Chopping Down the Sacred Tree

It takes a bold paleface to attempt a comprehensive history of Native American life nowadays—after being forced to swallow five hundred years of insulting and mainly inaccurate Anglo-European generalizations about their character and behavior, the Native Americans are justifiably tetchy. Get it wrong and Russell Means, the activist-turned-actor who has managed to play both the last of the Mohicans (Chingachgook, in Michael Mann’s adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s novel) and the fiercest of the Sioux (Sitting Bull, in my own Buffalo Girls) might show up on your doorstep, wearing his big hat; or Vine Deloria, Jr., the unmellowed Sioux polemicist, might launch a lightning bolt or two, possibly from that bastion of nativism, the Op-Ed page of The New York Times; or the young rumbler from the Northwest, Sherman Alexie, recently anointed by Granta as one of the twenty best young American writers, might pop onto one of the paleface talk shows and complain.

The fact is, the natives are right to rumble; in any consideration of their history there is a very great deal to be got wrong, and conceptual problems abound, the commonest of which I have myself encountered while about the prosaic task of screenwriting. A producer or studio may have the notion that they want a movie about Geronimo, but it will always develop that what they really want is a movie about the white guys who were chasing Geronimo—maybe one of them could be Brad Pitt. In a broad sense, as it is with the movies, so it has been with history. Native American history becomes, in a flash, not their history, but the history of Anglo-European interaction with them, on two continents and a number of adjacent islands. The rest of the story—I would think, from a Native American point of view it would be the deep story—is left for archaeologists, anthropologists, paleontologists, ethnobotanists, and, always, the singers, the storytellers, the poets.

Some idea of the dimensions of the history James Wilson attempts to cram into 466 pages might be suggested by the fact that the admirable Civilization of the American Indian series, published by the University of Oklahoma over almost seventy years, now numbers some two hundred and twenty volumes; the more specialized bulletins of the Bureau of American Ethnology are also in the hundreds. The geographical area to be covered, if one attempts to tell the whole story, stretches from the Atlantic to the Pacific and from the Arctic Ocean to the Straits of Magellan, a huge amount of ground to survey, or dig in—and hundreds are even now digging.

Every year, it seems, some new old bones turn up in Oregon or Chile that seem to push the arrival date of the Native Americans farther and farther back into prehistory. An exciting new find in Tenochtitlan was announced while I was reading Mr. Wilson’s book. Of the hundreds of questions that might be asked about Native American history, very few have definitive answers …

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Letters

What Would Dr. Johnson Think? June 24, 1999