December 03, 2006

Historical truth of the Indian

New World, Old Myths

A review of Charles C. Mann’s 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before ColumbusFrom the first moment of contact, Europeans viewed the American Indians through various mythic lenses. The most famous of these, applied indiscriminately to the vast variety of peoples inhabiting the Americas, was the Golden Age, which imagined a time before history when humans lived in harmony with a kind nature, without cities, technology, laws, property, and all the misery and strife these create. Indians were viewed not as complex human beings, but as projections of the white man's longings, or noble-savage reproaches to the white man's civilization. In either case, writes Charles Mann in 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, they lacked "agency"; they were never "actors in their own right, but passive recipients of whatever windfalls or disasters happenstance put in their way."

Five hundred years later, little has changed. Too many interests are served by such myths. Popular culture has found in Indianism a lucrative commodity, as in Walt Disney's Pocahontas or Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves. And critics of American society, whether identity-politics tribunes or anti-capitalist leftists, have found in what Mark Twain called an "extinct tribe that never existed" a powerful weapon for attacking the perceived crimes and dysfunctions of modern America—from ravaging the environment to fetishizing private property. What is lost, of course, is the historical truth of the Indian and his conflicted, quirky humanity.


Anonymous said...

there are only about 2 million native americans in the U.S., They are the real minority...not the Latinos and Blacks whose number is ever increasing.

i'm afraid the NDN race will one day disappear through natural death and intermarriage. Sad times.

writerfella said...

Writerfella here --
Recent ecological experiments with animal species restoration to habitat have led to some astounding observations. Per exemplum, the return of wolves to Yellowstone Park not only affected various other species that had not known vulpine predation for over a hundred years, even the land itself and the waterways were affected. Plants that had been overgrazed by human-controlled elk, deer, and bison populations suddenly began to re-establish their presence and to flourish. Streams and rivers benefitted from increased riparian vegetation and became clearer. If anything, there at least was a glimpse of what animals, land, trees, vegetation and waterways once were like, say, before 1492. Such experiments are doomed to eventual failure, however, as there is one group of top predators that never will be returned to the ecology of the wild: the Native Americans. A paleo-historical truth has been discovered and it will be allowed to vanish with the rest of us...
All Best
Russ Bates

Rob said...

Mann's book and this book review make similar ecological points about Indians:

Indeed, some of the icons of America 's supposedly pristine wilderness were in fact the consequence of the Europeans' presence, which disrupted the resource management techniques the Indians had developed over the centuries. The endless flocks of passenger pigeons celebrated and mourned by John Muir and James Fenimore Cooper were the result of fewer Indians. So too with the bison herds, which flourished in the ecological space once occupied by Indians whose number had been diminished by disease. So too with the "forest primeval" admired by American Romantics. All were part of the new environment that came into being after Indian numbers plummeted and the landscape they had crafted and tended over the centuries began to alter. As Mann concludes, "Far from destroying pristine wilderness…Europeans bloodily created it."