Samuel W. Rose: Marxism and mode of production in the anthropology of native North America

This contribution elaborates on the relevance of the concept of mode of production in understanding contemporary North American indigenous populations. While examination of Native American peoples played a crucial role in early Marxist thought, Marxist theory has never been popular in examinations of North American Indians and has even been rejected by many indigenous intellectuals as ethnocentric, colonialist, and otherwise irrelevant to the political interests of indigenous peoples. This discussion has two parts: first, I briefly discuss the history of Marxist engagements with Native American anthropology, showing how this engagement played a crucial role in the development of anthropological and Marxist theory. In the second part, I draw from Elizabeth Rata’s (2000) concept of neotribal capitalism to discuss the relevance and advantage of mode of production–based analyses to Native North America.

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) (Photo: Wikipedia)

Lewis Henry Morgan (1818–1881) (Photo: WikiMedia Commons)

One of the origins of Marxist anthropology is the work of Lewis Henry Morgan, whose intellectual interests centered on the Seneca-Iroquois people in the western region of New York State. Published in 1877, Morgan’s Ancient Society provides a comprehensive narrative on the social evolution of humanity centered on the social transformations that occur in relation to changes in the economic structure of societies. This book provided the basis for Engels’s The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State, which is little more than an explicitly Marxist reformulation of Morgan (Engels [1884] 2010: 35). However, the point I wish to emphasize here is that Ancient Society is fundamentally based on Morgan’s earlier work on the Iroquois, which provided the backbone of his entire intellectual project ([1851] 1993). As Elisabeth Tooker (1992: 371) emphasizes, properly understanding Morgan necessarily involves “[recognizing] that Morgan’s intellectual journey originated not in any attempt to answer the burning questions of his day, but in an attempt to understand the society and culture of a few thousand Indians then remaining in New York State.” The anthropological theory of Engels, via Morgan, is therefore not derived from some abstract narrative of human history that is divorced from the experiences of ethnographic subjects,1 but rather is an extension of Morgan’s attempt to understand and theorize the historical situatedness and the particularized articulations of “traditional” Iroquois society.

The recognition that early Marxist anthropology originates in the anthropology of American Indians is an important position from which to view the divergence that developed and exists to this day between the two. Morgan’s influence on American anthropology declined following World War I as a consequence of the rejection of evolutionary frameworks, and as a result, the explicit Marxist anthropological tradition almost disappeared in American anthropology (Bloch 1983: 124). The minimal and problematic developments in cultural evolutionary thought facilitated and enabled the seeming validity of the Boasian critique and alternative, which in turn fueled the ascendency and consolidation of American anthropology behind Franz Boas and his disciples. Given that Boas’s ethnographic work was on the native peoples of the North American Arctic and the Pacific Northwest regions, the anthropology of North American Indians became a dominant location for Boasian thought.

Historical materialism began to re-emerge within the anthropology of Native North America during the 1940s with a renewed interest in understanding American Indian cultures in relation to colonialism and their articulations with capitalism (Albers, 2002). In this regard, Eleanor Leacock’s work (1954, 1955) deserves special mention in linking the social transformation of the Montagnais-Naskapi people in Labrador, Canada, with the emergence and institutionalization of the fur trade. Leacock was a progenitor of a Marxist-feminist analysis that emerged as a theme in the anthropology of Native Americans and was continued by other anthropologists like Patricia Albers (1985; Albers and Medicine, 1983). The Marxist turn in the 1970s saw the proliferation of anthropological work about Native North America, including the expansion of the historical critique of indigenous articulations with capitalism as well as the beginning of the critique of contemporary Native American political economy. The most influential of these scholars was Joseph Jorgensen who opened the door to historical materialism and dependency theory in studies of economic development and the making of government policy about Native Americans (Patterson, 2001: 144).

An indigenist critique emerged in the 1980s, which was in reaction to this proliferation of Marxist thought. The critique, while having unique characteristics, should be viewed as part of the postmodern turn in theorizing in academia and within the political Left itself. In this postmodern vein, it is part of the larger turn where class politics give way to identity politics as the central organizing concept. The indigenist critique focuses on Marxism’s Western and modernist origins and theoretical connections, using this foreignness as a means to discredit Marxism. As such, they denounce Marxism as another face of the colonial project. The critique, which focuses heavily on the narrow evolutionism characteristic of certain strands within Orthodox Marxism, also holds that Marxism desires the end to traditional indigenous life-ways. Indigenists may value the critique that Marxists make of capitalism but vehemently reject Marxism as a framework for the future. In summarizing this position, Barsh (1988: 208) states that “the essential question of today is not whether Indians were victimized, but what role they will play in future society” and that “here, Marxism and capitalism seem to agree on the inevitability of Indians’ disappearance.” Following this critique, most indigenists reject Marxism and the potential of class struggle (and even class analysis) in favor of indigenous identity politics and sovereignty-based struggles against colonial society.

