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  • Native American TasteRe-evaluating the Gift-Commodity Debate in the British Colonial Southeast
  • Jessica Stern (bio)

Historians have acknowledged that southeastern Native Americans were picky consumers of European goods. “Indians were eager customers, not slaves to imported fashion,” James Merrell concluded in his 1989 study of the Catawba.1 Kathleen Braund concurred, stating that the Creek were “very specific about what they needed and wanted in exchange for their deerskins.”2 But the evidence supporting these claims is episodic. In trying to systematically construct southeastern Indian taste, scholars are left with a frustrating gap in the sources. The most robust and accessible body of British sources, the South Carolina Journals of the Commissioners of the Indian Trade (1710–1718) and the Documents Relating to Indian Affairs (1750–1765), frequently mention account books that governmental boards collected from traders working for the public Indian trade, but these account books remain missing. While scholars of the Hudson’s Bay region have been able to use the Hudson Bay Company’s copious financial records to understand the purchasing habits of the Cree, Assiniboine, Chipewyan, and other nearby Native Americans, revealing a population of savvy shoppers who understood the market system, southeastern Indians have received no similar treatment.3

In fact, partly because our source base consists largely of governmental records that discuss diplomatic encounters where gift exchanges occurred, there is a tendency to depict southeastern Indians as gifters, thus overlooking their responses to market incentives. As a recent book states, “trade with the Indians entailed more than an economic transaction—it was more akin to an exchange of gifts between allies.”4 This claim, rather than the image asserted by Merrell and Braund, has become the orthodoxy, emerging from a historiography that posits that [End Page 1] southeastern Native Americans were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with commodity exchange. Rather than approaching Europeans as commodity traders, Joseph M. Hall Jr. has argued, southeastern Native American groups saw political and economic power as intertwined and strove to draw European groups into exchanges based on their traditional ideas about reciprocity.5 Likewise, Tom Hatley concludes that unlike British merchants, the “Cherokee did not compartmentalize commercial, personal, and political relationships.”6 The Creek town Okfuskee, Josh Piker asserts, was “centered on intellectual and social constructs that did not mesh easily with market-oriented behaviors”; the market was destructive to Creek society in ways it was not for British society.7 And although Merrell regarded the Catawba as picky consumers, he also pointed out that they were “[u]nfamiliar with relationships based solely on the market.”8

In this article I argue that this view of southeastern Native Americans as commodity- and market-shy is incomplete and draws a false dichotomy between Native and European actors. It partially grows out of the practice of looking primarily at diplomatic records, which tell us plenty about how Native American leaders used gifts to cement political alliances and how traders presented themselves to officials but not how most Native American individuals viewed the exchanges that occurred outside of political realms. The depiction of Native Americans as gifters also results from scholars using a definition of gift exchange that does not accurately capture the range of exchange modalities that were practiced in early America. Most historians who describe Native Americans as unfamiliar with commodity exchange point to the fact that social relationships and rituals preceded the exchange of goods. Many white traders fully integrated themselves into the towns in which they principally traded, even marrying Native American women; this turned Indian traders into both commercial and social actors within the same community.9 This article asserts that in the early modern period, one cannot distinguish between a gift and commodity exchange by determining whether or not there was a preexisting social relationship. Historians have demonstrated that in early modern Europe, which the previously mentioned scholars would agree was a commodity market economy, commercial relationships also ran along social lines, whether familial, religious, ethnic, or national.10 Trade was built on a social foundation partly because a cash-strapped economy in both Britain and the [End Page 2] colonies required the extension of credit to complete most transactions. Most individuals were only willing...


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