Battle for the Braves' New World; Non-Fiction Choice

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), August 9, 1998 | Go to article overview

Battle for the Braves' New World; Non-Fiction Choice


Byline: DJ TAYLOR

The Earth Shall Weep

by James Wilson

Picador [pounds sterling]20

N&D Bookstore price [pounds sterling]16

****

As might have been predicted of an historian of `native America', James Wilson, the author of this intriguing study of the indigenous US peoples (ie Indians) has a great deal to say about myth. One of his most compelling tricks, in fact, is to restate what may be called the generally held view of the European settlement of North America, and to canvas not only its fundamental inaccuracy but the shocking misjudgment of the original inhabitants that it implies.

In the mind of the average Western European, schooled on standard American histories, the `conquest' of North America goes something like this.

Conquistadors, puritan migrants and lynx-eyed fur traders arrived to find a sparsely populated paradise. Faced with this influx of newcomers, its nomadic and intensely primitive inhabitants simply fell away before them, became violent and intractable in the mid-19th Century when the colonisation of the mid-West began, and were eventually subdued, punished and thrown on to reservations. Here, most of them died of drink

and disappointment, while the survivors provide a chastening example of historical inevitability.

On the contrary, Wilson suggests, all this is subterfuge, if not downright lies. The original Indian

societies - he puts the early 17th Century population at seven million, before it was blitzed by European diseases - were surprisingly complex and sophisticated, despite the absence of written culture. Rather than fearing the migrant Europeans, they were keen to trade with them and negotiate alliances, amusing and annoying their observers by believing that the bonds forged were genuine partnerships rather than simple confirmation of servitude.

The native Indians wanted peace, assimilation and mutual respect. What they got, in contrast, was the 300-year catalogue of duplicity and exploitation already recorded in genre definers such as Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee (1970). Nearly every aspect of the US government's dealings with its native population over this period is a source of retrospective shame, but their culmination - the clearing of the plains in the 1850s and 1860s - was merely a succession of broken promises. Year after year, a line would be drawn across some remote part of Wyoming or Montana, year after year a new wave of settlers would surge west in search of gold or land and petition Congress for recognition. Unsurprisingly, no US president could ever summon the resources or the political willpower to keep these aspirations in check.

Shifted on to cheerless reservations, their numbers reduced by poverty and inertia, their feeble incomes

further dissipated by swindling officials, the survivors were, as Wilson shows, still ripe for ruination by Washington. His testimonies from the Fifties, when the government decided to `terminate' certain tribes, are ominously revealing of the psychology of despoiler and despoiled. …

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