In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians

In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians

by Jake Page


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Today, some two million American Indians inhabit the United States, less than one percent of the nation's population. Their origins have always been viewed from a 500-year-old perspective—from the point of view of the Europeans who “discovered” the New World. Yet the true story of the American Indians begins some seventeen thousand years ago—and it is past due for a telling that shows Indians as they are, rather than as westerners wish them to be.

Recent archaeological findings, newly discovered written accounts, and never-before-published records have contributed to a whole new understanding of our country's oldest ancestors. Drawing upon the latest research, as well as his own personal experience living among the Hopi tribes, acclaimed author and former Natural History magazine editor Jake Page covers all aspects of Indian life throughout the ages. From the Pleistocene era to Custer's Last Stand, the Trail of Tears to the Indian Civil Rights Act, the establishment of reservations to the negotiation of casino property, In the Hands of the Great Spirit reveals the astonishing endurance of a group of people whose experience is as varied as the world is old.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780684855776
Publisher: Free Press
Publication date: 05/03/2004
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 494,187
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jake Page is a former editor of both Natural History and Smithsonian magazines, and author of numerous magazine articles and books on topics related to American Indian history, culture, and art. He is also the author of seven mystery novels and alternative history novels that involve Indian themes and characters, and was called by The Denver Post “one of the Southwest’s most distinguished writers.” He lives in Corrales, New Mexico.

Read an Excerpt

Preface: Indian Country

A wonderful T-shirt used to appear at powwows and other Indian gatherings. It is black, with the silhouette of North America emblazoned in red and a simple caption: Indian Country. I have seen it worn by equal numbers of Indians and non-Indians.

Like all superior graphics, its message is clear and simple. This vast region of the globe was once Indian country. All of it. Its message is also complex, bearing a suggestion of the word "ought," the notion that this should still by right be Indian country, except for the inappropriate intervention of history in the form of wayfaring Europeans. Philosophers can argue whether history has an essential moral component or is, like the biological process of evolution, something more neutral than that. The Hopi linguist and anthropologist Emory Sekaquaptewa points out that his people have always known the Hopis' path through time would be littered with new things, new events. Some of these would be opportunities, some obstacles — in fact, usually both at the same time. The question for the Hopis has always been whether they could take advantage of the opportunities proffered and avoid the obstacles — incorporate the good and avoid the bad. This is a very practical way to look at history, and perhaps more useful in the long run if history is to teach any of us very much, to serve as a landform we can keep in sight as we all navigate our way across the uncharted ocean that is the future.

Today, some 2 million people who are Indians inhabit the United States, less than 1 percent of the nation's population. A widely held notion is that they are mostly rural people, living on reservations that are located, for the most part, west of the Mississippi. This is not true: almost three quarters of Indian people live off-reservation, chiefly in cities. The cities with the largest Indian populations are Los Angeles, Tulsa, New York, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, and Phoenix. Though these Indians live in the midst of American society, they are less visible in many ways than their relatives on the reservations. Two million people may seem like a large number, but the Indian population has been far greater (before European contact) as well as far smaller (a hundred years ago).

Today, there are more than five hundred different federally recognized Indian groups, each with its own culture and past. Another hundred or so tribes are currently seeking federal recognition. (As many as two hundred tribes may have gone extinct since Columbus's arrival.) Tribal size today ranges from two or three individuals to more than 250,000 (the Navajos). In addition, estimates exist of as many as 15 million other Americans who have a discernible degree of Indian blood but who long ago lost any tribal connection. Indian reservations range in size from a quarter of an acre (in a New England town) to an area the size of West Virginia.

Taken together, the Indian tribes represent the most unusual ethnic group in the United States. Unlike all others, the recognized tribes enjoy special political rights — as nations (the tribes) dealing with another nation (the United States). This unique and extremely complicated situation (a matter of being both a part and apart) is referred to as sovereignty and will be one theme in this book. The Indian tribes, collectively, are also unique as an ethnic group in this country in that for many of them, their ethnicity is rooted in particular plots of ground, however shrunken now or different from the land they once called their homeland. Tying any other ethnic group in the United States to a place would be taken as the grossest discrimination.

This peculiarity can be looked at from another angle. A few years ago, before apartheid was ended as official policy in South Africa, a group of African journalists were invited to meet with a group of American Indians in Albuquerque, New Mexico, chiefly members of the various Pueblo tribes. The Africans were astonished to learn that while Indians lived on reservations, they were free to come and go whenever and wherever they wished.

A great legal scholar in the 1930s and 1940s, Felix Cohen, had yet another angle on the peculiar — or special — position of the American Indian in the larger society of the United States. "Like the miner's canary," he wrote, "our treatment of Indians, even more than our treatment of other minorities, reflects the rise and fall in our democratic faith."

