Reading recommendations for the indigenous history newbie

There’s an unfortunate lack of books that a) comprehensively cover Native American history, b) do so in a way that is respectful of Native people, c) illustrate why Native American history is important, and d) are actually readable and accessible by the general public. But I’ve attempted to cobble together some kind of list of recommendation, aimed at people who are interested in learning more about Native history but don’t really know where to start, with a heavy emphasis on why and how Native American history is important on a world scale, since that seems to be something many people need clarified.

1491 by Charles Mann. I would pretty much call this the number one must-read book on Native American history for the non-specialist. This book does a lot of things all in one: it directly addresses the assumptions that are made about Native history, it covers the history of the study of Native history and how it’s impacted those assumptions, and it covers an incredible range of indigenous history itself. There’s a great analysis of the political situation of Tisquantum and the northeastern communities, there’s Maya history, there’s Inka history, there’s a great section on the Amazon that was entirely new to me. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s probably the best out there right now for a general overview.

1493 by Charles Mann. Okay, I have not actually finished reading this yet–in fact I really only just started. But I’ve heard good things. Whereas 1491’s main focus is precolumbian history, 1493 is mostly about the world-altering effects that occurred as a result of the Western hemisphere and Eastern hemisphere coming into contact. Based on what I’ve read so far, I’m not as big a fan of it as 1491, but it’s still probably worth a read.

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. This focuses specifically on the failures of textbooks and grade school education about United States history, focusing on treatment of Native American and African American history in particular. Your mileage may vary on the textbooks cited; my experience in school was better than a lot of them but it doesn’t change the fact that they are all textbook that were and are in use. The thrust of his argument is that the way the narrative of American history is taught in most schools is not just damaging, but that it is also boring. In addition to this critique though, there’s just a plain lot of really great historical details on various eras of US history that most people don’t know about because they’re not deemed fitting for the narrative. Highly recommended.

Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World. This isn’t exactly something you can sit down and read start to finish, but I would definitely recommend checking it out and flipping through it if you can find a copy. It’s an incredible answer to the idea that Native Americans lacked technology, and although it’s necessarily a brief overview, there are sources provided at the end of each entry if you want to look into a particular topic further.

Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford. I have a lot more reservations about this than the other books listed here, and I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a better book out there that does the same kind of stuff this one does. But I haven’t found it yet, and I just read this one, so it’s going on the list.  This book is really frustrating in that it does a bad job of treating Native people as people with full-fledged agency and motivation, but it is a pretty good overview for the unfamiliar of the extent to which Native Americans shaped the course of world history. I include it because a lot of people commenting seem to be of the opinion that Native American history isn’t as important because it had no impact other than being dominated. This book says otherwise.

The Earth Shall Weep by James Wilson. It’s been a while since I read this, but it’s a general overview of indigenous history in the territory of the modern United States from about 1500 to 1900. It does a nice job of showing how archaeology, written records, and oral traditions can be combined to tell a story, and it’s a very good place to start getting a general grounding in Native history in the United States, as it covers most regions of the country at least briefly.

You should note that none of these are by Native authors. This frustrates me, but I can’t think of any books by indigenous authors that cover this kind of broad territory off the top of my head, though I’ll definitely do some digging. There are a variety of reasons, such as the fact that Native historians tend to either focus on their specific nation’s history or to be engaged in very theoretical work on indigenous history, the fact that much of Native-written history is intended for Native audiences rather than non-Natives, and the depressing fact that non-Natives are very, very frequently taken as authorities on Native history over Native people themselves. Not to mention how the academic system discourages Native people from getting involved in history. If anyone can think of something along these lines, please let me know, and of course do put other recommendations in the comments if you know them. Hopefully this can be of use to some people who don’t know where to start!


No Princess Zone: Hanging Cloud, the Ogichidaakwe

Chequamegon History

Here is an interesting story I’ve run across a few times.  Don’t consider this exhaustive research on the subject, but it’s something I thought was worth putting on here.

On Wikipedia, Charles Lippert spells her name as Aazhawigiizhigokwe and translates it literally as “Goes across the sky woman.” I know a lot of people are freaked out by the whole concept of Wikipedia because any fool can put whatever he wants on it. Me, I look at 95% of the internet that way (including this site). The important thing is the quality of the information. Lippert works for the Mille Lacs band with first-language Ojibwe speakers and has contributed to several on and offline published works.  I find his transliterations to be solid.

In late 1854 and 1855, the talk of northern Wisconsin was a young woman from from the Chippewa River around Rice Lake. Her name was Ah-shaw-way-gee-she-go-qua…

View original post 3,169 more words

Where do you “find” indigenous history?

