Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Earth Shall Weep

The Earth Shall Weep: A History of Native America
 © 2000 James Wilson
466 pages



Having grown up in Alabama, I don't know what it's like to live among buildings that testify to history. I've never stepped onto a sidewalk with paving stones that were there before my grandparents were born, or chanced to see ruins from a millennium ago on a weekend holiday. The closest I can come to experiencing these echoes of the past is to visit "historic" downtowns, or the few preserved sites of the Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw, and Chickasaw people who once called the southeastern region of North America their home.  There are few such sites -- Moundville is one -- in Alabama, for despite the populations' extended presence in the Americas,  they are long vanished. Aside from the odd ruin, they've left behind only a smattering of place names.  I remember being fascinated by the idea that entirely different cultures had dominated the landscape before European colonization as a child, and have had an interest in certain cultures like the Aztecs and Iroquois since.

James Wilson's The Earth Shall Weep tells the story of the native Americans, first offering general introductions to the major cultures and tribes by region (Northeast, New York-Ohio, Southeast, Southwest, Far West, Great Plains), tapping into their oral history and mythology to present them as they viewed themselves. Telling the native American story from their own perspective is a priority for Wilson, judging from the book as a whole, for he continued to point out differences in which the natives perceived arrangements with European colonists and American settlers and the way the settlers viewed them. He then begins the long, wretched history native Americans have had with Euro-American civilization.

The relationship between North America's native cultures and the newly arriving Europeans began with disease turning entire communities into graveyards and inviting aggressive European settlement -- settlement that didn't cease when American colonists ran out of 'vacated' land to acquire. The result was a long retreat for the natives, where their every attempt to hold their own -- either through war or assimilation -- ended in the same result: the complete loss of land.

Wilson's account also tracks the natives' dealings with the federal government through to the 1980s, instead of stopping after the conclusion of the "Indian wars" as is common. The cruel and heavy handed attempts at re-education depicted here seem far worse than the theft of land. While Wilson doesn't set out to demonize the lawyers, political leaders, and soldiers who drove the natives to ruin, their own records make them look disingenuous at best. Their initial excuses for seizing land were laughably transparent, and that they were offered at all indicates that the settlers realized they were in the wrong. Succeeding generations forgot this, seemingly, adopting the attitude that might makes right.  Brutality visited on the natives by the newly-established United States only increased with age, culminating in the forced educational assimilation Wilson details in the latter third of the book.  Though much of the book details a long tragedy, it ends on a happier note with the rise of the 'New Indians', who take notes from the Civil Rights movement.

Wilson's region-by-region survey at the outset gives the reader a broader perspective,  portraying the various people of North America as members of a great patchwork quilt. His information prior to contact with Europe remains more general than detailed, though, and seems more an introduction than anything else. Wilson offers many interesting facts and observations: for instance, while some tribes chose to modernize themselves in hopes that this would encourage the new United States to see them as neighbors on an equal footing, the prosperity that followed only invited conquest all the more quickly. Cultural comparisons also interested me: in many respects, people such as the Iroquois were socially more evolved than the christian, western Americans who dismissed them as savages, particularly in regard to women's rights and communal government.  The high point of the book for me, though, was its extension into the 20th century: I've never read an account that went past the battle of Wounded Knee, and was completely ignorant as to the government's policies toward native communities in the modern era. I've heard about natives  taking over Alcatraz, but had no idea as to what precipitated that. The Earth Shall Weep functions better as a history of native retreat, defeat, assimilation, and resurgence than of 'native America' in general. For that, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus is superior. I do recommend it for for the post-contact history, though.

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1 comment:

  1. This sounds really interesting. Despite being "newer" to the states, it sounds like Oregon has more present American Indian history.

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