These few thoughts are, perhaps, sufficient reason to try to understand the history of the American Indians. There are others that are equally compelling, which will emerge as the story proceeds.

For reasons that might be taken as obvious, since history is generally considered that part of the past for which written documents exist, most histories of the American Indians begin with the arrival in this hemisphere of Columbus. But Indians do not make the same distinction between prehistory and history, and neither does this book — it begins some seventeen thousand years ago, the earliest date at which we know people were present in North America. Probably they were here earlier. In any event, without the first 16,500 years of at least partially known accomplishment and loss, the last five hundred years of loss and accomplishment cannot be seen with anything approaching wholeness. Just as it is impossible to understand what has happened in a chemistry experiment without knowing the initial conditions, so it is unlikely that we will get a true picture of modern Indian history without being aware of what preceded it — life before Columbus. Thus, archaeology plays a major role in the first part of this book. As for Indian history as such, it has been known largely from accounts written by only one side in a long-running conflict. In the past few decades, a new generation of historians has arisen, determined to look more closely at the available records, and these more recent researchers have cast an array of new lights on the general history of American Indians. It is part of the purpose of this book to make these new scholarly insights more broadly known.

The story of the Indian people, in their own eyes, is all one continuing story — or stories — and Indians arrive at their past differently than non-Indians, and think of it in entirely different ways. The European mind calls such stories mythology, which is a snobby sort of word for someone else's religion and history. But all mythology, including that of the Judeo-Christianized West and the Islamicized Middle East, is the primary, even only means by which all humans until very recently have endeavored to understand the paradoxes and mysteries of the universe: the existence of what appears to be order from an original chaos; the meaning and value of human life and other forms of life; the nature of good and evil; and — importantly — in the face of all this, how human beings are supposed to behave. Most Indian histories — their own histories — are of this kind. Whether these tales are local metaphors, archetypal human dreams, imaginative versions of actual events, or faithful renditions of real occurrences is really of no concern to those who do not share them as belief systems. They simply are, just as the events of the past simply are. Historians and archaeologists sift through whatever they can confirm as facts and tend to seek some sort of meaningful pattern in them — chronologies and more complex matters. This is essentially the opposite of the traditional Indian way. Indians' history is a story as well, but story comes first — that is, the meaning of a story is its originating core. The facts follow the meaning.

One of the most important things to learn about Indian people, their cultures, and their history is that they too, like all of us with feet of clay and dreams of perfection, are human. This means that American Indians are capable of both acts of great sacrifice and acts of great selfishness, of nobility and of mean-spiritedness. They can demonstrate an ability to take responsibility for their acts and decisions, as well as an inability to predict the future results of those same acts. They possess all the attributes of human beings everywhere. Some histories have romanticized the Indians; this one tries to avoid that temptation.

Indian traditions can be just as confining as any other traditions — and just as sustaining — but Indian people, like many others, are perfectly capable of shedding shopworn ways, of remaking their cultures, and of spinning the truth as well as perpetuating stereotypes about their neighbors. They have been doing all of these things, on and off, for longer than human memory. The point is that both Indian people and non-Indian people in the United States these days entertain a great many silly misconceptions about each other and our joint history together.

No one can deny that the impact of European arrivals on Indian tribes and individuals has mostly been tragic. From the point of view of Indian peoples alive today, the story of that encounter is one of astonishing staying power amid vast and devastating change and loss. When Europeans arrived on these shores, they generally agreed that the wilderness was a place of dark and mysterious dangers, a place to be tamed, cut back, reduced to civilized plots of farmland and towns. It was assumed that the Indians — savages — lived in the untamed woodland wilderness among all of Satan's plots and schemes. Today in America, vast hordes of European-derived citizens flock to the wilderness, grow angry at any invasion of the wilderness (such as a cow pod) besides their own, and consider such places almost sacred. In this, they often invoke the benign ecological presence of the Native Americans, to whom many plots of land are indeed sacred. The notion of wilderness in American minds has changed by approximately 180 degrees, and perhaps some of this is thanks to the Indian population.

I owe my existence here in part to the early arrival on the continent of European ancestors whose Puritan ways are extremely opaque to me today — a different culture altogether from my own. I grew up with all the common Indian stereotypes of my time fully in mind, not that I ever believed John Wayne movies were intended as models of historical accuracy. I spent the sixties, when imperialist attitudes were so forcefully challenged, learning what every other sentient American did — namely, that minorities and women had gotten a rotten deal and their points of view had been almost systematically ignored. In that period, as editorial director of Natural History magazine, I published a number of articles on the then-current status of American Indians. But until 1974 I never met one.