In short, Marxist-derived work in the anthropology of Native Americans came into dialogue with postmodernism at the same time as the latter emerged as the dominant paradigm in the discipline. What is more, the debate is specifically with indigenism as the left-wing manifestation of postmodernism, which means there are two issues working against Marxism in the subfield. First, the dominance of postmodernism in the social sciences has marginalized Marxist anthropology in general. Second, this is heightened in the anthropology of Native Americans because even many scholars on the Left are more inclined to embrace postmodernism instead of Marxism, meaning that the subfield as a whole has gotten away from examining issues of economics and development (Albers 2002).

In order to overcome this fateful double bind within indigenous studies, Elizabeth Rata (2000) created the concept of neotribal capitalism to critique the transformation of the indigenous Maori people in New Zealand in the late twentieth century. Rata (2000: 33) defines neotribal capitalism as “the articulation of exploitative class social relations of production and a neotraditionalist ideology of revived communal relations within a social formation structured by a capitalist regime of accumulation.” Already the introduction of such analytical vocabulary is itself a critical innovation for the field (Schröder 2003). This is because postmodernist approaches lack an adequate language to conceptualize the profound transformations within indigenous societies over the twentieth century and the dialectical interrelations between different facets of a given contemporary Native American society. A second critical innovation of the neotribal capitalism paradigm is that it refines and re-centers our interpretation of contemporary indigenous societies. Previous work had attributed the profound changes within Native American communities to their penetration by the capitalist global system. However, until the advent of the neotribal capitalism paradigm, this penetration was often understood as an articulation of traditional societies’ mode(s) of production with capitalism. Rata reframed indigenous societies as thoroughly and fundamentally subsumed and transformed by capitalism. They were now viewed as capitalist societies with a capitalist mode of production in themselves without qualification. As localized responses to global capitalism, Rata’s conception of neotribal capitalism is influenced by Jonathan Friedman’s (1994) theorizing on contemporary cultural revivalist movements.

Roseberry (1989: 156) states, “Each mode of production specifies a particular type of sociality and a particular relationship with nature, the combination of which forms the basis for a determinate class structure.” A working definition of the capitalist mode of production is that it describes a structural arrangement of an economy that incorporates wage labor into its relations of production, as well as privatized/commoditized forces of production wherein labor power and the other forces of production are organized around commodity production. Rata (2000: 33) states, “Neotribal capitalism is characterized by the absence of privatized ownership of the means of production.” Instead, “the corporate tribe, rather than the individual, is the legal owner of the lands, waters and knowledge,” and “economic control of tribal resources is located in the groups who use the resources for commodity production.” What also makes this neotribal capitalism is that the relations of production are characterized by wage labor.

There are several interrelated reasons why neotribal capitalism is best characterized as a local variant on the capitalist mode of production, rather than as something new. Though the means of production may not be privatized in the strict sense, they are thoroughly commoditized and viewed as the property of the neotribal government. Neotribal societies are themselves organized along the principles of a business corporation: the entirety of the social formation is a singular corporate entity. The tribal government performs the role of the capitalist as it, through its business arm, becomes the exploiter of its own people. Bruce Johansen (2004: 95) captures this perfectly when he describes the Oneida Nation of New York as “a business called a nation.” Neotribal societies are the product of the articulation between indigenous and settler societies inherent to settler colonialism. Neotribal capitalism represents the particularized transformation of indigenous–settler relations under conditions of neoliberal capitalism. In that way, our understanding of neotribal capitalism should not be disconnected from a critical examination of the workings of the political economy of settler colonialism within the states in which these “neotribes” are embedded.

This framework also provides the basis for a critique of the failures and co-optation of indigenism as a political movement. The failure of indigenism lies in its idealism, which serves to obscure and deny class relations within actually existing Native American societies. The progressive energy of indigenist idealism, divorced from a structural and material analysis, enabled its co-optation by internal and external capitalist forces. One of the major distortions of ideology among North American indigenists is the question of whether Native American peoples were profoundly transformed by the colonial project. Indigenists are not ambivalent on this issue of the profundity and degree of social transformation resulting from the colonial project, but they often argue passionately in favor of both sides (either explicitly or implicitly) while being apparently unaware of the inherent contradiction. In this way, prominent indigenists seem to have a difficult time remembering from one moment to the next whether “traditional” indigenous societies still exist. Within a single chapter, Ward Churchill utilizes both positions to argue against the relevance of Marxist analysis to Native Americans. In arguing against the contention that indigenists romanticize the past, Churchill (1983: 188) states, “Traditional Indian cultures … continue to exist with an amazing vitality and continuity on a number of reservations.” However, five pages later, in arguing against the Marxist contention that Native Americans should be viewed as proletarians, Churchill (1983: 193) states, “American Indians have no class in any conventional sense; insofar as they have become proletarians they have already been torn from their traditional cultures.”

