Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Everyday Life of the North American Indians

Everyday Life of the North American Indian
© 1979 Jon White
256 pages

Everyday Life of the North American Indian is a dated but informative survey of the customs and lifestyles of native peoples across the continent. Most of the content is organized in chapters like "Warrior" and "Artist", which include areas of life connected to warmaking or artistanship; for instance, the chapter on Shamans encompasses religion, spirituality, and mythology in addition to its particular interest on the role of shamans or similar figures. Because the varied peoples of an entire content are being considered, each hailing from radically different landscapes, each has to be addressed in the most general of terms, and the people of Mexico are largely ignored except as they influence various tribes living throughout the southeast and southwest. Although agriculture was practiced in some regions, hunting and foraging remained crucial -- and because local stocks of game could be exhausted, many population employed a strategy of tethered mobility, moving from place to place within a certain region. Religion's core was nature (gods of sun and corn, that sort of thing), not a philosophy of life, and roles for men and women had both fixed and fluid elements: men did the hunting and women did most of the work around the settlement, but both were artisans and both were particiopants in their political systems. As in other pre-industrial societies, children were introduced to their responsibilities fairly early, helping gather resources as tots, watching their younger siblings, and assuming the full mantle of adulthood by their teen years. The kind of massed warfare popular to depict in Hollywood movies was an anomaly: while native peoples were not pacific, they preferred quick raids to settle scores, at least until their societies were disrupted by guns and horses. However, some populations like the Iroquois, were notoriously severe in war: one of the reasons they joined together in a confederacy was to stem their neighborly bloodletting.

Although this is very general, and hasn't aged well in parts, the damage is mostly contained by language. As far as I know, the theory that native Americans first arrived in the Americas via the Bering Land Bridge is still the mainstay, though now it's suggested and understood that the 'bridge' was a more substantial landmass that people lived on, not merely transited through. Some of the author's generalizations were reaching a bit, like suggesting that natives didn't like to disrupt the land too much: I take it the Moundville culture is an exception, since building enormous soil pyramids from Mobile to Illinois would definitely count as disruptive. The author doesn't promote any view of native peoples as gentle nature-loving hippies wearing eagle feathers, though. They are in their own turns aggressive and clement, and those who lived closed to the bone were judicious about their use of resources, while those who lived in abundance were more profligate. Charles C. Mann's more current research into native America demonstrated ably that some native societies altered the landscape to a wide degree.

All things considered, though, Everyday Life of the North American Indian is helpful. It's replete with photographs, to boot.


  1. seems like an authoritative effort... i was just recalling that i read somewhere that indians in the northwest used to start forest fires on a regular basis to kill game and clear land...

  2. Interesting. History of questionable accuracy is written not often by the vanquished but by the winners, yet still among revisionists the myth of the noble savage in idyllic paradise persists in too many minds. I wonder if the truth ever can be found and told. Any good, accurate sources out there?


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