The Loss of the Bison and the Well-Being of Indigenous Nations

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In the late nineteenth century, unrestricted hunting pushed the North American bison population from nearly 8 million to near extinction. For the Native Americans of the Great Plains, the Northwest, and the Rocky Mountains, this eliminated a resource that had served as their primary source of livelihood for over 10,000 years and that featured in almost every facet of life.

In The Slaughter of the Bison and Reversal of Fortunes on the Great Plains (NBER Working Paper 30368) Donn. L. Feir, Rob Gillezeau, and Maggie E. C. Jones show that the bison population reduction immediately lowered the material well-being of bison-reliant nations. This decline has persisted to the present day. The researchers argue that the rapid loss of the bison, combined with limited access to credit, permanently altered bison-reliant nations’ dynamic path of development and can help explain the relative poverty today of Indigenous nations in the interior of North America.

The bison population’s decline led to an immediate and persistent drop in the living standards of bison-reliant Native American societies.

The researchers compare individuals who belonged to nations affected by the bison population reduction to those in nations that were never bison reliant. They merge their measures of bison reliance with data on the height, gender, and age of over 15,000 Native Americans. These data, collected between 1889 and 1903 by physical anthropologist Franz Boas, permit comparisons of age-adjusted height trends across birth cohorts of individuals in different Indigenous groups.

Prior to the bison population’s decline, bison-reliant societies had living standards comparable to or better than their European contemporaries. The loss of the animals over a period of several decades had substantial and immediate negative effects. Those born in bison-reliant nations after the bison population was severely reduced suffered a 2.5 centimeter decline in height relative to those born in nations that were not bison reliant. Bison-reliant nations experienced substantially higher rates of skewed sex ratios early in life and an increase in child mortality, both of which indicate maternal deprivation.

Adults in bison-reliant nations also experienced large-scale occupational displacement. Working-age men in these nations were 26 percentage points less likely to report an occupation in the 1900 census compared to similar-aged men in nations that were not reliant on the bison. In the latter half of the twentieth and the early twenty-first centuries, income per capita has averaged 28 percent lower in historically bison-dependent versus nondependent nations. The researchers could not attribute this gap to differences in agricultural productivity, self-governance, or application of the Dawes Act, which reduced, complicated, and fractionalized reservation lands.

Bison-reliant nations with greater access to credit have experienced a less persistent decline in living standards, partially adapting through occupational respecialization and migration. Members of nations that had greater access to credit in 1870 were more likely to enter capital-intensive industries and less likely to enter agriculture, which was encouraged and financed by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The experiences of formerly bison-reliant peoples shed light on how the effects of economic shocks can persist for decades in the absence of access to financial resources that enable adaptation.

— Lauri Scherer