What Happens to a Nation Defeated?


Rank Race Per capita income (2015 US$)
1 Asian 34,399[1]
2 White 32,910[1]
3 Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander 21,168[1]
4 Black or African American 20,277[1]
5 American Indian and Alaska Native 18,085[1]
6 Some other race 16,580[1]

From Wikipedia, List of US ethnic groups by per capita income.

No matter how you do the math, Native Americans are one of America’s poorest groups. (Indian Americans, by contrast, are one of our richest groups.) According to USA Today, America’s second poorest county is Alaska’s Kusilvak Census Area, which is 92.5% Native American (the poorest, in Alabama, is majority black.) The third poorest county is Apache County, Arizona, where 73% of the population is Native American, (though this list is a little weird because apparently they are only looking at the poorest counties per state).

DqWIx3JU4AA-lE4Wikipedia organizes its list differently, with Zieback County, home of the Cheyenne Indian reservation, coming in 6th. Buffalo and Oglala counties come in 13th and 14th, respectively.

Studies of inter-generational mobility tell a similar story–while the struggles of blacks and Appalachians are well known, Native American reservations stand out in their quiet poverty.

Meanwhile, SAT and ACT scores for Native Americans have been plummeting for the past eight years, which does not bode well for the next generation’s job prospects.



On average, Native Americans suffer from mental illness at the same rates as women, and significantly higher rates than African Americans (who are similarly poor and probably have better access to mental health diagnostic services, since they tend to live in cities.) Only mixed-race people are suffering more.

Of course, a high percent of this statistic might be alcohol abuse.

According to the APA [pdf]:

Relative to the US as a whole, AI/ANs:
• Are more likely to live in poverty: more than twice as many AI/ANs live in poverty than total US population (26% vs 12%)
• Have a lower life expectancies: life expectancy among AI/ANs is 6 years lower than the U.S. average; infant mortality is higher than the US population
• Have twice the rate of violent victimization twice that of African Americans and more than 2 ½ times that of whites.
• Die at significantly higher rates from tuberculosis, diabetes, and unintentional injuries and die from alcohol‐related causes 6 times the national average. …

• AI/ANs experience serious psychological distress 1.5 times more than the general population.
• The most significant mental health concerns today are the high prevalence of depression, substance use disorders, suicide, and anxiety (including PTSD).
• AI/ANs experience PTSD more than twice as often as the general population.  Although overall suicide rates among AI/ANs are similar to whites, there are significant differences among certain age groups…

The suicide data supports the mental illness data, suggesting that the low rates of mental illness among Asians, blacks, and Hispanics is not due to cultural norms of not seeking mental healthcare (unless not seeking avoiding mental healthcare is protective against suicide.)

These are sad statistics.

The APA tries to blame high rates of mental health problems among the Indians on historical oppression–as though African Americans didn’t also suffer historical oppression. Historical oppression tends to be a terrible explanation for anything.

If you’re worried about the APA’s methods, here’s another study, of Native American women who were seen by primary care doctors in Albuquerque, NM. The study found lifetime prevalence of many disorders at alarmingly high rates:

Alcohol abuse: 28.2%
Mood disorder: 48%
PTSD: 33.3%
Anxiety disorders: 63%

(Note: the rates of disorders currently suffered, rather than over one’s lifetime, are lower.)

This study seems like it is trying hard to get high numbers (or people who are already being seen by doctors may have more mental health problems than average,) but there are enough other studies showing high mental illness rates for Native Americans that it probably isn’t that far off.

Comancheria, prior to 1850

Slate Star Codex has an interesting review of a book on the Comanche, Empire of the Summer Moon:

Empire of the Summer Moon was a book about the Comanche Indians. They were not very advanced by “civilized” standards. … They just rode around on horses hunting buffalo and starting wars. But they were really, really good at it. …

These raids were probably the most disturbing part of the book. On the one hand, okay, the white people were trying to steal the Comanches’ land and they had every right to be angry. On the other hand, the way the Comanches expressed that anger was to occasionally ride in, find a white village or farm or homestead, surround it, and then spend hours or days torturing everyone they found there in the most horrific possible ways before killing the men and enslaving the women and children. …

And throughout the book’s description of these events, there was one constant:

All of the white people who joined Indian tribes loved it and refused to go back to white civilization. All the Indians who joined white civilization hated it and did everything they could to go back to their previous tribal lives.

