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. Did Clovis man, with his excellent spearpoints, kill and eat all the woolly mammoths that once roamed the Great Plains, much as buffalo hunters with excellent bullets later almost wiped out the buffalo? Or did the great beasts merely get frozen in an ice age? How many Native Americans were there when the Europeans arrived, and what percentage of them were dead one hundred years later? Who made the great designs in the Atacama Desert of South America, designs so large that they could not have been wholly seen by their creators but only by soaring birds, the immortal gods, or twentieth-century humans in airplanes? What happened to the peoples of Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon? If they left, where did they go?

James Wilson is well aware of these questions; he knows there are mysteries in Native American history that he has not solved or even probed. He has written a personal history—it might better have been called a reflection on that history—and brings to the task intelligence, passion, and sympathy, all attributes that would have been better served if, in view of the magnitude of the topic, he had produced a less hasty listing of sources, so that some of the statements he makes could have been handily checked. Early on, for example, he says there may be human artifacts in Mexico that are as much as 200,000 years old. Perhaps there are, but the figure startles when applied to Mexico; it would have been helpful to track it to an archaeological reference.

It would have been useful, too, if Mr. Wilson had faced a little more critically the considerable problems posed by translation from the dozen or more far from simple language families to which the Native Americans belonged. Listen to the Cherokee Onitositah, called Corn Tassel, complaining in 1777:


Let us examine the facts of your present irruption into our country…. What did you do? You marched into our territories with a superior force…your numbers far exceeded us, and we fled to the stronghold of our extensive woods…. Your laws extend not into our country, nor ever did….

Indeed, much has been advanced on the want of what you term civilization among the Indians; and many proposals have been made to us to adopt your laws, your religion, your manners and your customs. But, we confess that we do not yet see the propriety, or practicability, of such a reformation, and should be better pleased with beholding the good effect of these doctrines in your own practices than with hearing you talk about them….

That sounds pretty Augustan to me; Dr. Johnson—who wouldn’t have been on Corn Tassel’s side—couldn’t have put it better; the question it raises is why all Native American orators, whatever their language group, are translated to sound either like Dr. Johnson, the prophet Isaiah, or, at a stretch, the Sioux wise man Black Elk, himself rather fulsomely translated by the poet John G. Neihardt and his daughters.

The problem of exact translation is huge; it bedeviled Native-white relations from the first. Many a Native leader went home from the treaty councils believing he had heard promises that the white leaders then claimed they had never made. The writer Alex Shoumatoff recently reckoned that our government had broken 378 treaties with the Native Americans; many of those treaties bore little resemblance to what the Native negotiators supposed they were agreeing to. At both the diplomatic and the personal level misunderstandings were constant.

It could be argued, for example, that Crazy Horse’s death was hastened by a famous mistranslation. In 1877 the army, having just disarmed Crazy Horse, was forced to note, with embarrassment, that the undisarmed Nez Percé were racing along a clear track to Canada, whipping up on everyone who got in their way. Someone had the bad idea of rearming Crazy Horse, in hopes that he would stop them. In the course of a tedious parley Crazy Horse was reported to have said that he was prepared to live in peace, but if the whites really wanted him to fight he would fight until every last white man was dead. The interpreter who reported this statement was Frank Grouard, a mixed-blood scout who knew Crazy Horse fairly well. The army, already nervous, took Crazy Horse at what they thought was his word and soon ordered his arrest. But was it his word? Other Sioux speakers at the parley heard him say he would fight until every last Nez Percé was dead—they were aghast at Frank Grouard’s mistake and tried to convince the officers that Crazy Horse hadn’t said anything of the sort.

What did Crazy Horse say? He hated meetings; might he have said something outrageous just to get out of the tent? Was Frank Grouard drunk? Did he want to get Crazy Horse in more trouble than he was already in? Could he have genuinely misunderstood? We will never know. The incident is significant only because something similar may have occurred in hundreds of parleys, with neither side fully realizing that the interpreting was lazy, inaccurate, or biased. When spread over five hundred years of military and political engagement, linguistic imprecision is bound to have tragic results.

