Buffalo slaughter led to Indigenous people getting shorter through the years, economist says

An economist is connecting bison slaughter in North America to Indigenous people getting shorter through the years.

Economic prosperity and health tied to how tall people are, says Donna Feir

An American Bison, circa 1850. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

An economist is connecting bison slaughter in North America to Indigenous people getting shorter through the years.

Indigenous men once measured around six feet tall on average, said Donna Feir, who grew up in Alberta and is now a research economist at the Center for Indian Country Development at the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, in an interview with CBC's The Morning Edition.

This made them the tallest on the continent, even after first contact with Europeans, Feir said, but by the late 1800s, Indigenous people were among the shortest.

This coincided with a 10-year bison slaughter that took the bison population down from above 30 million to "near extinction," according to "The slaughter of the bison and reversal of fortunes on the great plains," a paper Feir wrote with two others.

"I was surprised at how dramatic it was," Feir said.

Height is often used as a proxy for the wealth and health of people, Feir said, The height difference has remained to this day and reflects lower occupational ranks, lower income, social distress and health issues that Indigenous people face when compared with the average North American.

Feir said it isn't surprising that after hunting the bison for more than 12,000 years, Indigenous people shrunk once the bison were gone.

"We're talking about thousands of years of human capital and culture is built around the North American bison, and economies built around the North American bison," Feir said. (Jack Dykinga/United States Department of Agriculture/Wikimedia Commons)

She called the bison slaughter one of the largest economic disasters in North American history and said it thrust Indigenous people from their traditional ways into farming and other industries that were unknown to them.

"Could you imagine if all the oil in Texas just evaporated and then you made everyone stay in Texas and told them to become fishermen?" Feir asked.

The economic shock of losing the bison was paired with restrictions from government, which imposed barriers on free movement and cultural practices, among other things, she said.

Feir said she is not stuck in the past and doesn't want Indigenous people to be either. She will be at the University of Regina Thursday night for a discussion on the economic history of Indigenous North America, economic resurgence and, "what First Nations communities are are doing to reclaim their economic place in North America," she said.

with files from CBC's The Morning Edition