- From Corn to Casinos:The Catch-22 of Native American Afluence
Indian-head nickels aside, Native Americans and money don't mix well in the public imagination. From Henri Rousseau's "Discourse on Inequality" to Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves, Indians have often served as foils for the greed and materialism of the "White Man." At the same time, Euro-Americans have lamented Native American poverty while lambasting tribal enterprises they deem excessively profitable, morally inappropriate, or simply "un-Indian." The result is a Catch-22 worthy of Joseph Heller's classic novel, in which the character Chief White Halfoat complains that his Creek family had unwittingly served as "human divining rods" for Oklahoma oilmen. Ultimately, he tells Yossarian, "we found ourselves completely surrounded by oilmen waiting for us to come their way so they could kick us off. Everywhere you looked there was an oilman on a ridge, waiting there like Indians getting ready to attack. It was the end." Perhaps the White Halfoats were lucky, for being stripped of their oil wealth spared them the ignominy of becoming rich Indians, the subject of Alexandra Harmon's latest book.
"From many chapters of their history," writes Harmon, "Indians could reasonably conclude that they were damned if they did get rich and damned if they did not" (p. 277). She uses seven case studies of unexpected Native affluence (including the Oklahoma oil boom) to explore the intersection of American ideas about economics and Indians. Whether fighting over corn in colonial Virginia or casinos in modern Connecticut, Harmon contends, whites and Indians have debated and influenced each other's views on the proper sources, distribution, and purposes of wealth. This intercultural discourse reveals more than just competing notions of Indianness; in Harmon's skilled hands, it becomes both a divining rod for locating "the moral premises of economic culture" (p. 10) and a wedge for fitting Indians into broader historical narratives. Impressive in scope and analytical power, her book makes a compelling case for the proposition that a "historical examination of American [End Page 186] thought regarding economic morality is . . . incomplete unless it includes Indians" (p. 11).
Rich Indians is part of a new wave of scholarship that aims to move Native economic history beyond its usual fixation on dispossession, dependency, and underdevelopment. Over the past fifteen years, anthropologists and historians have produced more nuanced interpretations of Indian engagement with the market economy, emphasizing adaptation and agency over exploitation and subjection. While acknowledging the power imbalances and structural constraints that have limited Native choices, these studies generally portray Indians as intelligent economic actors with culturally distinct yet dynamic perceptions and practices. Theda Perdue and Claudio Saunt, among others, have documented changing conceptions of property within the "Five Civilized Tribes" in the decades preceding removal. Scholars such as Brian Hosmer, Peter Iverson, and Colleen O'Neill have uncovered examples of Indian entrepreneurship that challenge the notion that capitalism necessarily undermined Native cultural values. Even wage labor—long taken as a hallmark of dependency—has been productively reassessed in case studies by William Bauer, Paige Raibmon, and Daniel Usner. Rich Indians is most like Usner's Indian Work: Language and Livelihood in Native American History (2009) in its attention to the reciprocal relationship between the economic strategies that Indians have adopted and the discursive strategies that white observers have used to discredit them. Euro-American greed and hypocrisy receive due attention, but Harmon shares with these authors the desire to transcend simple stories of victimization. Instead of a morality play about selfish whites and generous Natives, she offers a satisfyingly complex drama in which neither side has a monopoly on virtue.
Harmon's vignettes span American history from the colonial period to the present. Fittingly, she starts in seventeenth-century Virginia, where the "trope of the poor savage" (p. 53) took root with the plantations that displaced Native towns. From the outset, while Anglo observations of Powhatan culture were "contradictory and ambivalent" (p. 27), they generally described Indians...