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Return to the Native
By Margaret Black

In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians
By Jake Page • Free Press, 464 pages, $30

Popular histories, especially those covering vast expanses of time, usually founder on meaningless generalization and oversimplification. Or they sound like Dick and Jane books. Jake Page’s survey of American Indian history, In the Hands of the Great Spirit, happily avoids those problems. He has written a lucid, witty overview that retains, even revels in, complexity through careful examination of well-chosen specifics. He also neatly addresses such contentious issues as the first appearance of humans in the New World and who they were, their role in the disappearance of the continent’s megafauna, the effect of European diseases, the relationship of Indians to their environment, and the relationship between American Indians and the United States.

Right in his subtitle, Page announces his position on two issues. He believes that the Meadowcroft Rockshelter site in Pennsylvania and the Monte Verde site in Chile demonstrate that ancestors of today’s American Indians arrived a good 10,000 years before the Clovis culture (formerly the earliest scientifically validated presence). And Page thinks that “American Indian” is the best identifier for these two million people when considered as a single group, for reasons he spells out with some humor. Incidentally, “American” here refers to people living in what becomes the United States, although not knowing the needs of later historians, many groups spilled over into Canada and Mexico, just like the weather does.

The author may be, yet again, a white man telling the red man’s story, and, yes, as a former editor of Natural History and Smithsonian magazines, he’s going to do it for the most part “scientifically.” But throughout his narrative and analysis, he’s alert to the hubris of “dispassionate” science, where point of view most certainly can affect interpretation. Page tries to relate Indian history the way that Indians experienced it, and without being fatuous, he exhibits a thoughtful sensitivity toward non-European cultural values. He’s also got a sly humor, very much like that he finds among Indians and in their stories, as when he notes how Europeans hated the Indian style of fighting, which they called devious “skulking” instead of manly combat.

In his most fascinating and enjoyable contribution, Page pays significant attention to the wide variety of pre-contact Indian cultures, showing how different peoples interacted with their environment and each other. He presents no saintly proto-ecologists living in harmony with the land and each other, but neither were these people unchanging “savages.” Over time, some hunter-gatherer tribes became semi-agricultural, and some fully agricultural. Others remained hunter-gatherers. Some, like the Hopewell culture in the Ohio valley, developed towns with significant architectural structures and graves filled with ornaments and artistic objects. In Arizona’s Sonoran desert, the Hohokam constructed an elaborate canal system to support a culture that lasted a thousand years. But it wasn’t static during that time. It expanded geographically and contracted with climactic shifts.

The people adopted pottery and certain elaborate architectural forms, probably from Mexico. They experimented with varieties of corn, tried dry farming. When radical climate changes finally ended the possibility of large-scale irrigation, they didn’t just “disappear.” Some left for less stringent environments, but others remained where they were, adapting to simpler, more dispersed lives. Both before and after European contact, American Indians actively re-created themselves in the face of changing opportunities or threats. After contact, there’s not so much delight, but we do feel admiration for the Indians’ creative ingenuity in responding to horrifying death tolls from disease, insurmountable numbers of newcomers, and a succession of lies, broken treaties, and sheer bloody-minded greed and viciousness.

Page’s analysis of how European diseases did their killing work is absorbing in its horrible complexity. Many populations were devastated more than a generation before seeing their first white man, producing cultural fallout among these Indians not unlike that which Europe experienced during the bubonic plague. Whole societies wondered what wrongs they had done to merit such punishment, since there was no clear cause, and what they must do to right the situation. Dispersed small groups sometimes avoided contagion until the 18th or even 19th century, but many sophisticated, densely populated cultures were completely destroyed. This in turn started a process of small tribal groups or tribal remnants, often with greatly different cultures, joining together in an attempt to re-create a viable society. Later, as Eastern Indians came under relentless pressure to leave the coast and Appalachian regions, such amalgamated new groups also adapted brilliantly to wholly new environments.

Another attractive feature is Page’s attention to Western and Southwestern Indians, whom he treats first in his chronicle, as he does the Spanish contact. Most accounts in American history begin with Indians on the Eastern Seaboard. This different vantage point lets us see that the “empty” land into which Eastern tribes were forced was already filled with competing groups who themselves had often been forced from their original homes.

Well, the post-contact story is truly one of the saddest, most heartbreaking ever told. Currently things do appear to be changing—slowly, yes, unevenly, yes—but in the right direction. This is a good thing for all of us. Why? In answer, Page quotes Felix Cohen, collator of the monumental Handbook of Indian Law: “The Indian tribe is the miner’s canary and when it flutters and drops we know the poisonous gases of intolerance threaten all of the minorities in our land. And who of us is not a member of some minority?”

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