Sunday, April 8, 2007

Review: America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus

America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus edited by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr. Highly recommended.

In America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus, editor Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., presents a series of essays that dispel the popular idea that the American continents were sparsely populated by primitive hunter-gatherers (or, after Hollywood, Plains Indians whooping on horseback). These essays, written by contributors such as Alan Kolata and Peter Nabokov, reveal the breadth and depth of Indian language, culture, arts, spirituality, and life ways. Part One covers the continents geographically, from northern Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, while Part Two examines language, religion, family and tribal or clan life, migration and cultural influence, systems of knowledge, and the arts. Renowned Native American writers N. Scott Momaday and Vine Deloria, Jr., contribute the first chapter, "The Becoming of the Native: Man in America Before Columbus," and the afterword, respectively.

The weaknesses of the approach are evident; some essays are stronger than others, depending on the writer's skill and bias and on the material available. Some contradict one another. In "In the Realm of the Four Quarters," Kolata's admiration for the success of the Inca empire is nearly boundless, while in "American Frontiers," Francis Jennings doubts the real strength of the empire over its conquered subjects and its economic, political, and military sustainability. Such a survey book can cover only so much information, and, not surprisingly, the Aztecs and Incas are more prominent than, for example, the nations that make up the Iroquois Confederacy.

Another weakness is focus, perhaps driven by lack of information in critical areas. Topics such as food, clothing, structures, tools, seasonal migration, major rituals, and so forth, are described in some detail, but whole areas are sometimes untouched or only briefly alluded to, such internal conflict resolution and justice systems, practical leadership (political vs. spiritual or hunting), the practicalities of daily life in large communal homes, and the frequency and practice of warfare. How often did conflicts occur and what provoked them? How were they conducted? How sustained were they?

Despite the inevitable shortcomings, 1492 does provide a good overview of life in the western hemisphere, from the head-hunting spiritual practices of some Amazonian tribes to the agricultural practices and cultivation of maize that spread from Mesoamerica, from trade routes to migration patterns. There are some surprises here for the novice, for example, that the Navajo so strongly associated in our contemporary minds with the southwestern desert migrated from the northern tundra; that the Great Plains were inhabited by farmers and that the tribes we associate with them, such as the Lakota, had not yet arrived there; and that extensive trade routes and trade centers existed, even if the concept of investment capital did not.

History emphasizes the differences between Europeans and pre-Columbian Indians, and certainly these differences—most obvious in the concepts behind language, in spirituality and philosophy, and in the ideas surrounding the individual and the community—are fundamental. As I read 1492, however, certain similarities to post-Roman Europe struck me. For example, there were the waves of migration that changed the face of Europe many times. There was the ability of Europeans, and others, to establish and use trade routes and centers despite geographical, language, and transportation barriers. In very general terms, on both sides of the Atlantic there was restlessness over land and power combined with a need to live cooperatively and to exchange easily obtained goods, such as shells on the coast, for desired ones found inland, such as corn and furs.

This raises the question, "What is an Indian?" Indians are the native peoples of the Americas, just as Europeans are those who inhabit Europe. It is a broad category that does not reveal much. As in Europe, there are hundreds of languages, cultures, and beliefs, and most likely there is no common ancestry among many of the groups. "European" provides you with only a very vague notion of a person or group; "Swedish" or "Greek" paints two very definite, and different, pictures. That is what should be kept in mind when you read 1492. "The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus" changes with every few miles, every alteration in climate or topography, every season, and the world of the Incas is nothing like the world of the Arawaks or Arikara.

As Vine Deloria and others tell us, prophecies pre-dating Columbus predict the arrival of the white man and go on to say that his predominance will be the shortest of all. We look around at our impressive infrastructure that has altered (and in many cases ruined) the land, our health and long lives, and our prosperity, and think that such a prediction seems absurd. Yet we have been here a tiny fraction of the time the Indian has, and as the latest reports about climate change and other environmental and resource issues should remind us, our present way of life is not sustainable for the long term; in fact, it has become problematic in only slightly more than 100 years. The year 1492 marked the end of thousands of years of Indian tradition; what year will mark the end of our ways as we know them?

Sunday, 8 April 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

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