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Native Narratives
September 2016

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.

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