Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Heard Museum, Phoenix; Jake Page's In The Hands of the Great Spirit; Indian Schools


So we did end up going to the Heard Museum, a few days later. And everybody was right, it was pretty impressive. Extensive, elaborate; shiny and beautiful. More than we could see in the afternoon we had to devote to it.

We spent most of our time in what they call their "signature exhibit," a big series of rooms detailing different peoples native to Arizona and/or other parts of the Southwest. Certainly it was impressive: lots of interesting stuff to see. I wish I could say it was educational; it was, after a fashion, but I ended up learning more about myself and my attitudes toward the presentation of this kind of thing than I did about the thing itself, if you get me. What I mean is that, there was a separate section for each people, with a little explanation of the people and a lot of things on display from that people - textiles, pottery, jewelry, katsina dolls, whatever is representative of them. All of it fascinating. But little of it accompanied by what I would have considered proper historical contextualization. Like there would be a whole case of pottery, some clearly old and some clearly new, but without much of an attempt to discuss the development of this pottery, influences, meanings of motifs, etc. ...The overall message I was getting was that the museum wanted me to come away not so much with a detailed understanding of the complex history of these peoples, but just with a general impression that they're awesome.

Which they are. And maybe there would be something a little un-awesome about a real anthropological or historiographical approach, something of the expert speaking about the subject, rather than subject speaking for itself. But anyway, I came away enthused but wishing for more information. (Like: how did Barry Goldwater end up with so many katsina dolls, and what was his relationship with native peoples? Not like they're going to talk about that, but...)

That was only true of the main exhibit on the main floor, however. The other place we spent a lot of time was an exhibit on the second floor about the federal Indian boarding schools that existed from 1879 to...more recently than I was pleased to know. This was a program that I knew nothing about, in fact. And the exhibit was quite thorough in its history, unimpeachable in its presentation of just what white American was doing to the Indians through these schools, trying to do, and not quite succeeding in doing. Which was: to eradicate cultures. They were meant to, in the words of Richard Henry Pratt, who ran the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania, "kill the Indian and save the man." Basically kids were taken off reservations, often against the will of their parents, and shipped across the continent to boarding schools where every effort was made to scrub them of any consciousness of their own culture, while they were being educated to be like white people - but of course inferior people, only fit for manual labor. Things got better later in the 20th century, but in the early days that's what they were about.

It was a very effective exhibit. It shook me to the bone. I'd never been taught about this chapter in my country's past. I don't even remember what I learned in high school about Indians, but I'm sure it was very little, and my own reading had been limited to Dee Brown. So I guess I had assumed that the most shameful aspects of my country's treatment of Indians were concentrated in the 19th century. But no: it lasted much longer.

But I can't say I was surprised to learn otherwise.

So. Before leaving we hit the museum shop, as we always do, and I was determined to find a book that might eradicate some of my ignorance. I considered buying Bury My Heart At and rereading it, but I settled on In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians, by Jake Page, from 2003. It's a generalist history, and as my sister the American History PhD reminds me, that means you're getting a little bit about a whole lot (she put it better), but I maintain that there's a place for the generalist history. You have to start somewhere.

So there are two perspectives from which you could evaluate a generalist history like this one. You could be an expert on the subject, capable of judging whether the author got it right: included the pertinent details, emphasized the right things, synthesized a narrative that accords with what the best informed people believe about the subject.

I obviously can't provide that perspective. I can provide the ignorant person's perspective (and is my anxiety about that showing? just a little): this is a readable, informative book. In 450 pages (including notes that are worth reading) it recounts the history of the land presently occupied by the 48 Contiguous from the earliest human habitation to the present. That's a lot of people and a lot of years and not very many pages, and yet somehow it manages to feel thorough.

Page does a good job of providing, or at least simulating, both breadth and depth. He pays a lot of attention to Indians (the term he settles on, for reasons that struck me as pretty persuasive) in all regions of the US, making sure to carry forward the story of, for example, Indians in California even in the 17th century when the main story would seem to be what's going on in New England and the Tidewater area, or tracing the fate of the Iroquoians long after the focus of conflict has shifted to the Great Plains. At the same time his own personal expertise is the Southwest, where he's based, and so he gives a lot more detail, some of it personal, concerning Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni developments - which seems like it should make the book feel unbalanced, but ends up providing a valuable depth of perspective.

He's obviously pretty sympathetic to the Indians - that's a boneheaded thing even to say. You can't know this history without being deeply moved, saddened, enraged... That said, he strives to make the work read like history, not polemic. He doesn't flinch from, for example, discussing cannibalism among the Anasazi; less sensationally and more importantly he consistently makes the point that Indians were never quite the natural ecologists we'd like to imagine they were - they exploited their environment for their own gain. Which is not to say they didn't have a different understanding of their relationship to the land than Europeans did... I sometimes felt he went a little too far in his efforts to be even-handed - he leaves out a lot of the details of the Sand Creek massacre that I remembered from Dee Brown's account, but just as there's a place for a good generalist account, there's also a place for a good polemic. (It's important, for example, to know that US soldiers cut off Indian female genitalia in this massacre and used them for personal ornamentation. We need to confront this stuff in our past...)

In short, it's even-handed, informative, and oh yes, moving. Plus, readable - Page actually has a sense of style.

My only complaint was that his decision to focus on the Contiguous 48 for the whole book, even before they were established, felt both arbitrary and limiting. Anybody who, like me, is ignorant enough that they need this book is probably fairly ignorant of the history of Indians in Canada and Mexico, too, but he only treats them when they directly interact with Indians in the 48. This lack is particularly grievous in his discussions of the Southwest - he talks about the Spanish presence moving up from Mexico, but in trying to understand Spanish interactions with Indians in what would become California, Arizona, and New Mexico, I found myself constantly wondering what Spanish interactions with Indians in Sonora, Sinaloa, Durango, Chihuahua, et cetera, were like. Surely that's part of the story?

1 comment:

Cat said...

Thanks for this review! I've been incorporating Native American texts (belatedly and importantly, I think) into my survey Introduction to American Literature, and reading this book would give me a better frame in which to place those literary examples. I realize very quickly in our class discussions how paltry my knowledge of Native American history is. My elementary school lessons on indigenous cultures focused on things like Iroquois longhouses with the same impression of timelessness and generalized appreciation that you complain about with the signature exhibit.