James Wilson is aware of the problem presented by language, as he is aware of many problems that he hasn’t space to address. Issues large and small flit around his head like gnats; he swats at them now and then but his larger purpose prevents him from being able to quite dispel them. He has committed himself to taking the reader through Native American history on a bullet train and can rarely afford to ease up on the throttle. He wisely concentrates his narrative on what is now the continental United States, saying little of Canada, Mexico, or the southern continent, but, even so, he has to rush.

The train immediately plunges into the historical forests of the Northeast, allowing the reader, who had better not blink, time to glance only briefly into thickets of unfamiliar names and distant scenes: Wahunsonacock, Opechancanough, Wopigwooit, Miantonomo, Nemattanew, from the Powhatan, Pequot, Narragansett, or Pamunkey peoples. James Wilson does a fair job of summarizing the early contacts and conflicts, and wrestles manfully with the functioning of the Hotinonshonni, the complex religious, social, and political organization which allowed the six Iroquois peoples to maintain—as they still do—a sense of identity and destiny which enabled them to work together against the intruders. But as we proceed southeast, toward the country of the Five Civilized Tribes, a good many readers are apt to be overwhelmed, as this reader nearly was, by a sense of their own deep and dismal ignorance where Native American history is concerned. The unhappy truth, in regard to this history, is that we are now mostly movie-taught, if taught at all. The common reader—that elusive beast—will at most now be vaguely familiar with a thin slice of history drawn from two decades near the end of the nineteenth century, when the resistance of the native peoples of the plains and deserts was finally being broken. The battle of the Little Bighorn, in 1876, is one of the most written about battles in world history, whereas equally desperate battles in the Northeast, the Southeast, or the Ohio Valley are forgotten, an example being the battle of Horseshoe Bend, in what is now Alabama, when Andrew Jackson broke the considerable power of the Creek nation, almost losing his life in the process. (He was saved by Junaluska, a Cherokee, who had reason to regret his charity when his people, at Jackson’s insistence, were dispossessed of their ancestral lands and driven westward along the Trail of Tears. According to Mr. Wilson, Junaluska even went to the White House to plead for more time—Jackson merely showed him the door.)


The difference between what we comprehend of late-nineteenth-century Native Americans, as opposed to their equally gifted forebears, boils down in the end to publicity. There was a publicity machine ready for Custer and and his determined opponents, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, as there was not for such extraordinary leaders as King Philip or Tecumseh. Few now would even have heard of Tecumseh, the great Shawnee who, for a time, forged a powerful alliance of native peoples, if a Civil War general, William Tecumseh Sherman, hadn’t been given his name.

By the 1860s the publicity machine was even sophisticated enough to supply the native leaders with catchy, marquee-ready translations of their sometimes complex names. How much would we have read of Chief Joseph if the papers had been forced to call him Hin-mah-too-yah-lat-kekt? Or of Sitting Bull if he had required them to address him formally as Tatanka Iyotake?

James Wilson speeds on, does the Five Civilized Tribes, then the Pueblo peoples and the West Coast peoples, before curving back to the Great Plains; the landscape blurs a little at times as he races to complete his survey. The last third of the book is more reasonably paced; it deals with the struggles of the native peoples in the twentieth century, when the attacks they faced were bureaucratic rather than military. He devotes an informative chapter to the still controversial and rather quixotic career of John Collier, for eleven years FDR’s commissioner of Indian affairs, who was determined to see that there was a New Deal for Native Americans too, though to many tribal peoples their New Deal still meant that the whites expected them to govern themselves in a very white manner; Collier pushed for the much-debated Indian Reorganization Act, embittering, at a stroke, many of the Natives he was trying to help and all of the capitalists who didn’t want him to help them. Collier, like many another sympathetic white bureaucrat, was determined to help the tribal people, but, of course, to help them his way; in the long struggle to implement his reforms he underestimated both the tenacity of tribal traditions and the undeviating power of capitalist greed, but he did at least manage to arrest the constant diminishment of the Native American land base.