Then, in that year, the woman I would soon marry, Susanne Anderson, was invited by the Hopis to photograph their daily lives — which the tribe had expressly forbidden since the turn of the century, when it had become clear to them that anthropologists and missionaries with cameras had ripped them off, publishing photographs of altars and other ceremonial matters that were private. For the next eight years, Susanne and I made some thirty trips from Washington, D.C., to the Hopi Reservation in northeastern Arizona, publishing the book Hopi in 1982. And that invitation issued in 1974 resulted, in due course, in our move to the Southwest, to what is often called Indian Country, where thirty years later we still live.

As a science writer and editor at the time, I found myself increasingly immersed in a world so utterly different from mine as to make me wonder if I was traveling not two thousand miles in space but five hundred years in time. I asked very few questions. Instead, I listened as carefully as I could to what the Hopis told me about themselves, what they wanted the world to know about them. (Of course, by just being there I learned a few things they would probably not want the world to know about them, but they didn't seem to mind when I pointed such things out in the book. They laughed when they encountered Page's Law of Hopi, for example, which states that if you find two Hopis agreeing with each other for fifteen minutes, one of them is lying.)

One of the things I learned was that Indian people do not necessarily hold their Indian neighbors in particularly high esteem. The Hopis and the surrounding Navajos were engaged at the time in a wracking land dispute, with a great deal of mutual suspicion and downright hostility erupting, occasionally, into outright violence — an ancient pattern. Another thing I learned was to take seriously and with respect what I was told of the metaphysical world — and this was not something I, the science buff, was accustomed to doing. Not particularly entranced by the religious world of my own culture, I was not at any time tempted — as some quixotically have been — to try to become a Hopi religionist. But from what I came to understand about the Hopi worldview and the ways it forms the basis of Hopi society, polity, family, and even humor, I found it to be a far more coherent religious tradition than my own. In short, over the years, I came to feel comfortable among these particular Indian people, more so in fact than among many groups of my own people. It is also true that they, like all of us, are perfectly capable of creating a slightly idealized notion of themselves and passing it along to outsiders.

The same, of course, goes for the Navajos, who asked Susanne and me to produce a similar book about them. Here were two utterly different and often antagonistic cultures, cheek by jowl, which nevertheless, in many important ways, had far more in common with each other than either had with me — and I was privileged to glimpse both for long periods. Susanne and I were well aware, during all this time, that we were whites — respectively pahanas (Hopi) and billeganas (Navajo) — undertaking tasks that might more appropriately be done by members of the two tribes themselves. But they asked us, and we were happy to oblige.

Certainly, my life and my outlook on the world has been greatly changed by my experiences among these Indians — and others in the Southwest, where we moved in 1988. Had they not, I would never have been able to summon up the nerve (gall, some might say) to attempt this volume. Just as no book can explain all of Hopi life, no book about the American Indians can explain (or even mention) all of their histories — each one an epic of its own. But in attempting such a book, as selective as it must be, I have hoped to cast new light on this segment of the American past, and perhaps help to put to rest some misconceptions that still exist. In doing this, I have taken courage from my experiences among the southwestern Indian people, who have taught me so much, who have been forthright, honest, and thoughtful. I have happily sought to leap up onto the shoulders of many scholars and other observers — particularly those who have contributed so much in this realm in the past two decades or so. They will find themselves listed in the bibliography at the end of the book, and my debt to them is immeasurable.

In this regard, I have tried here to tell a story in a narrative form, but not slavishly — sometimes backtracking in time, sometimes leaping ahead. I have also tried to tell this history without dwelling on how historians, scientists, and others have arrived at their conclusions. But there are exceptions. Some matters covered are deeply laden emotionally and highly controversial, such as the time of the earliest arrival of people on this continent, who they were, and the numbers present when Europeans arrived, as well as several other difficult topics. Here I have felt it necessary and useful to report how the scholars have arrived at their conclusions.

Although I have relied on sources that are preponderantly of recent origin — from the 1980s and 1990s, as well as a few books published in this new century — my story may strike some people as a bit old-fashioned in that it is not ethnohistory or social history. It is an atttempt to put the grand sweep of more than seventeen thousand years into one volume, and as a result there is little time to pause and look intimately into the daily lives or the worldviews of the people who have lived this history. Instead, it is mostly an overview, what I hope is a judicious rendering of some of the main events that have shaped this history. I have also chosen to restrict myself to the history of those Indian people in the lower forty-eight states.

A brief comment on terminology. As you have no doubt already noticed, I use the word "Indian" freely. Other terms also appear in this book, such as "indigenous people," "nations," "tribes," and "native people." The problem with the word "Indian" is twofold. One, it is the result of an enormous geographical misperception. Two, and worse, it generalizes several hundred different cultures into a single unit. As such it is resented as a vestige of colonialism by some Indian people and their friends. On the other hand, as David E. Wilkens, a member of the Lumbee tribe and a political scientist at the University of Arizona, has written in his monumental study of Indian sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court, "Indian or American Indian is the most common [appellation] used by many indigenous and non-indigenous persons and by institutions, and so it will be used in the text when no tribe is specified."

