Native Narratives

J.C.H. King’s history of Native North America gives a fractured, kaleidoscopic view — not unlike the reality

Books
A 19th century Choctaw war bonnet: Many Americans have a stereotypical, incomplete view of Native tribes (Daderot CC 1.0)

By the time Alexis de Tocqueville crossed the Atlantic in 1831 to take stock of the American experiment, the Indian race was falling ever closer towards its nadir. Indeed, so forceful were the scenes of degradation and shameful the legal apparatus used as justification for the atrocities that this otherwise steely-eye aristocrat lamented:

I would not want a reader to be able to believe that my picture here is overcharged. I saw with my own eyes several of the miseries that I have just described; I contemplated evils that would be impossible for me to recount . . . I add they appear to me to be irremediable. I believe that the Indian race of North America is condemned to perish.

A bleak prophecy. Nearly 200 years later we have J.C.H. King, formerly a curator in the Department of Ethnography at the British Museum, now residing as a fellow at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, University of Cambridge, to challenge this erstwhile appraisal. Blood and Land: The Story of Native North America begins with a bold claim. King asserts that in his outline of Native American cultural history (including Canada), he will “explain why, despite facing devastation and never-ending difficulties . . . Native America thrives as a phenomenon in both the imagination and the intellect” and “provides a touchstone of identity: about who we westerners are and particularly who we are not” on a par with those other founts of our collective understanding, the Classical and Judaeo-Christian traditions. To put it another way, this book is “an account of Native American exceptionalism”. 

Blood and Land
is an account — at least from my American perspective — sorely needed. To give you a general sense of the way Native Indians are perceived in the United States, allow me to limn a superficial account in the following way: children, when they enter our schools are taught pious mistruths about the supposedly warm relations between early settlers and their native companions. One might call this the Thanksgiving tradition. As they age, young adults receive a corrective in the other extreme when they are taught that the American government systematically perpetuated genocide and other human rights abuses in order to disenfranchise the Indians of their property. Let this be termed the Trail of Tears tradition. Finally, most American adults, long ignorant of history and far from actual Indians who tend to live in concentrated reservations in our Western regions, only think about Indians when watching baseball and American football. This is the Washington Redskins/Cleveland Indians tradition.

The obvious problem with each of these views is their incompleteness. One might even say that the common understanding of Native American history suffers from radical incompleteness outside the academy. Competing for our historical attention with other minority groups, these “first” Americans seldom flit through our national consciousness since the days of John Wayne and the Spaghetti Western. And yet, in America and Canada, over 5 million Indians make up 1,000 distinct “nations”. So what accounts for the lack of attention? One answer may be the diffuse subject matter. Unlike, say, the Aztecs of Mexico, Native Americans never sought a unified empire, thus relegating themselves to a particularly difficult subject matter to tackle cohesively.

Another answer, related to the first, may have to do with lack of sought-after national publicity. When, to use the example of another historically disadvantaged minority group, African Americans suffer an injustice, popular sentiment, for good and ill, comes alive. No one readily speaks for Native Americans and despite their ongoing sufferings, no organisation with the power of the NAACP fills the void.

Perhaps to get around the problem of such vastness of scope, King structures Blood and Land as a series of thematic, overlapping chapters, treating discrete nations haphazardly as they fit the subtopic. The result is a kaleidoscope view of Native American history, refreshing and rollicking, and not unlike its fractured reality. For instance, in his chapter “Others: Beings, Believing and the Practice of Religion”, King begins with a subchapter entitled “Windigo”, after the Anishinaabe and Algonquian-speaking peoples’ belief in an apparition that inhabits human beings, instructing them to commit cannibalism. This story introduces the native belief in the ubiquity of the spirit world and its symbiotic relation to the living, reorienting the Judaeo-Christian reader’s mind to a world where “all activities have a fundamentally religious aspect”. From there it’s on to shamans, totems, Apache mountain spirits, medicine, new age movements, and native conversions to Christianity. The end result of this method is an intellectual imprint in the reader’s mind that leaves him with an understanding of the spirituality — language, literature, art, etc — of Native North Americans, even though he may lack the depth of specifics. In short, general histories of Native America are difficult to write and King does a superlative job.

If King has a flaw in his history, it is this: he notes that escape from the reigning historical narrative seems impossible, arguing “in so many ways Indian Country remains in the belly of the beast, imprisoned by history in the impossible clutch of multiple deprivations”. Fair enough, I suppose. But only up to a point. Today, life for Native Americans remains incredibly difficult, but many of the causes should lie on the shoulders of tribal leaders who have enriched themselves at the expense of a suffering population. King’s narrative, so resplendent with examples of how America has benefited from its native peoples, fails to mention how our native peoples have benefited from the American Republic, and the conditions under which this relationship can flourish in ways beneficial to both parties.