There was much to like about tribal life. The men had no jobs except to occasionally hunt some buffalo and if they felt courageous to go to war. The women did have jobs like cooking and preparing buffalo, but they still seemed to be getting off easy compared to the white pioneer women or, for that matter, women today. The whole culture was nomadic, basically riding horses wherever they wanted through the vast open plains without any property or buildings or walls. And everyone was amazingly good at what they did …

Scott quotes a couple of other commentators who noted the same thing. including a paper by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture:

“By the close of the colonial period, very few if any Indians had been transformed into civilized Englishmen. Most of the Indians who were educated by the English – some contemporaries thought all of them – returned to Indian society at the first opportunity to resume their Indian identities. Ont he other hand, large numbers of Englishmen had chosen to become Indians – by running away from colonial society to join Indian society, by not trying to escape after being captured, or by electing to remain with their Indian captors when treaties of peace periodically afforded them the opportunity to return home.”

And Benjamin Franklin:

“When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language, and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no perswading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoner young by the Indians, and lived a while with them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.”

It’s a really interesting post and you should read the whole thing.

Now I know that idealizing the “noble savage” is a well-known and obvious failure mode. But I was struck by this and by the descriptions of white-Comanche interactions in the book. Whites who met Comanches would almost universally rave about how imposing and noble and healthy and self-collected and alive they seemed; there aren’t too many records of what the Comanches thought of white people, but the few there are suggest they basically viewed us as pathetic and stunted and defective.

What does it mean to live the good life? To be healthy and happy? Does it require riding around on horseback and torturing people? Do lower levels of civilizational complexity offer people more day-to-day freedom (you can’t get fired from a job of cattle-raiding just because you stayed out too late drinking and woke up late the next morning, after all)?

Or is there something else going on?

Cahokia Aerial_HRoe_2015
An illustration of the Cahokia Mounds Site in Illinois.

I doubt the Comanche were nomadic, horse-riding hunters before whites showed up in North America, if only because there were no horses back then. Many of the iconic, nomadic Plains Indian tribes began as farmers in the towns and proto-cities of the Mississippian mound builder cultures, eg, Cahokia. These communities raised corn, squash, and beans, built monumental architecture, and were largely wiped out by a combination of disease and newly nomadic guys on horseback between their discovery by the Spaniards and the arrival of the English/Americans. Many of the survivors also acquired horses and adopted a mobile lifestyle.

Many of the Indians around Albuquerque, New Mexico, were also farmers who built rather famous towns, the Pueblos, and never turned to nomadic horse-raiding. So regardless of what made people happy in 17 or 1800, I don’t think it’s anything so simple as “Native Americans aren’t adapted to cities but they are adapted to riding horses.”

Of course the Indians have lost their traditional ways of life, whether nomadic or settled, depriving them of traditional ways of achieving status, happiness, etc., but this is equally true of blacks and Hispanics (who tend to be part Indian, albeit from different tribes than the ones in the US,) yet they have much lower rates of mental illness.

I suspect the cause has more to do with lack of opportunities in rural areas and alcohol abuse really messing up not just the people who drink, but everyone who loves them and depends on them.

11 thoughts on “What Happens to a Nation Defeated?

  1. regardless of what made people happy in 17 or 1800, I don’t think it’s anything so simple as “Native Americans aren’t adapted to cities but they are adapted to riding horses.”

    Of course that can’t be the answer, because we observe that European whites had nearly as strong a preference for the barbaric Indian lifestyle as the Indians did. If the hypothesis were that Native Americans are happy as nomadic barbarians because that’s the lifestyle they’re adapted to, it would predict the opposite.

    I have been thinking about this question too. One thing that seems salient to me is that, in barbaric environments, things can be right out there on the surface. If somebody hates you, he’ll tell you that. Maybe he’ll start a fight with you. That’s dangerous, but you’ll know exactly where you stand. And by the same token, your friends really are your friends, and you can count on them.

    Want to spit on someone as you pass them by in civilization? You can’t. To me, this is roughly the same issue brought up in Slate Star Codex’s review of Madness and Civilization:

    The beginning of the nineteenth century did start to see fewer chains and rats, and more attempt to treat madmen as human beings. But Foucault is perversely annoyed by this, convinced that this was secretly a way of respecting the mentally ill even less. He notes that their newfound rights were conditional on good behavior and on acting sane, and so in a sense these new more compassionate hospitals gave them less freedom than the old ball-and-chain deal. In the older hospitals, you could do whatever you wanted. You’d be doing it on the wrong side of iron bars, mocked by people who hated you, but you could do it. In the new hospitals, you were forced to constantly perform and please your guards and nurses in order to maintain your privileges. Madmen went from being treated like criminals – who at least are still adult citizens – to being treated like children

    I understand where Foucault is coming from here.