The term "Native American," Wilkens points out, as others before him have, includes native Hawaiians, Indians, Eskimos, Aleuts, and in fact, all the descendants of all immigrants to these shores (which ultimately means everyone born in this hemisphere), and thus is more confusing than the term "American Indian." In my experience, which is largely anecdotal and far from exhaustively scientific, reservation Indians and Indian scholars tend to use the phrase "American Indian," while urban Indians and those who are of multitribal origins and many non-Indian scholars use "Native American," but no generalization holds here. Certainly, I regret that the familiar labels can be upsetting, but as even a practical matter, wordy and elaborate circumlocutions are not an attractive option in an enterprise that must cover an enormous amount of material in one volume, or to someone with any sense of a language's music.

Yet another matter of usage. It was common practice for many years to refer to a tribe's members in the singular — such as, "The Hopi are agriculturalists." Recently one of the leading historians of the Indian experience on this continent said he would not go along with that practice unless we were all willing to refer to the collective German or the collective Canadian, or to say, "The Brazilian are a sensuous people." Suddenly it sounds awfully condescending, doesn't it? So it's Hopis and Navajos, Pequots and Cherokees (but not Iroquoises or O'odham).

The part-opening maps are intended to give a general overview of Indian disposition and movement at the various points in time covered by each part. They are by necessity incomplete — exhaustive maps of all Indian groups would be impossibly detailed and inaccurate. Nonetheless, the information contained herein is as accurate as possible.

In addition to the T-shirt with which this preface began, I also admire and often wear a less frequently seen one, designed by a Navajo friend from Fort Defiance, a Vietnam War veteran named Al Slinkey. It bears a drawing of a caped European standing on the beach, his square-rigger slightly offshore. He faces several Indians improbably arrayed in elaborate Plains headdresses. The caption says: Columbus sought India and called us Indians. Glad he wasn't seeking Turkey.

Mindful of that spirit, I have been pleased and honored to write this book.

Copyright © 2003 by Jake Page

Table of Contents

Preface: Indian Country1
Part 1Initial Conditions10
Chapter 1Arrival12
Virgin Country: Pleistocene America
The First Americans: Who Were They and When Did They Come?
Chapter 2Hunters and Gatherers33
A Magical Bear
Pleistocene Overkill?
Bison Hunting
Hot Rocks and Hostile Plants
The Great Basin
The Pacific Coast
The East
The Coming of Agriculture
Agriculture on the Plains
Chapter 3High Society65
The Mound Builders
The Hohokam: Master Hydrologists
Mogollons and Anasazis: Master Builders
Coda: The Athapaskans
October 11, 1492
Part 2Contact and Response94
Chapter 4Mysteries96
Population and the Pox
The Question of Cannibalism
What the Indians Made of Europeans
Chapter 5The Spanish122
La Florida: Place of Flowers
Seven Cities of Gold: Nuevo Mexico
The Pueblo Revolt of 1680
Chapter 6The French and the English156
The Northeast
The Upper Country--Great Lakes
Century's End
Part 3The Reinvention of Indian America186
Chapter 7The French Connection188
Winnebago Destiny
Pressures from the East
Sex, Murder, and Food
Chapter 8Invading the Plains202
The Three Worlds of the Cheyennes
Bison, Sun Dances, and the Plains Ecosystem
Counting Coup and Open Warfare
The Coming of the Sioux
Chapter 9World War and a New Nation213
The Case of the Catawbas
The Seven Years War
Pontiac's Rebellion
The Americans Take Charge
The West Coast
Part 4Indeh242
Chapter 10Removal244
The Rise and Fall of Tecumseh
Red Sticks and Civilized Tribes
The Marshall Trilogy
Trails of Tears
Chapter 11An American Southwest264
The New Mexico Territory
Pariahs and Paiutes
California Onslaught
Chapter 12The Last of the Great Horsemen280
The Big Treaty
The Civil War and Westem Massacres
Peace Policy and Warfare on the Plains
Holdouts--the Nez Perces
Holdouts--the Chiricahuas
Chapter 13The Reservation306
The Humanitarians
The Ethnographers
On the Reservations
Peyote and Ghost Dances
Final Solution Number One
Part 5New Deals334
Chapter 14The Progressive Era336
Chiricahua Destiny
World War and Two Dreadful Senators
Seeing the Light, Dimly
The Meriam Report
Chapter 15Watershed358
The Trials and Triumphs of John Collier
World War II
Some Final Solutions
Chapter 16Red Power379
Alcatraz and Earlier
The Militant Seventies
The Not-So-Militant Seventies
The Eerie Deliberations of the Indian Claims Commission
A Dispute Between Indians
Chapter 17Current Events404
The Rise of the East
Sacred Matters
Bibliography and Further Reading437
Some Acknowledgments451

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