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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society

 

 

VOLUME 7 (2000)

American Indians in the Marketplace: Persistence and Innovation among the Menominees and Metlakatlans, 1870-1920, by Brian C. Hosmer. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999, xvi, 309 pp.

Reviewed by Alice Littlefield, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Central Michigan University, Mt. Pleasant, MI 48859

In this study of Menominees and Tsimshians, Brian Hosmer seeks to build on the works of such scholars as Richard White and Thomas Hall in applying dependency/world systems perspectives to Native American populations. He focuses as well as on indigenous peoples as actors in their own affairs. He is interested in how Indians were able to maintain community and culture in the face of new economic relationships, particularly the impact of market capitalism, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Hosmer's approach is to examine this question through two case studies. The first considers the involvement of Wisconsin Menominees in commercial logging of tribally owned timber and how this endeavor was shaped by timber industry politics, federal policy, and the initiatives of the Menominees themselves. The second examines the development of new enterprises in the community of Metlakatla, a village established in the 1860s by Christian Tsimshian converts, followers of missionary William Duncan. Living in British Columbia and later in Alaska, Metlakatlans negotiated within a political economic environment profoundly shaped by commercial salmon fishing and canning interests; missionary politics; and shifting government policies.

In seeking to portray Indians (the term used consistently by Hosmer) as shapers of their own destiny rather than merely helpless victims of the expanding global economy, Hosmer details how, unlike their Ojibwa neighbors, Menominees not only retained a significant land base (236,000 acres in northeastern Wisconsin), but avoided allotment and developed logging and sawmill enterprises on the basis of tribally-owned resources. As a result, at least some of the Menominees enjoyed relative prosperity during the period under examination.

Chapter One provides a summary of Menominee culture and history from the contact period through the 1870s, when lumbering became a major industry in Northern Wisconsin. Chapters Two and Three focus on the development of Menominee logging in their tribal forests after the establishment of the reservation, and their struggles to control their own timber resources in the face of commercial timber interests and fluctuating, sometimes contradictory, Indian Office policies. Chapter Four, "Creating Indian Entrepreneurs," describes the emergence of a Menominee elite who sought to control Menominee logging and sawmill development, with mixed success, in the early years of the twentieth century.

Hosmer gives considerable credit to Menominee leadership for guiding change in ways that protected community interests. He describes how Menominee modernizers struggled to wrest control of their logging enterprise from the Indian Office bureaucrats, giving credit to "traditional" Menominee values of clan allegiance and personal autonomy, and their facility for "reinterpreting values, while maintaining a sense of community" (p. 35). Yet he also makes clear that income from logging was distributed unevenly among the Menominee, that some could not or would not to engage in logging at all, and that conflicts over logging and sawmill operations occurred not only between Menominees and government agents, but among the Menominees themselves. He argues that what he terms Menominee entrepreneurs "had come to influence, if not dominate," tribal politics by the middle 1890s"(p. 72).

In describing social change among the Tsimshians, Hosmer focuses on a single community, Metlakatla. A thumbnail sketch of Tsimshian history and ethnography is provided in Chapter Five; Chapters Six and Seven detail the development of the community at Metlakatla and its collective enterprises.

By the early 1860s, William Duncan, representing the Church Missionary Society (CMS) of England, had attracted a significant following among Tsimshians at Fort Simpson in British Columbia. In 1862, Duncan moved his followers seventeen miles south and sought to establish a model community away from what he saw as the negative influences of tribal traditions and the degradation of trading post life. His efforts might have faltered were it not for a smallpox epidemic that devastated other communities while leaving Metlakatla relatively unscathed. Whatever the reason, Metlakatla grew in numbers and attracted Tsimshians of both low and high status. Duncan ruled the community with an iron hand and energetically sought to exterminate all traces of Tsimshian ceremonies, religious beliefs, and status distinctions, as well as the abuses of liquor and prostitution that had developed in Fort Simpson.

Operating collectively, Metlakatlans engaged in a variety of economic activities: selling timber, furs, fish and fish oil; engaging in small-scale domestic manufactures; and constructing a small sawmill and salmon cannery. Yet Metlakatla's enterprises never achieved the scale of the commercial logging and milling at Menominee, and the community's economy was heavily subsidized by the CMS and the government of British Columbia.