As James Wilson nears the end of his history certain contradictory pressures begin to affect his narrative. Any honest history of Native American life over the last five centuries is essentially going to be a black book, a catalog of horrors, butcheries, exterminations. From the very first the exterminationist—we would now say genocidal—impulse was there. Large numbers of the invaders simply wanted to kill all the natives, that being the simplest and quickest way to get their land. Mr. Wilson’s pages on the elimination of the Indians of northern California during the hectic decade of the gold rush can stand for many such killing frenzies. In their fevered haste to get to the diggings and become rich, many of the miners found the Indian presence intolerable; they killed them any way they could. One of the more sensitive riflemen, Mr. Wilson reports, was distressed at having to shoot Indian children with his rifle because the large bullets tore up the small corpses so badly; but he was soon able to square his conscience on this score by resolving to shoot adults with his rifle and children with his .38 revolver.

In these centuries of slaughter several themes repeat themselves, one being the inability or unwillingness of the whites to distinguish between friendly and unfriendly natives. Their practice was usually just to punish whatever Indians could be found; in some cases—here’s another theme—it didn’t matter much because the white man’s diseases went ahead of him, wiping out friend and foe alike.

The one overriding theme, however, in every period and every region, is always land. The natives had it, the whites wanted it, and, one way or another, whether with bullet or treaty, they took it, and are still taking it today in Ecuador and Brazil, where the few remaining free indigenous peoples of the Americas are finding that there is no forest deep enough to shield them from the settlers and the oil companies. John Collier, for all his bullying, was hated by capitalists because he wanted to fix it in law that the Native Americans got to keep at least a little land.

About this James Wilson is quite clear. The natives once occupied two continents and the Europeans came and took them. And yet Mr. Wilson would like to argue that the native peoples have survived with at least their spiritual beliefs and identities intact—that they have preserved their sacramental relationship with the earth and their conviction that they live in a reciprocal universe. Despite the very convincing black book that he has produced, his desire to believe that Native American life is now stable and even flourishing leads him to produce this curious passage about a Native American reservation he visited on the Great Plains:

You get a sense of how tenuous the Euro-American grip is if you drive across the west today. Large swathes of the region are littered with deserted farmsteads and dying towns—crumbling stores, bars and gas stations, dilapidated little houses gradually taking on the bleached colours of the surrounding landscape—that look as if they have just been dropped there for no particular reason and then abandoned. When you cross into a Native American reservation, the communities have much the same impoverished, improvised appearance, but the atmosphere is far more vital and energetic, with bustling shops and hordes of children playing in the street. You get the unmistakable impression that, unlike their nomadic Anglo neighbours, who stay for a generation and then move on, these are people who feel they belong and have a future here.

Pardon me? Where is this model reservation town, with apparent impoverishment and an improvised appearance, yet with bustling shops? It sounds a little like downtown Berkeley, though probably all Mr. Wilson means by the bustling shops is that a tour bus happened to stop at the tribal crafts center while he was there. Doubtless the Euro-American inhabitants of such substantial paleface reservations as Denver, Omaha, Minneapolis, and Chicago would be surprised at the suggestion that their grip is tenuous and that they may soon be moving on.

Such a passage flips reality like a pancake. It was the Plains Indians who were the great nomads of the Americas and the whites who cooped them up on small reservations so that they themselves could farm what had been the nomad’s prairie. What is to be noted on the Great Plains today is that the white towns have become as sad as the Indian towns, but that is not a development that supports Mr. Wilson’s observation. His stated task puts him in a more or less constant bind, poised uneasily between the particular and the general. He says over and over again that all tribes are particular in their customs, and yet haste forces him into generalizations such as the one just quoted, and he forgets that even tribes who are close neighbors may have lifeways that are very different. I was once invited to the Crow sundance, which was so packed with white anthropologists that year that it might as well have been held in Harvard Yard; but I was staying at the time on the nearby Cheyenne reservation, to whose sundance I would never have been invited. Between these neighboring peoples, as between many, the historical divisions are very deep. The Crow, after all, scouted for Custer, while the Cheyenne were part of the team that annihilated him, and were punished accordingly.

