likely they probably would have mentioned it if there very many, if only to criticize the practice. Somewhat later, the Meriam Report of 1928 reports that in the 1920s most Indian men in a major survey (68%) listed their occupation as farmer, while there is no mention at all of farming by women in a major chapter on Indian women's household and industrial jobs. The evidence is that despite cultural barriers, by 1900 farming was largely a male occupation. Of course, it is possible that the government's emphasis on making men into farmers may have been excessive -- leading to an underutilization of the efforts and talents of women -- but it does indicate that a shift in the gender division of labor had already taken place.

The Yankton Reservation in South Dakota provides a useful examples of the evolution of Indian property rights before allotment. The Yankton Reservation was established by treaty with the Yankton Dakota (Sioux) Indians in the late 1850s. After the buffalo vanished from the prairies to the West in the 1860s, the agent increased efforts to promote Indian farming. The first step was the creation of an agency farm, supervised by the agent and hired white farmers. The second step saw the growth of farming by individual Indians in addition to the agency farm. By the time of allotment in 1891, the agency farm had been abandoned. As early as 1878 farming was conducted by "each man to himself on his own plot of ground." (BIA, 1878, p. 47) These plots ranged from 5 to 15 acres each. The agent's report for 1888 indicate that individual claims had been recognized for as long as 20 years. (BIA, 1888, p. 20.)

This is true for both farming and ranching. Examples cited in the paper include the Santee Sioux, the Yankton Sioux, the Coeur d'Alene in Idaho. Some tribes had resources and traditions best suited to ranching and some succeeded as ranchers for a time, despite periodic resistance from the agents.

Not all tribes were successful of course. Some tribes, such as the Unitah and Ouray in Utah, for example, initially had few people who were willing to farm. Culturally, there was opposition to farming by among the Ute Indians who lived on the reservation, since products of the earth were the province of women. But it is also true that the reservation was given to frequent droughts and that those Utes who did farm were often disappointed with the outcome. Thus the failure of Utes to farm cannot be solely attributed to the failure of Utes to respond to incentives to farm.


The conclusion is that Indian land tenure prior to reservations were well suited to the resource constraints faced by tribes and not the uniform system of free access that the reformers believed. Further, many tribes were often able to adjust land tenure and other social institutions to the requirements of small scale subsistence farmers prior to formal allotment. Linton reached a similar conclusion about the flexibility of Indian land tenure, noting in 1942 that "Certainly where individual land tenure has been of obvious advantage to the individual there has been little resistance to it." (p. 54) Further Indians who were members of tribes other than the members of the Five Civilized Tribes produced a sizeable amount of agricultural output by 1900. Thus many Indians were at least trying subsistence farming in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Institutions and how they change has received renewed interest among economists. If we are to conclude that Indian institutions made it difficult for Indians to become farmers, more must be said than Indians had inflexible institutions. Some important institutions were more flexible than is often realized, where this was in the interests of Indians. 1 Cited in Otis, D. S., The Dawes Act and the Allotment of Indian Lands. Prucha, F. P. (ed.), (Norman, 1973), 10-11. 2. Hurt, R. D., Indian Agriculture in America: Prehistory to the Present, (University of Kansas Press, 1987), 233. 3. Novak, S.J., "The Real Takeover of the BIA: The Preferential Hiring of Indians," JEH (Sept. 1990), 641. 4. Kaufman, B. E., The Economics of Labor Markets, 2nd ed, 26. 5. Josephy, A. M. Jr., The Indian Heritage of America, (New York, 1968), 350. 6. Carlson, L. A., Indians, Bureaucrats, and Land: The Dawes Act and the Decline of Indian Farming, (Westport, 1981), and "Land Allotment and the Decline of American Indian Farming," EEH (April 1981). 7. Linton, R. M., "Land Tenure in Aboriginal America," in The Changing Indian, O. LaFarge (ed.) (Norman, 1942), 44. 8. Wishart, D. "Development of the Cherokee Economy Prior to Removal: the Statistical Record," unpublished. 9. Officer, J. E., "Arid-Lands Agriculture and the Indians of the American Southwest," in Food, Fiber, and the Arid Lands, (Tucson, 1971), 58. 10. Higgs, R., "Legally Induced Technical Regress in the Washington Salmon Fishery," Research in Economic History, 1982, 60. 11 See, for example, North, D. C., Institutions, Institutional Change and Economic Performance, (Cambridge, 1990).