Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America

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Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. By Daniel K. Richter. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001. Pp. ix, 317. Prologue, epilogue, technical note, notes, acknowledgments, index. $26.00.)

Scores of books have been written about Native American encounters with European explorers and the subsequent impacts on indigenous communities of the European "conquest" of America. Nearly all of these books reflect the perspective of the invaders who arrived on American shores facing west. Few attempts have been made to add to our understanding of this history from the east-facing native point of view. The obvious explanation for this imbalance is that Europeans used written words to preserve their accounting of events, whereas Native Americans employed non-literary devices, including storytelling, performance, and graphic arts, to convey their worldly experiences. These alternate devices share one characteristic with written texts: they are difficult, though not impossible, to decipher by cultural outsiders. Oral and performance-based accounts, however, are more dynamic, malleable, and, in the end, more transitory than written accounts. They may be altered at any telling or during any performance to fit immediate needs and circumstances and through time they can disappear altogether or become so extensively transformed as to bear little or no relationship to the foundation event. Moreover, the histories constructed through these means reflect understandings of time and human experience that differ in many essential respects from the histories constructed by Europeans and their sibling descendants of western cultural traditions.

What remains, then, is a challenge to reconstruct native, non-western perspectives on past events from disparate archeological, historical, and ethnographic source materials, many demanding alternative modes of analysis and interpretation. Daniel K. Richter takes up this challenge in his attempt to expand our perception of early North American history by examining the experiences of several Native American groups who "faced east" as they met and interacted with trans-Atlantic immigrants. How well does he rise to this challenge, and what do we gain from his effort?

The first chapter, "Imagining a Distant New World," is set in the sixteenth century. Richter constructs narrative accounts, as might have come from indigenous observers, of the arrival in North America of Hernando de Soto and Jacques Cartier and of forgotten Cahokia, the late prehistoric metropolis that stood near present-day St. Louis and was once home to tens of thousands of Indians. The attempt, informed by ethnographic readings and archeological reconstructions, is thought-provoking but falls short of the achievements of other works, such as Inga Clendinnen's Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatan, 1517-15 70 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), that benefit from the application of more rigorous methods to cast in their own historical modalities the fragmentary evidence of native voices. …