In the Hands of the Great Spirit
Jake Page
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Buy *In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians* online

In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians
Jake Page
Free Press
480 pages
April 2003
rated 5 of 5 possible stars

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When you get to read a new book on an old favorite subject, it's impossible not to keep asking, "What's been added here, what can I learn?"

Jake Page, "one of the Southwest's most distinguished writers and a longtime student of Indian history," has succeeded admirably in an attempt to present American Indian history in a new light, unvarnished by adulation and unafraid to step on sacred toes. As, for example, this passage regarding the traditional life of the Iroquois:

“With the arrival of European alcohol in their midst...the acting out of drunken visions (or just plain drunken stupidity came to be regarded as similar to the acting out of one’s dreams, and therefore tolerated - particularly by the drunks.”
Page's work takes native history back to what most Americans think of as pre-history -- the era before the advent of the Whites Eyes. Through legend and archeology we view the many varied tribes that inhabited our land as they would have lived in pre-Columbian times.

In that light we then see that the clash of culture nearly destroyed most Indian peoples within a very short time. We think of the plains wars and Custer when we think of the decline of the native American way of life, but in fact by the late 1700s the Shawnee chief Tecumseh could lament "Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pakonoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people?" It is variously estimated that up to ninety percent of natives were no longer in existence within a few years after the first footfall of the Europeans.

Plagues brought onto the continent in the 1600's wiped out Indians by the thousands, and occasioned mass starvation and warfare (the native's solution to many problems, including such customs as mourning wars to bring back people as replacements for loved ones lost). Unhealthy and uncivilized as the encroachers undoubtedly were, still they were better able to withstand illnesses like smallpox, having been overcrowded and oft exposed, than were the socially pristine indigenous peoples.

Once the pattern was established, there was no doubt who would win the war for the land and the resources of the new continent. The United States of America proved a monolithic and hydra-headed foe. Where one tribe might fight and win here, another would be decimated there, and ultimately all were forced to echo the famous statement of Chief Joseph of the nez Perce, "I will fight no more forever."

And how they fought on after the systematic annihilation of their culture by "well meaning" conquerors is itself a testament to their fierceness and determination. In California, where priests were put in charge of acculturating the Indians, rape by Spanish soldiers was a common practice, lassoing being a usual means of capturing the intended victims. But Indian women so despised the whites that they murdered the offspring of such unions, leading the priests to declare all such issue "miscarriages" and "the punishment typically doled out to a woman for miscarrying was having her head shaved and being flogged daily for fifteen days, as well as having to walk with her feet shackled for three months carrying around a hideous doll in her arms." This is but one small example of the cruel manner in which people of the white races set about to dehumanize, demonize and destroy those whose resources they sought to dominate.

Reservations were a temporary solution, and one that would quickly be subsumed under the Dawes Act among other major treacheries as the dominant culture demanded land, land and more land. Land for oil and gold exploration, land for farming, land for whites and for their religion. The Dawes act "gave" Indian families 160 acres of land, ignoring the pressures that succeeding generations would bring to bear on the question of land for inheritance. The act took away anything that was left over, so that very quickly the native populations had about a third of what they'd been allowed under the reservation system. All in all, the Dawes act resulted in "the loss of land, the crowding in of white settlers, railroads, miners, ranchers, the breakdown of tribal authority and independence, the failure of the federal government to provide satisfactorily for the needs of the Indian as promised, the venality of many local Indian agents, and the mismanagement of most of the reservation resources.”

With the loss of land came a Diaspora and the dilution and disappearance of culture:

"And indeed some of these old ways did over time disappear, and it was not unusual in the twentieth century for Indian delegations to arrive at the Smithsonian seeking information by which they might revive a ceremony not performed in several generations...One erstwhile Crow warrior lived four decades on the reservation in Montana but ended his autobiography with the end of the old life ways: 'nothing happened after that,' he wrote. 'We just lived. There were no more war parties, no capturing of buffalo to hunt. There is nothing more to tell.'”
Gradually, services to the reservations as a separate entity were "terminated" and each piece of traditionally native land would be fought over in court, sometimes to the great gain of individual tribes as we have seen in recent years. "Many readers in the dominant culture have become familiar with the age old character of the trickster...the Indian presence is felt all the more in the past decade as tribes - some little remembered- have taken shrewd advantage of federal and state laws to assert themselves again as political and economic players in American society."

Those elusive Pequots were found -- "in the mid-twentieth century two old Pequot women lived on a 180-acre reservation in southern Connecticut." With a grandson advocate, the remnant received a settlement of $900,000 which, invested wisely, ultimately brought in "a million dollar profit per day." Despite the usual sour grapes -- the claims that the Pequots were not a real tribe of Indians, the fears that the Pequots with their vast wealth now have a disproportionate amount of political power -- the accomplishment can be admired in a bemused sort of way by anyone who wants truly to understand the paradox of Indian history in America.

Native American culture now has a certain cachet, and rightly or wrongly Indians are often portrayed as early pioneers in ecological sensitivity and holistic healing. To suggest they profit from this image is not cynical; it is a fact and has to be accepted as part of the total picture. It is this sort of realism that Jack Page releases like a slow leak as the narrative unfolds. That Indians are humans like their conquerors, with foibles and built-in, sometimes self-destructive belief patterns. That "Indian people do not necessarily hold their Indian neighbors in high esteem." That we all have clay feet. That our relationship with our native peoples is still changing and evolving, but, most importantly perhaps, that "the Indians -- after all -- are still here."

© 2003 by Barbara Bamberger Scott for Curled Up With a Good Book.

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