Ward Churchill (1947– ) (Photo: WikiMedia Commons)

Ward Churchill (1947– ) (Photo: WikiMedia Commons)

Here Churchill asserts a kind of primitivism against the supposed modernity of proletarianization. This is an inherently romantic and idealist framing, which is sufficiently problematic in its own right. However, this framing is also based on the demonstrably false belief that there is such a thing as a Native American individual or community that is free from or has not been radically transformed by capitalist incorporation. The proletarianization of native peoples was not a recent twentieth-century phenomenon that began with the United States government’s urban relocation program of the 1950s and 1960s (see Fixico 1986 for discussion of the urban relocation program). Even native people living on reservations are not economically independent and instead form part of the rural proletariat, and the economies on reservations regardless of their relative wealth or impoverishment are a type of rural capitalism (see Berman 2003; Pickering 2000 for evidence of this from even non-Marxist economic anthropologists). If Churchill wants to believe that “traditional” native cultures exist intact, then one has to wonder where these native communities are located that have somehow been free from either accumulation by dispossession or their incorporation into and dependence on capitalist markets where even the reproduction of their daily lives is unachievable without the market. Even the most remote regions of North America have a long history of incorporation into the globalized market system and a history of dispossession. Marxist anthropologists like Kirk Dombrowski (2001, 2014) and Joseph Jorgensen (1990) have each demonstrated in their own way the degree of commercial penetration and institutionalization in Alaska Native communities such that even the few remaining subsistence hunters and fishers are dependent upon the market for the reproduction of subsistence hunting through the acquisition of some of the means of production (i.e., trucks, guns, boats, gasoline, snowmobiles, etc.). Thus, even subsistence hunters must produce for the market to be able to maintain production for themselves. Again, these dual forces of dispossession and dependency as transformative of indigenous societies are not new. Leacock’s work back in the 1950s demonstrated that even what older generations of anthropologists believed to be these “traditional” or “pristine” indigenous cultures of the subarctic were in fact not; their social and property relations had already been dramatically altered through their prior history of incorporation into the global market through the fur trade. This was further emphasized and elaborated on by Gerald Sider in his recent book on the native peoples of Labrador (2014).

Remember that this division and opposition between “traditional culture” and capitalism/class/proletarianization is Churchill’s framing, not mine. If we are to believe and follow this framing, then it is demonstrable that “traditional” indigenous cultures no longer exist anywhere in North America and have not existed for a considerable amount of time. However, five pages earlier, Churchill told us that traditional Indian cultures persist with vitality and continuity. We are supposed to believe “traditionalism” within actually existing communities is both torn apart and continuous. Native peoples have been both deeply affected and unaffected by the colonial project. This is dangerous primitivist fantasy on Churchill’s part because it obscures and minimizes the reality of the degree of social transformation caused by capitalist penetration and institutionalization, while at the same time he champions native peoples for having survived colonial devastation intact. The celebration of survival requires him to implicitly downplay, undermine, and obscure the severity of the devastation caused by colonization and how it has in fact transformed native peoples. At the heart of Churchill’s framing is a frustrating contradiction but one that is fundamental and pervasive in indigenist framings and discussions of actually existing Native American peoples. Wider societal forces do not so much articulate this contradiction as embody it as “traditionalism” is subsumed within capitalism, all while its proponents insist that it isn’t. Adopting this rhetoric of continuity, internal and external capitalist forces have been able to further implement the institutionalization of capitalism within indigenous societies while maintaining the ideological cover of indigenous communitarian continuity. In that way, class relations become reified as communal relations (Rata 2000: 33).

Some concluding remarks
The above underlines the advantage to the application of Marxist concepts like mode of production over that of the spiritualism-idealism of even the most radical of indigenists, for the latter’s approach still necessarily romanticizes and exoticizes the indigenous past and present. Opposed to this, the analytical power of the concept of mode of production in the form of neotribal capitalism is that it obliterates these indigenist-idealist obfuscations and makes clear the structural principles upon which these societies operate. It demonstrates clearly that these principles and this economic base are not representations of mere aberrations or even articulations with the capitalist mode of production but instead are full manifestations of capitalism in modified form. The capacity for engaging in class analysis within actually existing indigenous societies is perhaps the most significant reason to support the relevance of “mode of production” to the anthropology of Native North America.

This contribution has focused on showing that the concept of “neotribal capitalism” offers a clear and concise manner of describing the actually existing mode of production within many indigenous societies. Other approaches, such as Friedman’s treatment of primitivism as one possible ontological position toward the global (1994) and Haley and Wilcoxon’s historical deconstruction of traditionalist Chumash identity politics (1997; Neveling and Klien 2010: 13–21 for a historical materialist extension of their thesis) surely support and may be used to expand this concept. This is important if anthropology wishes to overcome the identitarian legacy of postmodernism and instead consider structural perspectives on and explanations for phenomena occurring within Native American societies that would otherwise be obscured and mystified by the theoretical limitations of idealism and postmodernism.

Samuel W. Rose is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the State University of New York at Buffalo. His research centers on the indigenous peoples of North America focusing on issues related to community and economic development, political economy, tribal governance, urbanization, and matters of race, identity, and the politics of citizenship.


1. Much of Morgan’s work is classified as “ethnology,” and it should be noted that, like many contemporary anthropologists, Morgan developed lifelong friendships and associations with Seneca people including Ely Parker (to whom Morgan dedicated his book) and Parker’s family.


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Cite as: Rose, Samuel W. 2015. “Marxism and mode of production in the anthropology of native North America.” FocaalBlog, 17 November.