Germ warfare

17th March 1995 at 00:00
500 Nations: an illustrated history of North American Indians By Alvin M Josephy Jr, HutchinsonPimlico #163;35, 0 09 179148 0.

Hugh Brogan on the destruction of North American Indian life by Europeans and its subsequent recovery. Surveyed at close quarters, the history of the North American Indians, from the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the New Deal, is one of almost unrelieved tragedy, at times unbearably moving; and the behaviour at all crucial moments of the European conquerors seems invariably disgusting.

It is a tale of genocide fuelled by ignorance, fear, brutality, lies and greed. But surveyed from the grand perspectives of history and biology, new meanings force themselves on our attention.

What made the North American societies vulnerable in the Age of the Discoveries, in a way that those of Africa and Asia were not, was that their populations lacked immunity to diseases such as smallpox which, bad enough in Eurasia, were totally devastating in the New World.

The Indians died in tens of millions, thereby opening a land into which new populations moved. The process was inevitable. The Spanish and Portuguese did not deliberately bring European diseases to the Americas. They were raiders seeking gold and slaves, and did not even have a decisive technological advantage over the natives: the Aztecs very nearly finished off Cortes. It was smallpox which saved him, and smallpox which would have struck even if the Europeans had restricted themselves to trade (as the Indians would have liked, and as the Asian and African kingdoms successfully insisted, for centuries, that they must).

Had the Indians been able to resist conquest effectively, because of their numbers and their uninjured morale, they would soon have taught the Europeans to respect them; and indeed at certain moments of the encounter that happened (though never for long): trade and civil intercourse replaced robbery and massacre. But trade (especially in furs) devastated Indian society, by introducing a wholly new element into the culture; and whether in peace or war the Indians had to deal with the roughest kind of European (adventurers are never noted for refinement); and so the shameful chronicle unrolled.

Biology cannot replace morality in our appraisal of the invasion of America, but it does force us to consider the present and the future in a new light. The Indian population in the United States is recovering, and growing rapidly; the "nations" are reasserting their legal and cultural identities; their place in 21st century America will be more secure and dignified than any which they have enjoyed for hundreds of years. The long period of Anglo-American dominion is ending and the aborigines will have as much say as any other cultural group in what follows.

But Kiva and chapel are alike threatened by industrial society; if television does not finish them off, the information superhighway may. But the survival of American Indian culture, in the teeth of passionately determined challenges (at the Carlisle Indian boarding school in the late 19th century the children were forbidden to use any language save English) makes me hope that it will surprise the world again.

These reflections have been stimulated by Alvin Josephy's 500 Nations, but nothing like them will be found in its pages. Mr Josephy is the doyen of American Indian history, and his new book has all the authority to be expected of him; but it confines itself strictly to the past (its narrative begins and ends with the notorious massacre at Wounded Knee in 1890) and thus to the portrayal of despair. The origins of the work in a television series do something to explain this, and no-one is to be blamed for writing one book rather than another; but in something that professes to be a history of the North American Indians the refusal to get into the 20th century is disappointing.

Perhaps there will be a second television series. Properly handled, it could be every bit as valuable and engrossing as the first. At least the history is indeed illustrated. In splendour of presentation it even eclipses the old American Heritage Book of the Indian, of which Mr Josephy was the editor. As a text I prefer the older work (written by William Brandon) for it was more lively, more sharply informative and argumentative.

The new book is too bland and vague. It has no scholarly apparatus of any kind, not even a select bibliography. It seldom names European diseases, there are next to no statistics, the maps are inferior to those in American Heritage. There are some striking omissions: nothing about the great McGillivray, or the Mandan Indians, and almost nothing about Canada.Mexico is included, for the story of the Aztecs, the Mayas, and so on, but nothing is said about it after the Pueblo rebellion of 1680. But the pictures make this a book to gloat over.

Turning the pages at random, I come across the portrait of Pocahontas in court dress. It hardly suits her, but she wears it with complete assurance,and the fire and intelligence of her eyes are unforgettable. The paintings of Virginia by John White are familiar, but none the less welcome; and I was glad to make the acquaintance of pages from various codices, dating from the period of the conquest of Mexico, which are beautiful in themselves and at the same time convey, as nothing else could,a sense of the world as it appeared to the Aztecs.

Not that I have much time for that gang of bloodthirsty imperialists: Mr Josephy touches on their addiction to human sacrifice much too lightly. He merely observes that the practice ensured "the continued strength of the deities on whom the people's life and well-being depended."

He is somewhat too easygoing with the Indians throughout. Every 30 pages or so we come across a photograph of a living Indian, with vacuous reflections underneath. They do little or nothing to help us understand the story; they add nothing of value to Mr Josephy's text.

He would have done better to stress the fact that in the eyes of all too many ordinary, decent Anglo-Americans the natives were cruel, thieving, drunken, dirty, treacherous and diseased layabouts, and although their perceptions were undoubtedly biased by ignorance and bigotry, Indian behaviour, alas, all too often seemed to warrant their views.

The degradation of the Indians was the direct consequence, was part of, their appalling fate; it was not their collective fault; and who are we to blame individuals? But it was a fact, and Mr Josephy does not want to make his readers face it. He wants them to enjoy themselves with pretty pictures and righteous indignation; and so they will. Those wanting to grapple with the ambiguities of history will have to look elsewhere.

Hugh Brogan is senior lecturer in history, East Anglia University.

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