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Historical relationship of the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos and How it is Changing the Environment. Essay (Book Review)


Introduction

Richard White studied at the University of Washington, Santa Cruz and the University of California. White is the author of the book The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. Currently, he is a history professor at Stanford University.

White has worn several awards, such as the James A. Rawley Prize awarded by the Organization of American Historians, the Francis Parkman Prize from the Society of American Historians, and the Albert J. Beveridge Award of the American Historical Association, among them. Previously, Professor White taught at the Michigan State University, University of Utah, and University of Washington.

His area of speciality includes Native Americans social change and dependency, corruption during the Gilded Age, and Environmental history as well as studying lakes, rivers and railroads. He has written several books which include The Remaking of the Columbia River: A History of the American West and The Organic Machine: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815, It’s Your Misfortune and None of My Own: The Middle Ground.

Within the United States’ history, narratives of American Indians remain marginalized. The need for a scholar to rise up and confront the paradigm of colonialism and narrate indigenous stories is imperative. This is because these stories are quite complex and worth being told accurately, and as such, the minorities are brought into the historical center so as they may be redeemed from the silence sideline.

It goes without saying that the principal medium for indigenous voice is the ability of individuals to design their own history. In his book, The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos, Richard White expounds on this concept by discussing three different case studies concerning the Navajo, Pawnee, and Choctaw tribes. In his study, White uses approaches and ideas from different fields, mainly ecology, history, and anthropology.

As a major contributor to the American West history, White is of the view that there is a complexity that subsists between the aforementioned tribes, a growing capitalistic economy, and their surroundings. In an effort to explore these trends, White digs deep into the chronological prism of dependency.

Book summary

White’s argument which is opposite to other scholars’ arguments on the usefulness of dependency theory is basically inspired by Immanuel Wallenstein’s work, particularly on his submissions of The Modern World System. The use of White’s dependency theory in his narrative is very crucial as it explains how nations or even individuals are integrated into the wider system of capitalist economy.

Likewise, in the argument advanced by White in his book The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos, he contends that through dependency theory, the struggle between periphery and center can be established (White 6).

This model is a sufficiently detailed structure that encompasses environment, economy, politics, and culture as forces which contribute to the decline in the autonomy of the indigenous groups. Nevertheless, White is quick to observe that there are some shortcomings of the homogenized theory which are not accounted for by dependency. He further claims that one would be making a big blander to deny the conclusion of these histories since that would amount to reducing them into a cause that is simple and single while they are not.

In the other chapter of the book, White uses an interdisciplinary approach by joining together findings from ecology, history, and anthropology.

In every methodology, he presents his narrative of causes of an eventual indigenous decline and its dependence upon an economic system introduced by the Anglo- Europeans. Through the use of the anthropologic concept of assessing reciprocal effects of groups that are closely related, otherwise known as close controlled comparisons, White is able to analyze the experiences of Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes.

It should however be noted that in his analysis, White only uses the micro analysis approach, thus failing to weigh up adoptions of other native tribes that are closely related to Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes. Throughout his case study, however, there is a clear illustration of the role played by the process of colonialism in marginalizing native people to a periphery socio economy, as well as stimulating the Anglo- European power.

There were several factors that contributed to the decline of Choctaw tribe and the ultimate reliance on the economic system of Anglo- Europe. Some of these factors involved the environment and geographical landscape which this tribe inhabited. In their subsistence farming, the Choctaw group used basic irrigation method, this method of farming allowed them to gather crop yields and promote a united community with a solid political base.

Nevertheless, the social harmony experienced by the Choctaw tribe was short-lived particularly with the arrival of the European explores and the Spanish merchants in the Choctaw community during the 18th century. There was a drastic turn of events and the community had no choice but to rely on the newly introduced Anglo-European system of economy which marked the beginning of their decline (White 9).

According to White, however, the Choctaws group, unlike other two native groups, did much better as the Choctaws group had a well organized and solid political foundation. That notwithstanding, the Choctaws community did in fact experience decline. The aspect of reliance amongst the Choctaws community is ensued in a couple of ways.

To begin with, the hunting practices of this native group, as well as the invasion of the European into their land, led to a great decline in the herds of the white-tailed deer in the hunting grounds of Choctaws group. Consequently, there were few resources left in their land as a means of survival and with the increase in the population and the intrusion of the Europeans, they were left with no choice but depend on the Anglo- European economy.

This decline came to an end with the emergence of intertribal conflicts that ensued. There was a great conflict between native gropes such as the Choctaws and Chickasaws made the lands unsafe for everybody inhabiting them and the land became unutilized. The lack of use of land in the Choctaws community was brought about by the hostilities among different groups provided a fertile ground for the repopulation of the white-tailed deer, thus there was a restoration of ecological balance in the environment (White 6).

