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America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus Paperback – February 2, 1993
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From Publishers Weekly
In a concerted effort to quash myths and stereotypes, Josephy assembles essays by noted writers and scholars that depict Native American culture at the time of Columbus's first voyage to the Americas. Photos.
Copyright 1993 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From School Library Journal
YA-- The perspective presented in Josephy's introduction sets the tone for this collection of articles by well-known scholars. While he notes the costs of arrogant European ethnocentrism to Native Americans, he establishes a balanced view that rejects both ``noble savage'' and ``debased human'' stereotypes. His bias is evident, however, in his use of ``holocaust'' to refer to the destruction of Indian culture as well as in his labeling of the first section, ``We the People, 1492.'' The selection of articles and the book's organization make it useful to students given specialized assignments as well as to those who wish in-depth knowledge of the pre-Columbian world. The book is well indexed and contains an annotated, chapter referenced bibliography. Chapters include information on pre-Columbian life, including aspects of social structure, customs, and achievements. Frequent reference is made to the fact that much of what we know is but the remnants of what occurred, recorded at a later period and altered by time and encounter. While the various articles indentify commonalities among native cultures, they dispel the view of all native traditions as one.
- Carol Wansong, Lee High School, Fairfax County, VA
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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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?
The book is attractive and its premise is superb: to describe the American Indians before their traditional life and culture were destroyed by the Europeans. But the book is not quite as good as it should be. The subject, ranging over two continents, is too broad to be covered adequately in one volume. The contributors are mostly anthropologists and the breadth of their vision is often restricted. Political correctness creeps into some essays. A description of the Aztecs trips quickly over the gory subject of human sacrifice -- widely practiced by the Aztecs and a central theme of their religion.
Moreover, the approach of most writers is anthropological and historical information is mostly ignored. Within 50 years of 1492, the Spanish and other explorers encountered Indians from Newfoundland to Tierra del Fuego and their eye-witness accounts, however brief and biased, are invaluable. The integration of these early historic accounts with anthropological information would result in much more vivid and realistic descriptions of the Indians in 1492. Alas, many of the authors rely on their own anthropologicial speciality, ignoring the eye-witness accounts of Cabeza de Vaca and the expeditions of De Soto and Coronado, among others, which could add materially to the validity of their accounts.
Finally, there is the afterword by DeLoria, the author of the best-selling, "Custer Died For Your Sins." In a thoughtful, interesting, but rambling essay, DeLoria introduces some fantastic notions. An inscription in Tennessee, he says, is written in ancient Hebrew -- thereby reviving the old (and ridiculous) theory that the Indians are descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel. And, he proceeds onward to describe an Indian pictograph of a dinosaur, suggesting apparently that dinosaurs and American Indians co-existed! Without further explanation, such startling assertions do not belong in a book purporting to be factual.
I don't want to leave the impression that this is a bad book. It's not -- many of the essays are interesting and worth reading -- but a better book could be written or compiled on such a fascinating subject.