    As to the conditions necessary for this kind of existence, it looks like it’s just a total lack of population pressure. It was impossible to persuade the horse nomads to give up their awesome lifestyle. But now they’re gone and we’re here, because we found them annoying and got rid of them. We could do that because there were more of us. And there were more of us because nomadism is a very low-productivity lifestyle.

    David Friedman also observes that the Comanches can be that way because they can afford it, in Legal Systems Very Different from Ours:

    As far as minor theft was concerned, the Comanche […] regarded such matters as beneath the notice of a warrior. As a Cheyenne would have put it, “if you had asked, I would have given it to you.”

    That attitude, as well as other features of Plains Indian behavior, suggests one important feature of these societies — in their own terms, they were wealthy. Men frequently had more horses than they themselves had use for and so were free to use the surplus to prove their generosity by giving some away. In an uncertain environment, they were from time to time at risk of starving to death during the winter. But the most important form of portable, indeed self-portable on four legs, wealth was plentiful.

    (He also makes an observation similar to the point you make here:

    Moderns often view primitive societies as having followed the same pattern of life for century after century. If they were capable of change surely they would have progressed, become more like us, ceased to be primitive. The Plains Indians provide a striking counterexample. Their immemorial lifestyle was a brand-new invention when Europeans first came into substantial contact with them.


    Legal Systems Very Different from Ours is another one I would nominate for book club treatment. As essentially a specialized exercise in comparative anthropology, it would appear to be right up your alley, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on the book.

    I know Slate Star Codex has reviewed it too (here), but I didn’t much care for Scott’s review. :-/


    • I like that idea for the book club. Could be very interesting.

      Sheer resources per person is probably a big deal, plus your ability to go out and do what you want, when you want it. If your boss is annoying in civilization, well, your boss is annoying. Grin and bear it. In Comanche society, you can just strike out on your own and avoid the bastard.


      • This has reminded me of the song “I Never Picked Cotton”, performed by Johnny Cash.

        The singer tells the story of how he grew up watching his family toil painfully every day just to stay slightly above water, and swore that that was not the life for him. At the first opportunity, he runs away from home to become the civilized equivalent of a horse nomad — a crazed, violent criminal.

        He lives fast, dies young, and ultimately reflects

        In the time I got,
        there ain’t a hell of a lot
        I can look back on with pride

        But I never picked cotton!

        I suspect more conformist peasants/workers have a greater tolerance for the lifestyle, but not much more appreciation for it. (I observed something similar while teaching in China — the students complained just as much about suffering through long, boring work as American students do. To all appearances, they hated it no less than I would have thought. But they actually did a lot more of it.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • Tons of work just to barely survive makes saying “screw the social contract” lot a lot more appealing. Similar story in Frank Lucas’s biography, Original Gangster, about how he ran away from his sharecropping family and became a drug dealer in NYC.


  2. The phenomenon of settlers becoming indians was similar to what happened in Asia. Areas along the steppe had problems with farmers abandoning their lands and becoming nomads. One of the reasons the great wall was built was to prevent this.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The Comanche are an interesting phenomenon. They obviously could not have existed prior to the white man bringing horses and creating settlements to raid.

    The Comanche did some truly horrific things. It’s almost as if the adoption of horses created a kind of Hell’s Angels of the plains.

    It may be that it was a that lifestyle attracted only those who were predisposed to violence and sadism. But in the absence of a larger culture to keep it reigned in, it became the basis for the creation of a larger culture and people.


    • It may have attracted the more violent, or perhaps only the more violent succeeded at it–but by the same token, the settlers were their enemies and thus they saw no moral obligation not to torture them.

      I suspect the past was, generally speaking, a lot more violent than we realize.


  4. The most successful and happiest Indians I have heard of have been members of the U.S. or Canadian militaries. That’s purely anecdotal, but I can vouch for the respect and admiration Indian Veterans get from others on reservations. That may or may not be germane to your post, since service in a modern, high-tech military is very different from horse-nomadism, but it is interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Steady job, steady pay, and community respect–all good things if you’re the kind of person who can get the job and hold it in the first place.

      Goodness multiplies; misfortune compounds.


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