Return to the Native

During the past eight years Peter Matthiessen has returned from his travels in Africa or Nepal to discover a hidden network of native American states of mind and places—his “Indian country.” These are remote, impoverished, embattled enclaves within or on the borders of the official Indian reservations. There the representatives of what Matthiessen considers the true Indian way of life are still holding out—his “traditionals.” Many of these families and factions revived their native identity only during the past thirty years. Their radical tribalism was nurtured through semi-secret support networks such as the Hopi Rebirth Movement and the more public protests that made national headlines in the 1960s and 1970s. They are troublemaking idealists from Florida to California who refuse to abandon their old treaty rights, who dream of absolute tribal sovereignty, defiantly resist federal authorities and their own tribal governments, and equate their survival with that of the land they revere.

To Matthiessen these holdouts represent America’s last hope as they stand up to the federal Indian bureaucracy, the law enforcement establishment, and the multinational energy consortiums that are poisoning their sacred lands. Matthiessen has no doubt that the white man’s frontier crusade to obliterate Indian culture remains very much alive; he seems to regard this collection of magazine pieces as urgent dispatches from censored zones in an American cold war. He is to be commended for caring enough about these beleaguered corners of Indian America to search them out. Again and again he must outwait the suspicious scrutiny of his wary subjects. Through a mysterious string of inside contacts he manages to connect with key people and bring out their desperate stories. He penetrates police secrecy in upper New York State to bring back the sordid story of the police treatment of the Akwesasne Mohawk; in Tennessee he avoids guards to tell the tragic story of the Tellico Dam; in California he undertakes a trek to the sacred “high country” in the Siskiyou Mountains.

Matthiessen also dips into the morass of cultural and political history behind each of the tribes he visited. He makes an effort to untangle the legal nightmares that are part of every tribe’s pedigree, trying to pinpoint the crucial shifts in the power relations between whites and Indians. Finally, as if these tasks have made him increasingly uneasy, he does what comes most naturally to him, evoking the wildlife and landscape that brought him to some of these locations on earlier assignments and still seem to engage his abiding affections. Indeed the book is at its most powerful less in its account of human misery than in its description of environmental ruin. When the nineteenth-century journalist Helen Hunt Jackson brought Indian suffering to light in her A Century of Dishonor the central issues were Indian starvation, disease, in-human treatment, and the loss of land. Today it is ecological suicide; Matthiessen’s awful descriptions create the impression that Anglo-America is inflicting some perverse revenge upon itself.

In South Dakota’s Black Hills the rush for uranium,…

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