A) Subsistence Economy

"How can you buy or sell the sky the warmth of the land? The idea is strange to us. Yet we do not own the freshness of the air or the sparkle of the water. How can you buy them from us? Every part of the Earth is sacred to my people. Every shining pine needle, every sandy shore, every mist in the dark woods, every clearing and humming insect is holy in the memory and experience of my people."

Chief Seattle in response to an offer by President Franklin Peirce to purchase the Suwamish tribe's land in the state of Washington, 1855.

Chief Seattle was a Native American and like some Native Americans today lived in a subsistence economy. In a subsistence economy, enough is grown, hunted and crafted to provide for the basic needs of the people. A surplus is only created if there is a need or a desire to trade with neighboring people. For instance, in the Southwest, the Navajo and Hopi people live very close to one another. The Navajos are a nomadic people who raise sheep to eat and to use in the production of clothing and rugs. The Hopi live in permanent settlements and grow corn, beans and squash. Each tribe produces a surplus so that they may trade: the mutton and textiles of the Navajo are exchanged for vegetables and legumes of the Hopi.

The goal of life for the Navajo, as with most Native American peoples, is to become a well balanced person. It would not matter to a traditional Navajo if you had many times more sheep than he or she if you were arrogant, or cold-hearted or were not willing to sacrifice your ego for the chance to acquire wisdom. And because the Navajo are concerned for the welfare of future generations, they would think it foolish if you took more from the Earth than it could replenish. The LaKota people in South Dakota follow a "seven generations" principle. Decisions on resource use are based on ensuring there will be enough for the next seven generations. The success of the Navajo and LaKota cultures is measured by the health of the people and their ability to sustain themselves generation after generation.


Discussion Questions:

Why does Chief Seattle consider it strange that the American government would want to buy the land on which the tribe is living? What is his view of this land?

How do you think a person in the Navajo culture attains status? How does this compare to how someone in our society attains status?

What is the relationship of the people with natural resources?

Why do you think subsistence economies have historically been unable to cope well with being geographically displaced, e.g. being put on reservations far from their original homes?