Indians and Arabs

Friday, October 31st, 2008

John Baden draws an interesting analogy between the Plains Indians and Arabs:

The storied Plains Indian nomadic culture and economy didn’t emerge until the middle of the eighteenth century. Until they acquired powerful means to exploit their environment, specifically the horse, gun, and steel knife, Indians on the plains were sparsely populated, a few bands of agrarians hovering on the margins of subsistence. Their primary foods were maize, squash, and beans.

Hunting bison on foot was a sorry proposition and incidental to crops. It couldn’t support a substantial population. When the occasional bison was killed, it was used in its entirety. Skins provided houses, garments, and ropes; sinew made thread for sewing; bones made awls; and bladders became jugs. Buffalo supplemented their vegetable diet.

Horses fundamentally transformed this life. Indians obtained their first horses from the Spanish in 1598, and by 1800 horses had spread north to the Shoshone in Wyoming. They were no longer impoverished and weak. They could confront their traditional enemies the Crow. Most importantly, they had the bonanza of the bison.

As horses and horse culture spread, the disparate tribes surrounding the plains from Texas to Alberta poured into it. These groups were diverse: Athabaskans, Comanche, Arikara, and perhaps 20 others representing five language groups.

By 1800, their obvious cultural differences were melded into a common Plains Indian culture. All oriented their lives around the buffalo hunt. Herds could now be pursued on horseback and only the best, not the sick or lame, bison were taken. The entire animal was no longer utilized. Indians suddenly had the luxury of waste.

This economy was so powerful that nomadic bison hunters displaced farmers. Plains Indians came to rely on traders for clothing, firearms, and cooking utensils.

They didn’t have time to evolve a culture to accommodate their economic revolution. Elaborate rituals emerged and status depended on wealth and martial prowess. Permanent villages disappeared, and with them farming. With rifles more effective than bows, an armament race ensued.

Theirs was a cultural crescendo lasting but a few generations, effectively ending shortly after our Civil War and the Indian wars that followed. We suffer the results today. Independent of the cause or blame for failure, one fact stands out: cultures maladapted to changed circumstances won’t thrive.

What’s the link to modern Arabs?

The Arab countries with large oil and gas deposits offer a parallel. Until 1973 when their crude brought $2.00 a barrel, the now immensely wealthy Arabic countries were poor indeed. Decades ago reading ethnography, I recall this observation, probably by a British anthropologist writing before 1960: if the Arabic societies become rich, their cultures will rupture.

Both they and the Plains Indians experienced sudden huge economic expansions. Both developed undiversified economies with one primary product, bison and BTUs. A single focus creates huge societal risk; knowledge of earlier means of production soon dissipates and cultural constraints on excess erode.

The real lesson:

Our danger arises from institutions enabling politicians to distribute present benefits to the detriment of future taxpayers. This is ethically wrong and unsustainable. The reality checks of finance will inevitably emerge exposing opportunistic political promises, our democracy’s dominant expression.

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