11 April 2011

Misplaced Emphasis

The book table at Costco proves an irresistible lure, but the barbs there leave my jaw aching. Increasingly since the historic election of 2008, there have been stacks of right-wing diatribes by authors with little regard for accuracy of facts or analysis. But good books remain among the chaff. I'll be sorely tempted by Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol 1 (2011) on the next trip because I've found that the Kindle edition is not well suited for this sort of scholarly text and the price at Costco is $1.02 less than at Amazon. I nearly bought Life (2010) by Keith Richards, and may yet when the paperback comes out in a few months if they carry it. I've bought and read two books on the Battle of Little Big Horn--both were disappointing histories.

Off and on over the past week, I've been trying to labor through a book that I thought would be a quick and interesting read. I bought Richard Kluger, The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek (2011) from Costco in February with plans to read it during spring break. Last Monday I started. The Forward appalled me for its abysmal failure to mention tribal sovereignty while pretending to lay out the critical historical framework at the heart of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854. Reading further has been slogging through questionable factual assertions (I need to do some fact checking on several points) and episodes in misplaced emphasis.

This morning I came upon this sentence:
Scholars have estimated that by 1850, the aboriginal population in North America--besieged by the invaders' explosive weaponry, wondrous technology, contemptuous cruelty, and irresistible pathogens, as well as the Indians' own ever-deepening despair--was just one-tenth of what it had been when Columbus first ventured ashore. (57)
Kluger gets the demography correct, but fails to explain it well. Beginning with weapons and technology demonstrates that he has read neither my "Superior European Technology" nor Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (2005)--another text that I found at Costco. He also reveals his failure to comprehend the significance of ecological damage, easily rectified for starters by reading William Cronon, Changes in the Land (1983). Most egregious is the way that he seems to put disease behind conscious imperialism and technology in his explanation of traumatic demographic change.

Kluger sets up the reader to expect that he would comprehend the significance of ecological changes on the previous page:
Essential to this metamorphosis would be correcting the red race's attitude toward the land, which they shrank from actively cultivating but regarded as a hallowed preserve ... Such footloose practices were deemed unsuitable for a civilized society. Instead, the Indians needed to buckle down within far less expansive territory, where they would work the soil as the Scriptures directed (see Genesis 9:1) and make it flourish. (56)
The Bitter Waters of Medicine Creek concerns peoples and events in the southern Puget Sound Basin, so the failure of a historical gloss to recognize the cultivation of corn, beans, and squash by everyone from the Pueblos of New Mexico to the Seneca of New York might be forgivable. The Neolithic Revolution emerged in Meso-America and southern China approximately the same time that it emerged in the Fertile Crescent. Even so, the U.S. Supreme Court encoded this common stereotype of Indian hunters and gatherers with respect to those indigenous to the Ohio River Valley in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823) and with respect to the plantation owning Cherokee in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1832). As a description of Anglo-American attitudes, if not American Indian realities, Kluger's gloss serves its purpose.

Ten years ago I revealed my own understanding of the role of disease in the European conquest:
Epidemic disease was the decisive factor in the European conquest. Epidemics not only eliminated entire communities, but the resulting sociocultural disruption created conditions that made Native peoples more receptive to European trade items and religious ideas.
James Stripes, "Native Americans: An Overview," Encyclopedia of American Studies, vol. 3 (2001), 198.
One of my first entries for this blog, "Practicing Objectivity," quoted that tertiary source. This morning I am reminded how easily historians searching for a new writing topic without adequate grounding in the scholarship will easily miss the critical significance and fall into popularly believed errors--technology conferred minimal advantages to Europeans, and when it did it was swords and cannons more than personal firearms. Disease was the decisive factor, followed closely by assaults on the land. Technology ultimately assisted, but only after the initially tenuous foothold was well established. Then, the plow did more to facilitate conquest than did the gun.

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