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The Slaughter of the Bison and Reversal of Fortunes on the Great Plains

CICD Working Paper 2019-01 | Published January 14, 2019

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The Slaughter of the Bison and Reversal of Fortunes on the Great Plains

Abstract

In the late 19th century, the North American bison was brought to the brink of extinction in just over a decade. We show that the bison’s slaughter led to a reversal of fortunes for the Native Americans who relied on them. Once the tallest people in the world, the generations of bison-reliant people born after the slaughter were among the shortest. Today, formerly bison-reliant societies have between 20-40% less income per capita than the average Native American nation. We argue that federal Indian policy that limited out-migration from reservations and restricted employment opportunities to crop based agriculture hampered the ability of bison-reliant societies to adjust in the long-run, generating lasting regional disparities associated with other indicators of social dislocation, such as suicide and unrest.

Related paper: Online Appendix for The Slaughter of the Bison and Reversal of Fortunes on the Great Plains