In 1990 the Lakota Sioux made a memorial march to the site of the massacre at Wounded Knee, the massacre which, forgetting South America, was thought to mark the end of armed hostility between whites and Native Americans. Mr. Wilson, who worked on a two-part BBC documentary about Native American life, was at Pine Ridge and interviewed some of the marchers. Since he starts his story with this march to the bleak plain where the Ghost Dancers were slaughtered, it is a pity that he doesn’t deal a little more fully with Indian millenarianism itself: the belief appearing in many places that a new soil would cover the earth, cleansing the continent of whites and raising up the honored dead.

James Wilson does mention that the Pamunkey prophet Nemattanew was preaching of a Return as early as 1618. Such preachings have always made the whites nervous—what if the magic worked?—and they always over-reacted to it, at Wounded Knee most famously, but also at Cibicue Creek in Arizona in 1881 when the Apache preacher Noch-ay-del-klinne was killed with eighteen of his followers, and other times as well. What the whites forget is that to poverty-stricken and despairing peoples (white or Indian) the Apocalypse has always looked good.

When he is discussing the Sioux who made the march to Wounded Knee Mr. Wilson comments that many Americans think the Indians have vanished because, well, many of them no longer look like Indians, but he does not push a discussion of the merging of races very far. It is merely one of the gnats that flit around his head, but in fact there have been five hundred years in which both blood and cultures have been mixing. When, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Dawes Commission was attempting to break down the tribal structures of the Five Civilized Tribes in order to make the tribal members American citizens, the census rolls compiled at that time only listed about a quarter of the Indians as full bloods. How much harder would it be to find a full blood in Oklahoma now? I have Sioux blood through my paternal grandmother but had a ranch rather than a reservation upbringing. The most gifted of the writers who are called Native American now—N. Scott Momaday, Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, Joy Harjo, Gerald Vizenor, Sherman Alexie, and others—have for two generations ranged widely through the white academies, from Dartmouth and Cambridge to Stanford and Seattle; they not only know what their ancestors knew as tribal people, they know what our ancestors knew as dead white Europeans. With this long mixing of bloods and cultures it is now less easy, in speaking of Native Americans, to know to what extent they are we and we they.

James Wilson earnestly seeks signs of Native American revitalization, but too often seeks it in political or social developments; if he had only looked to literature rather than politics he would have found an abundance of examples. Perhaps the most eloquent treatment of the theme of the Return—the theme Mr. Wilson seems to be looking for—is to be found in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead (1991), the concluding paragraphs of which I quote. Sterling, a Laguna man long exiled from his people, has come home to look at a great stone snake uncovered in a uranium mine:

Sterling sat for a long time near the stone snake. The breeze off the juniper cooled his face and neck. He closed his eyes. The snake didn’t care if people were believers or not; the work of the spirits and prophecies went on regardless. Spirit beings might appear anywhere, even near open pit mines. The snake didn’t care about uranium tailings; humans had desecrated only themselves with the mine, not the earth. Burned and radioactive, with all humans dead, the earth would still be sacred. Man was too insignificant to desecrate her.

Sterling didn’t show himself in Laguna for a long time, and then only to buy food. He had held his breath, but the Tribal Council had ignored him…. Sterling didn’t look like his old self anymore. He had lost weight and quit drinking beer. The postmaster reported Sterling had let go all his magazine subscriptions. Sterling didn’t care about the rumours and the gossip because Sterling knew why the giant snake had returned now; he knew what the snake’s message was to the people. The snake was looking south, in the direction from which the twin brothers and the people would come.

Ignored at the time it was published (except by Sven Birkerts, who was startled by its ambition), the Almanac is steadily making its way, as are the books of several other brilliant Native American writers in whose pages Mr. Wilson would find, well expressed, the evidence of the survival of spiritual identity that he is looking for.

James Wilson gives us the creation myths of a number of tribes, and lists in his sources several of the Native American writers I’ve named, but it is not clear that he has followed these writers into their stories. Black Elk, in a famous elegiac passage, said, in speaking of the Indian’s defeat and demoralization, that the nation’s hoop was broken and the sacred tree dead, but in the work of a number of Native American writers the sacred tree can be seen to be blossoming profusely again. Whatever their differences of tribe or talent, these writers are alike in one way: they all protect the stories of their people, in the conviction that by protecting the stories they secure not only the past but the future too.

This Issue

April 22, 1999