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From Barnes & NobleThe Barnes & Noble Review
The subtitle of this book is "A History of Native America," but perhaps a better one would be "The Destruction of the Native American Peoples." For the story of the American Indians, once they came into contact with Europeans, is one of disease, battle, and loss. Lives and land were lost, but so was dignity, pride, and a thousands of years old way of life.
James Wilson notes that the first contact between Native people and explorers was friendly. In the 16th century, up and down the Eastern seaboard, French, Dutch, English, and Spanish boats landed, and were most often greeted by Natives bearing gifts of welcome. The beaver and fox pelts they offered became popular with the Europeans, and a profitable and congenial trade relationship was established, one that would last for a hundred years.
What was it that turned the relationship sour? Wilson details several factors that influenced Euro-Indian relations. For one thing, the religious fervor and military might that had driven the Crusades was looking for a new outlet. The "savages" of the New World seemed a likely target — like the Muslims of Europe, they had a religion and cultural practices that made them the Other, and the Holy Wars had heightened Christian Europeans' fear of the Other.
There were also the mercenary aims of the explorers and their investors. Not content to simply trade with the peoples of the New World, it became their goal to establish colonies, and thereby ownership of hunks of the land. This was an alien concept to Native Americans, who saw themselves as part of their environment and notasrulers of it. In American Indian culture, there was no drive to subjugate the earth; instead, the earth was treated with respect, cultivated enough to feed the Indians and no more. Explorers saw this as laziness; they couldn't understand why the Indians wouldn't grow as much produce as possible in order to sell it for a profit. But the idea of exploiting the land until it was dried up and barren was not only alien to Native Americans, it would have gone against their religious beliefs.
Wilson details the very different creation myths of the Europeans and the Indians, and why these myths set up a dichotomy between the two groups that could never be resolved. In the Judeo-Christian religion, man is expelled from Eden and condemned to subduing and exploiting the land for his survival. But for the Indians, there was no such expulsion. "In Native American stories, human beings are seen as an integral part of a 'natural' order which embraces the whole of creation.... Their destiny is not to change [the land] or move away from it but to maintain it according to the instructions they received 'long ago' from their creator or culture hero." Furthermore, tribes were used to more or less peacefully coexisting alongside other tribes with creation myths were different from their own. They believed that each tribe had its own unique relation to the land and therefore its own stories. When the Europeans came, the Indians had no problem living beside them in peace, though their beliefs were very different from their own. The Europeans, however, believed in the rightness of their religion, and if they were right, the Indians must be wrong.
Because of these wildly differing cultures, it took the Indians many years to understand why the white men often attacked them without any apparent provocation. During that time, those Natives who were not wiped out by European diseases, particularly smallpox, to which they had no resistance, were attacked, tortured, and killed in the name of the Christian God. The Indians' unfamiliar rites, as well as their unwillingness to farm the land to its greatest capacity, convinced the European invaders that they had a right to take the land and convert the Natives. That the Natives had no interest in being converted or in changing their way of life was of little interest to them.
The persecution of the Indians in New England would set the tone for treatment of Natives across the country. As westward expansion began, Native Americans were pushed further and further west, and their populations dwindled. As with species of birds and animals, the near-extinction of the American Indian brought with it the late lamentations of European-Americans, who then began to mythologize the nearly extinct people. The Native American warrior-hero has of late been replaced in the public imagination by the natural, mystical Native American, but neither stereotype tells us much about what it is like to be a Native American living in America today.
In his lively and thought-provoking book, James Wilson has compiled a staggering number of stories that make up the history of the Native Americans. Along the way, he has shattered many myths and even questioned the veracity of certain so-called "scientific facts." There is very little evidence, for instance, that the Indians' ancestors came to North America along the Bering Strait land bridge. It would, however, be too disruptive to Eurocentrism for us to believe that humans might have evolved in different places in the world. There is also evidence that there were many more than the conservatively estimated 2 million Natives before Europeans arrived; the smaller the number, however, the more easily assuaged the guilt we share in having wiped them out, and the more easily we can believe the lie that the land was really just ours for the taking.