Complex Lives of American Indians before, after Columbus

Article excerpt


Americans love the big picture, the bird's-eye view, the world under one roof. In fact, the pressures to condense and combine as such are as fierce in the book trade today as they are in the one-stop supermarket. Sometimes this leads, between the covers of a single volume, to a thin gruel of pallid generalization. On other, more rare occasions, it yields the virtues of good synthetic writing: broad-ranging, discerning, lucid, judicious.

"In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000 Year History of American Indians" by Jake Page happily does the latter. The book's hefty subtitle may give pause to general readers not prepared for extended time travel in Indian country. But the journey, all 400-odd pages of it, is well worth the trouble.

Mr. Page, a Southwest-based scholar and novelist who has written widely on Indian history, is well suited for the project. He brings with his lively prose a propensity for good judgment, a virtue in a field often marred by ax-grinders, whether they be the politically prehistoric or the politically correct variety.The premise of "Great Spirit" won't surprise insiders - that the people we have come to know as "American Indians" are an amazingly diverse and complex group of nations and tribes. In Mr. Page's hands, Indians are neither primitives nor victims nor New Age sages, but people who have struggled to maintain cultures and families in the face of disease, war, misguided federal policy, and, yes, even disputes with tribal neighbors and personal shortcomings.

Be it the traditional or multicultural kind, Mr. Page likes to subvert the received wisdom. Most native people in North America in 1492 were small farmers, not nomads. No, the political philosophy of the Iroquois Confederation didn't significantly influence the framers of the Constitution. Yes, there may have been mortal pathogens in the New World before Columbus (tuberculosis and syphilis), and imperial wars for hegemony weren't simply a European invention.

Mr. Page has plenty of critical ground to cover. The California Gold Rush, the Dawes Allotment Act, the Termination movement of the 1950s, all come under his lash for their catastrophic consequences, whether directed by Washington or fueled by large-scale demographics. Thankfully, he censures without resorting to the kind of shrill invective that often dominates discussions of Indian policy.

Nor is the author content with easy targets. He examines controversial claims that the ancient Anasazi practiced cannibalism. He considers charges that native peoples sometimes make bad conservationists, from "Pleistocene overkill" to the historic exploitation of deer in the Virginia tidewater. He reflects on the promise and the failures of the modern gambling industry. His judgment deftly avoids a doctrinaire stamp.

A huge (but unappreciated) difficulty for a writer who does a historical overview is the question of what to leave out. …