Changing Subsistence, Changing Reservation Environments: The Hupa, 1850-1980s

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Agricultural History






Agricultural History Society

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In January of 1987 we sat around the table of George Byron Nelson, Sr., a 69-year-old Hupa forester, listening to him talk about his life on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in northwest California. On this occasion, Nelson talked about the changes in Hoopa Valley--changes he had witnessed personally, and changes in the longer cultural history of his people. From the diversified Hupa harvest economy at the time of white contact, Nelson recited a veritable litany of Hupa subsistence and economic change. "Like I always said--I can still say it--that we have had our different eras--times in here. Like what we had in here first is the gold rush days. Everybody rushing for gold. Next they came in as farmers. They raised wheat, and natives that raised grain did fine. [Then] Cattle and hogs, and that went out. Then came in the lumber industry. And that was a boom." "Now," Nelson concluded, looking around the group, "which one will be the [next] one? I can say it, but...". He laughed softly as he mimed smoking a joint. We laughed with him, recognizing the potential replacement of timber with the newest "cash crop" to come out of the mountains surrounding Hoopa Valley.

The economic changes Nelson described are part and parcel of the cultural history of the Hupa people. Likewise, these changes tell the story of white contact and federal Indian policy through the twentieth centurythe application, the well-meant effort, and the failure of an agrarian-based assimilation program. Until the last decade, historians have paid little attention to the nature of agriculture on American Indian reservations, considering it to be as "dirty" and mundane as farming itself. Historians and ethnohistorians are just beginning to heed the call to examine the localized relationships between subsistence changes entailed by settled, white-styled reservation agriculture and the social, economic, and environmental impacts of those changes.


Originally published by the Agricultural History Society. Publisher's PDF and article fulltext available through remote link via JSTOR. This article appeared in the Agricultural History journal.