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Assess and Analyse the Impact of Consumerism upon the Native American Peoples

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Assess and analyse the impact of consumerism upon Native American peoples

European migration and settlement had various impacts upon Native American peoples, most of them not positive. Consumer revolution is estimated to have begun in the 17th century which means that there was an increase in consumption, particularly consumption and desire for ‘luxury goods’; consumerism for the Native Americans came along with the European settlers and the extensive ‘fur trading’. Although the Native Americans did not have silver or gold, they did have something that was in great demand for Europeans, and in contrast, was not much of a use for the Native Americans. Already from the earliest stages of contact European traders were willing to pay good money for American pelts, furs and skins. Most popular was beaver but there was also a market for deer, and smaller animals, for which the Natives did not have much use for such as marten, otter and black fox (Axtell, 1992). The Native Americans were happy to trade fur, since they had plenty of it, for something more useful to them, such as tools and other necessities that would improve their labour and lives. The Natives bought mostly tools, clothing, decorations and novelties, alcohol and firearms from the Europeans (Axtell, 1992).

The trade and relationship between the Natives and the Europeans was mutually beneficial at first and might have had some positive impacts, both learning and refining new skills (Dalal 2011), Native Americans gained horses, muskets and the fur trade enabled all male hunters of the tribe to participate in bringing home ‘income’ which they could trade for tools, blankets, kettles and other necessities that would improve their lives. Skin and fur was in great demand in Europe and soon enough the Native American did not trade only necessities for the skins anymore- ‘imaginary wants’ arose among them (Axtell, 1992). Only 40 per cent of their income they spent on producer goods, firearms and tools which actually made their labour easier. 50 per cent of all their income was spent on luxury goods, mostly alcohol, tobacco and cloth to use as decoration. The remaining 10 per cent was spent on blankets and kettles. This presents a picture of Native Americans as consumers, using luxury items to raise their quality of life (Carlos, Lewis 2012). But the gains did not outweigh the Native American loss, which altered their lives drastically (Dalal 2011). European introduced goods and luxury items had a major impact on their traditions, culture and the way they organized their lives.

Although the Native American people were fully equipped with tools to manage in their own environment, metal tools were the earliest favoured trade items by both Native men and women, in order to make their work easier and faster (Axtell 1992), as their access to various materials was limited (Dalal 2011). European tools, made of superior material, processed metal were the earliest popular items for both native men and women to make their labour easier and faster. European metal tools were brighter and more durable and therefore better than native copper, bone, fired clay, stone or wood. As the Native Americans became reliant on European tools and weapons, they did not need to make their own appliances anymore and this caused the loss of the traditional ways of making tools and weapons (Axtell, 1992).

But surprisingly enough, metal tools were not the best-selling items in the native markets in the 17th century, they are just most well preserved. Cloth was actually the trade good Native Americans bought the most. European textile and blankets were more practical than local skins or furs in many ways: they were lighter, dried faster and gave warmth even when it was wet, they could easily be transformed into new clothes and it came in various bright colours, colours that they could not produce themselves (Axtell 1992). The Native Americans also rarely washed their clothes and textiles, not even when soap found its way to the trader’s kit. It was easier for them just to trade for more cloth from the Europeans than to try to wash it. Although, cloth and textile did not have a major impact on the Native Americans and their culture, if only on their appearance, it does show a rising level of comfort and convenience. Their need to make their own blankets or clothes from animal skin and fur was decreasing, and even washing the existing textiles was too much work,  because of the ‘bargains’ European traders gave to them- they could always simply get more cloth (Axtell, 1992).

The Indians also wanted to always enhance their beauty and status with foreign decorations and jewellery. Necklaces, silver earrings, copper and brass bracelets, rings and later on brooches and pins were the most popular European jewellery among both Native American women and men. Although they mostly interpreted European jewellery in their own traditional ways. This preoccupation with fashion and vanity got even more promoted when mirrors were introduced to the natives. Mirrors played particularly an important role in men’s lives, as they started carrying them around on all their journeys and could now change their appearance as often as they wanted, and usually it was very often. With this the importance of women also decreased as the men did not need women to paint their faces anymore (Axtell 1992). ‘Beautification’ as a communal activity turned into an individual undertaking, which meant excluding women from a very important tribe tradition (Metcalfe 2011). The rise of mirrors did also end up causing the loss of many of the Native Americans after a plague or a smallpox epidemic. The disease altered the way Native Americans saw themselves in the mirror. In the effect of this, they often could not stand their disfigured faces and ended up killing themselves (Axtell 1992). Mirrors perhaps brought out their excessive vanity.

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