We’re Not Starving American Indians

May 24, 2022
The situation with food today is nothing like the situation with the buffalo in the 1870s.

Most people have moved on from that absurd conspiracy theory about the government deliberately setting food plants on fire to drive up prices. So will I, but before I go, I have to note a particularly weird, if not cruel, twist on it.

According to this tweak, the government’s complicity is somehow proved by the fact that it deliberately starved Native Americans by eradicating buffalo herds in the late 19th century. It’s explained in a tweet that appeared earlier this month:

In 1873 the US government killed 1.5 million buffalo to starve Native Americans so they would become more dependent on the government. Fast forward to today, and the government is creating food shortages to achieve exactly the SAME goal!

Like all good conspiracy theories, this one contains a kernel of truth. In the period following the Civil War, at the height of the Indian Wars, the buffalo herds of the Great Plains did indeed dwindle to virtually nothing. This was a great hardship for the Plains Indians, for whom buffalo was the major source of, not only protein, but clothing and shelter; one historian called the buffalo “the Indians’ Wal-Mart.”

As whites pressed westward, they hunted buffalo almost to extinction, killing a lot more than 1.5 million of them. This occurred as a result of natural market demand – whites had their own uses for buffalo – but it was also encouraged by local government authorities as a way to suppress the Indian population. In other words, it was the cruelest sort of economic warfare.

Where the theory begins to part with reality is its assertion that this was done “to starve Native Americans so they would become more dependent on the government.” Actually, the whites just wanted the land, and were indifferent to what happened to Native Americans in the process. Many of them ended up on reservations, sure, but many others moved (if they could) to another region, and a tragic number just died.

It’s hard to see how driving up food prices today would achieve “exactly the same goal.” Unless there’s a group of people I don’t know about living on land that the U.S. government covets, and they’re somehow being targeted by food price increases, it’s not what I would call an analogous situation.

No, the reality is that everyone suffers from high food prices. That suffering is real and in some cases intense, but let’s not compare it to what American Indians went through. Doing so degrades and trivializes the agony of a people who ended up losing food, shelter, home, homelands – everything.