Nevertheless, the subsistence patterns of Choctaws group were culturally maintained and historically derived, but not determined by their ecological landscape, the advent of new cultures from the European intruders, the approval of a new economy, as well as the destruction of diseases opened up new possibilities for change in both social and ecological spheres.

The Choctaws economic system play-off was the second cause for Choctaws to rely on the Anglo- European economic system. After the demarcation of borderland enclaves by the French and the Britons, the Choctaw community ventured into a thriving commercial transition having the advantage of influencing the economic dealing powers of both, the English and French.

The problem with such dealings was however in the perception of commercial trade held by each of the parties. In the perspective of the Europeans, trade was a means through which a group or an individual could benefit.

In the perspective of the Choctaws traders, on the other hand, trade was a form of reciprocity and not a means of getting group or personal advantages. White contends that the Europeans, particularly the English realized that their perception of trade was different from that of the native group and they made every effort to eliminate this perception (12).

In an effort to eliminate this perception, they encouraged credit debt system in the Choctaw markets by way of liquor trade and taking advantage of the Choctaw markets that were inelastic by nature. Consequently, dependency ensued with decline of the Choctaw market system.

White observes that similar processes were experienced by the Navajos and Pawnees tribes. He contend that the existence of European market forces is similar to those introduced in the Choctaw markets which make them succumb to dependency were also introduced among the Navajos and Pawnees tribes thus inculcating new social order (White 8).

This social order galvanized a partnership ethic among the Europeans and the Pawnees. The hunting methods were affected by environmental forces such as the population of deer which lead to the adaption of horticultural practices which were compatible with the new requirements of ecological landscape. Pawnee leaders were given gifts of horses from the European community so that they can intensify the buffalo hunting.

This was within the larger plan of the Europeans to stratify themselves within the economy of the natives. Ultimately, the intertribal conflicts, the depopulation of the buffalo herds, and disease played a key role in the dependency levels among the Pawnees (White 11).

According to White, the decline of the Navajo tribe emanated from the restrictive irrigation methods, poor soils which led to agricultural loss, and reduction in the population of livestock. This community had an economic system that was sheep based economy, and by 1930, the community had an approximately one million heard of sheep. The sheep market system used the number of sheep as a measure of economic value. The wealthy in the community would sometimes redistribute their earnings to the poor in the community. Sheep among the Navajo community did not only represent a means of successful financial gains but sheep were also part of the family and an iconic aspect in the culture of Navajo tribe.

Furthermore, another cause for Navajo dependence emanated from poor irrigation methods used by the tribes which led to the existence of arid soils in their landscape. There was a great problem of soil erosion, ineffectiveness in the system of irrigation and overgrazing which led to the decline of Navajo. The irrigation practices of the natives conflicted with the irrigation strategies of the Americans which resulted into muddled water use causing floods in the farms thus lowering their yields.

In an effort to meet their needs, most of the native farmers opted to work for the white farmers and abandoned their own farms. Further, Diné compliance reinforced the impact of the BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs) and also the control of the United States government by John Collier (White 14).

Critical analysis

Even though there have been a number of publications regarding the American Indian groups history as well as their decline, there are very few of these publications that address this subject in a thorough anthropological approach as it is in the narrative by Richard White. Through the use of anthropological analysis in the narrative of the indigenous Americans, the author avoids treating the Anglo- Europeans as the control group and the three native groups as a subject. In light of the foregoing, White is able to treat both, the European American and the three native groups (Indians) as susceptible players, subject to folly, misunderstanding, as well as panic.

Another peculiar aspect of the book roots of dependency is the exploration of the economic structure of the Choctaw, Pawnee, and Navajo tribes during the pre- industrial period. From the narrative, we are able to learn that trade among the three indigenous groups profiled by White was quite different from the conventional trade as it was not driven by scarcity and prices, but rather trade among them was driven by reciprocal obligation and honor.

The different perceptions and misconception of what trade really meant among the two groups is a clear indication of a deep analysis undertaken by Richard White in his narrative on the three native groups in America.

The analysis done by White on Choctaw, Pawnee, and Navajo tribes, shows that the contact with the European American and the consequences that followed tent to heavily rely on an obvious concept of criminalizing the role played by the European players. As such, the narrative is quite insidious in the sense that it diminishes the value of a historical narrative for the purposes of social relations in the contemporary world.

White is of the view that the two later groups, that are thePawnee and Navajo tribes, were different from the Choctaw tribe in the sense that their dependency was a result of lack of a sophisticated social, environmental, and political process similar to that experienced by the Choctaws.

In light of the foregoing contention, Jan Lewis (1986) argues that even though the narratives of Pawnee and Navajo are important in White’s work; there is a clear indication of the author’s inclination towards the Choctaw story. The imbalance that is straightforward in his work could be an indication of an attempt by the writer to relate the aforementioned three native tribes under the dependency theory, even though every group is complex in its own individual way.