Unlike the Menominees, Tsimshians in British Columbia enjoyed no formally recognized rights to land or resources, and found that Anglo fishermen and settlers increasingly encroached on their traditional fishing and hunting grounds. Also, a rift developed between Duncan and the CMS, which threatened to cut off support and even brought into question the ownership of the village itself. Through connections to wealthy American philanthropists, Duncan arranged for the community to move across the border to Alaska in 1887, where they were granted a reservation on Annette Island. The rebuilding of the community in Alaska is described in Chapter Eight. The collective social structures and economic activities of Old Metlakatla were largely recreated in the new setting, although residents gradually asserted greater independence from Duncan's leadership.

In a concluding chapter Hosmer discusses similarities and differences in the experiences of the two peoples and revisits the question of how they sought to influence the socioeconomic changes they confronted during the period under consideration. Although each of Hosmer's case studies is interesting and provides us with much valuable information about indigenous peoples' efforts to adapt to the emerging global political economy, it is not entirely evident why the two studies have been juxtaposed in one book. There would appear to be more divergence than similarity between the two cases, making it difficult to carry out the kind of comparison that would support general conclusions.

Apart from the fact that both peoples were indigenous to North America, they were unlike in many ways. They occupied different ecological regions, and although both were significantly drawn into the Euro-American fur trade in the 1800s, their internal social structures retained significant differences: e.g., matrilineality, elaborate status-ranking, slavery, and chiefly ownership of key resources among the Tsimshian, features lacking or less developed among the Menominees. The two peoples were subject to differing politico-legal regimes in the United States and Canada, regimes that crucially determined indigenous control (or lack of it) over traditional resources. The enterprises they developed in an effort to shape their relationship to what Hosmer calls market capitalism were also different, not only in scale but in diversity and in the relations of production surrounding key resources - reservation timber for the Menominee, fish for the Metlakatlans. For the latter, we do not know to what extent chiefly prerogatives over fishing sites persisted among Tsimshians who were pushed to suppress other aspects of the traditional status systems. Finally, Hosmer says almost nothing about the role of missionaries or Christianity among the Menominees (except that modernizers appear to have been Christians), while providing abundant detail on the activities of William Duncan and his influence with the Tsimshian.

With regard to the contours of the global political economy each people faced, we see situations similar to those confronted by many indigenous populations: commercial timber interests with powerful friends in Washington in the case of the Menominees; commercial fishing and canning interests with powerful friends in Vancouver and Ottawa in the case of Metlakatla.

In the face of such great power inequalities between indigenous peoples and Anglo-American or Anglo-Canadian interests, Hosmer may have overstated the case for indigenous agency:

That loggers respected established leadership, operated according to clan and band ties, and accepted the idea that some profits must filter down to the collective community demonstrated that Menominee values were remarkably flexible, sufficiently so that we might argue that culture, in this sense, `managed' economic and social change (pp. 56-57).

In a similar vein, he argues that "Metlakatla's economy promoted both community and individuality in a way that roughly recapitulated Tsimshian patterns of social integration" (p. 150). Yet this was so only in the most general sense: both Metlakatla and earlier Tsimshian communities had redistributive economies organized hierarchically, but traditional ceremonies and ranking systems were effectively suppressed at Metlakatla.

The choice of Metlakatla as an example of indigenous people making choices to determine their own fate may be seen as puzzling in light of the evidence for missionary domination of every aspect of village life. The Menominee case is the more persuasive of the two. Even so, the fact that the Menominees retained tribally-owned forest resources and avoided allotment does not really support the book's theme of indigenous people making choices to determine their own destinies. Menominee leaders actually called for allotment on more than one occasion, and their retention of a tribally-owned land base while surrounding Ojibwa bands were being divested of their land and timber remains a question worthy of further research.

Although Hosmer's arguments are not always persuasive, the book provides us with abundant material for use in comparative work. Scholars concerned with the political economy of indigenous peoples' involvement in the timber industry may find it fruitful to read Hosmer's examination of the Menominee case alongside Sandra Faiman-Silva's analysis (1997) of the Oklahoma Choctaw economy as an internal colony dominated by corporate timber interests. Hosmer's account of Metlakatla should lend itself nicely to comparisons with other examples of missionary efforts to establish model Indian communities, as well as with other studies of change induced in Northwest Coast cultures by capitalist penetration.

Hosmer argues that "... Menominees and Metlakatlans ... understood the forces affecting their lives and chose economic modernization as the best possible way to preserve, not abandon, distinctive identities" (p. 224). The accumulation of detailed studies of local-level change such as this one may help us to better understand how, to paraphrase Marx, indigenous peoples make history, though not under conditions of their own choosing. Hosmer's work is an important contribution to such a comparative project.

Reference Cited:

Faiman-Silva, Sandra.

1997. Choctaws at the Crossroads: The Political Economy of Class and Culture in the Oklahoma Timber Region. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.