There are other weaknesses manifested inRichard White’s work. The author has frequently employed racial labels such as the word ‘white’ to symbolize Europeans. The author’s classification of English traders as “rapists, knaves, reprobates for all purpose, and murderers”, is a clear indication of racial generalization.

The author also fails to apposite economic agency to the Navajo, Pawnee, and Choctaw. It should be noted that trading among the native groups did exist long before the invasion of the European traders. A number of scholars contend that the acts of giving gifts amongst the indigenous groups are a clear indication that trading existed.

The argument advanced by White opposing other scholars’ arguments on the usefulness of dependency theory is basically inspired by Immanuel Wallenstein’s work, particularly in his submissions on The Modern World System. According to George H. Phillips, the dependency theory is critical in explaining how states or individuals are integrated into the wider system of capitalist economy.

Through the use of the anthropologic concept of assessing reciprocal effects of groups that are closely related, otherwise known as close controlled comparisons, White was able to analyze the experiences of Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes(7). It should however be noted that in his analysis, White only uses the micro analysis approach, thus failing to weigh up adoptions of other native tribes that were closely related to Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes (Phillips 5).

One cannot deny the fact that the threat of force from the Europeans is basic to the histories of Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes, nevertheless, citing military as a cause for their decline would be misleading for a couple of reasons. To begin with, the changes experienced in the subsistence system of these native groups had began long before the arrival of the whites, and thus the establishment of their military was not the cause of the change per se.

In this respect, it is worth noting that the Navajo community was for a century the scourge of both, the Mexicans and Spanish in the south west. The Pawnees community, on the other hand, intimidated and sometimes destroyed any form of expedition hurled by Mexico against them.

They were also resistant to the threats from America for a considerable period. The Choctaw community in the eighteenth century was by far too powerful for English and French. It goes without saying that according to White; military inferiority among the three tribes was not the main cause of their decline and eventual dependency, as this aspect was evolved little by little over a period of time.

The analysis of these three native groups by Richard White brings out the fact that not all attempts by the Europeans were consistent or successful to bring the indigenous labor, land and resources into the market. It follows therefore, that this unifying factor ties together the histories of the Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes and also, within these histories, these groups were tied to the social and environmental changes of every individual group.

This contention negates both, crude materialism and economic determinism. Among the three native groups, market relations were destructive and threatening development, this brought about resistance to such development within these groups, the resistance was short lived (Driben 6).

According to White, the economics of the Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes were basically controlled by culture. In an effort to appreciate change in these native groups, it would be prudent to assess the common influences of environment, politics, economics and culture. The result of these changes among Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes was indeed dependency.

The concept of dependency theory advanced by Richard White in his analysis of the three native groups is a borrowed idea from Immanuel Wallenstein’s work; particularly in his submissions on The Modern World System. The dependency theory is very crucial in explaining how stats or even individuals are integrated into the wider system of capitalist economy (Carlson 4).

Dependency therefore denotes a situation in which the economic system of a particular group is influenced by the expansion and development of another economy. This may only happen in instances where the former is subject to the latter influences due to some forces.

The decline of the subsistence system of Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes as well as their amalgamation into the Anglo- European market system resulted into an increased dependency of these three native groups on the capitalist system, intense social and political changes within their social structure, and also the lack of economic option.

Notwithstanding the fact that these historic events are quite extreme, White’s analysis depicts these results as a clear indication of the function of dependency theory. Initially, the Pawnee, Navajo and Choctaw tribes were able to house, feed, and cloth themselves without any kind of assistance, nevertheless, the three groups little by little resorted to the Europeans for food security, as well as clothing (Driben 7).

During the initial stages, the natives obtained manufactured items and cloths from the Europeans through various exchanges such as military services, goods, land or even labor. At this stage however, the terms and conditions of such exchange were within the control of the native groups.

As time went on, the terms and conditions of these exchanges were determined by the Europeans, and the natives were left with no choice but to comply with such conditions. Ultimately, the European invaders dictated what was expected to be exchanged, the way in which such exchange must have been done, what the natives were supposed to be given, and even how they were supposed to use what they received.

The concept of dependency theory as advanced by White is clearly brought out in the sense that the aforementioned events rendered the three native groups absolutely superfluously, so to speak. They no longer had control over their own resources and they entirely relied on the Anglo- Europeans. This also threatened loss of their identity.

Conclusion

The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos by Richard White is a indeed a groundbreaking interdisciplinary assessment of the European contact with the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos cultures and its disastrous consequences on the indigenous Americans. Richard White focuses on the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos tribes and makes an attempt to isolate and identify different factors that played a significant role in the material collapse of the three native groups.

The book is widely acclaimed for the new approach to the history of indigenous Americans, as well as the well built thesis. The methodology used by Richard White in his book The Roots of Dependency, is quite different compared to other traditional historians. This is particularly notable in the use of interdisciplinary method which joins together findings from ecology, history, and anthropology in his investigation, and also includes the perspective of the indigenous Americans into his work.

In his narrative, the author begins by assessing the Choctaw community from Mississippi during the period between the 16th century and 18th century. The author gives a chronology of how the Choctaw community initially adapted to the influences of the Anglo- Europeans, which ultimately resulted into a catastrophe.

During this period, as the forces of Anglo- European economic system made their way into the economic system of the Choctaw community, they were forced by circumstances to overhunt which lead to drastic depopulation of the deer herds and their eventual extinction. This also led to the destruction of their environment, economy and their resources, all these led to the decline of Choctaw tribe and the eventual dependency (Driben 32).

In The Roots of Dependency, White further contends that alcohol was also another factor that played a significant role in the decline of the Choctaw community. He claims that in order to appreciate the predicaments experienced by the Choctaw community, one has to consider the critical role played by the market economy of the Europeans.

The author assert that the Choctaw community was enticed into the Anglo – European market system by liquor and from then henceforth the exchanges of goods and services were determined by the Europeans. As such, this native group was left susceptible and hungry. Their resistance did not help them much and eventually, the Choctaw community became greatly dependent on the Europeans for food and cloth supply.

The author in his narrative is of the view that the Navajos and Pawnees tribes went through the same processes as the Choctaw community. He narrated that the existence of European market forces was similar to those introduced in the Choctaw markets, making them vulnerable to the whims of the Europeans.

These forces were also introduced among the Navajos and Pawnees tribes thus inculcating a new social order. The decline of the Navajo tribe emanated from the restrictive irrigation methods, poor soils which led to agricultural loss, and reduction in the population of livestock.

This community had an economic system that was sheep based, the community had an approximately one million heard of sheep by 1930. The sheep market system used the number of sheep as a measure of economic value. Sometimes, the wealthy in the community would redistribute their earnings to the poor. Sheep among the Navajo community did not only represent a means of successful financial gains but also they were part of the family and an iconic aspect in the Navajo culture.

Poor irrigation methods used by the Navajo tribe and the existence of arid soils in their landscape are also cited by the author as another cause for Navajo’s dependency. There was a great problem of soil erosion, ineffectiveness in the system of irrigation and overgrazing which led to the decline of Navajo.

The irrigation practices of the natives conflicted with the irrigation strategies of the Americans which resulted into muddled water use causing floods in the farms, thus lowering their yields. In an effort to meet their needs, most of the native farmers opted to work for the European farmers and abandoned their own farms. Further, Diné compliance reinforced the impact of John Collier control of the United States government and also the emergence of BIA (Bureau of Indian Affairs).

The social order introduced by the Europeans galvanizes a partnership ethic among the Europeans and the Pawnees. The Pawnee community embarked on massive hunting which drastically reduced the population of the deer. These hunting methods were affected by environmental forces, such as the population of deer which led to the adaption of horticultural practices which were compatible with the new requirements of ecological landscape.

White, in his narrative, content that the leaders of the Pawnee community were given horses by the Europeans for the purpose of intensifying their hunt for buffalos. This move by the Europeans was within the larger plan of the Europeans to stratify themselves within the economy of the natives. Ultimately, the intertribal conflicts, the depopulation of the buffalo herds, and disease played a significant role in solidifying the Pawnees levels of dependency on the Europeans.

Richard White borrows the concept of dependency theory from Immanuel Wallenstein. This dependency theory is espoused by Wallenstein in his renowned book The Modern World System. The concept of dependency is used to depict a situation in which the economic system of a particular group is influenced by the expansion and development of another economy.

This may only happen in instances where the former is subject to the latter influences due to some forces. The dependency theory is very crucial in explaining how states or even individuals are integrated into the wider system of capitalist economy.

Finally, In the Roots of Dependency, there are several aspects used by the narrator that fuel criticisms. To begging with, White, the narrator, has frequently employed racial labels such as the word ‘white’ to symbolize European. Secondly, the author in his narrative makes an attempt to pigeonhole English traders as rapists, murderers, knaves, and reprobates for all purpose; this is an outright generalization of a particular race as discussed above (Carlson 43).

Works Cited

Carlson, Leonard. “Economic History”. The Journal of Economic History 44.3 (1984): 887-889. Print.

Driben, Paul. “The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and the Navajos.” American Ethnologist 12. 2 (1985): 396 – 397. onlinelibrary.wiley.com. Web.

Lewis, Jan. “Southern History.” The Journal of Southern History 52. 3 (1986): 446-447. Print.

Phillips, George H. “Richard White. The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos”. The Journal of American History 71. 2 (1984): 370. Print.

White, Richard. The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. Print.

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