First of all, welcome, to the rather overwhelming number of new people who have made their way to this blog in the past few days. I know there are a lot of people commenting that Native American history gets the treatment it does because of lack of writing and use of oral hisory, so I wanted to address: where does knowledge of indigenous history come from? How is it that “we” (multiple we‘s really: academia, laypeople, Natives, non-Natives…) know things about indigenous history? The difficulty, of course, being that the history of the Americas has been on an institutional level told with the voices of Europeans and their descendants as the protagonists, with indigenous people only included marginally as necessary to tell the European-American story.

The major sources of indigenous history are

  • oral histories of indigenous people themselves
  • written records kept by non-Natives and Natives
  • archaeological data

Each of these has its own merits and challenges and each plays a different part in telling indigenous histories.

Archaeological data

Archaeology is key to indigenous history before about 1500, since before then there are very few written records and oral history tends to be less detailed the further back you go. You find a site, do some careful digging, record everything you find, and draw some conclusions. And then you have century-long debates over how to best interpret the things you found.

There are a couple of difficulties with using archaeological data for writing indigenous history. The data you get is not what people think of when they think of history–it’s generally a lot of burials, foundations of old houses, and a truly astounding amount of pottery shards. And you examine the stuff found in different places and over time and try to draw conclusions about what happened. Which is difficult, for many reasons. First of all, archaeological “cultures” (groupings of similar artifacts) don’t necessarily match up with linguistic, ethnic, or national cultures. And even with archaeological cultures, there’s often a lot of debate about whether the culture is a correct interpretation, because ultimately it comes down to archaeologists looking at the data and interpreting it, which different people might do differently, and it’s inherently tied to assumptions people have about the past. For instance, it was previously taken for granted that the mounds of Mississippian and Hopewell people couldn’t possibly have been made by indigenous people, just because of the assumptions white people had about Native Americans.

Archaeology in North America also has a rather rocky history with indigenous people themselves. It has historically been closely linked to the theft of indigenous property and the desecration of indigenous bones, and archaeologists have often worked in complete isolation from actual living Native people, not considering the fact that it was their ancestors they were digging up. Happily there has been an increase in recent years of archaeologists working in collaboration with Native people–the Art Institute’s book Hero, Hawk, and Open Hand on pre-contact eastern woodlands people, for example, included work by a number of people descended from Mississippian and Hopewell people and showed how living elders were collaborating with archaeologists and art historians to get a better understanding of artifacts.

The fact is that there’s an enormous amount of material in North America that has not been excavated yet, but there’s also quite a bit that has been done. Unfortunately, as I’ve learned since coming to college, it’s mostly kept in university libraries and written in language that no one but a specialist can understand. So although there’s a wealth of information, it largely hasn’t been disseminated into the population at large, and certainly is very difficult for indigenous people themselves to get a hold of–to the extent that many people don’t even realize it exists. One of my major goals is trying to get some of this archaeological knowledge out and available to the indigenous people whose history it is a part of, so we can take some control over our own histories.

Written records

This is what people think of when they think of history. (Especially books). The majority of historical information in existence on Native people comes from sources written by non-Native people. These records include journals, poems, letters, reports, and more. There’s sometimes a tendency to think of written records as being more “objective” than other kinds of evidence, but most historians would tell you that there’s all kinds of factors you have to consider when you’re looking at a written source: who wrote the document? Why did they write it? Who were they writing for? The background of the creator, the social milieu, their agenda for writing… All of this is especially important when you’re looking at sources written by people about indigenous cultures who are not actually from that culture. If you’re looking to write history from an indigenous perspective like I am, these records are essential because they provide flashes of indigenous people from particular instances of time, but a lot of care has to be taken in coming to understand the indigenous side of the records.

There are also written records made by indigenous people themselves. These go back into precolumbian times in records like the screenfold codices of Mesoamerican people, as well as other kinds of sources that some academics don’t like to call “writing” but are clearly at least writing-like records of history, such as the birch bark scrolls made by Anishinaabe people and other Algonquian speaking people in the northeast. There’s also a plethora of sources written by Native people after the arrival of Europeans, in colonial languages as well as indigenous ones. There’s too much to even start to list, and it’s all depressingly ignored by a lot of people–but the fact is that Native people started writing down their stories in the Roman alphabet practically as soon as they were introduced to it, and these sources continue to today. They too have to be carefully examined–certainly the kind of Native people who had access to the resources for writing needs to be looked at (for instance, many early records come from Native converts to Christianity, which is obviously not going to best represent the viewpoint of indigenous people who refused to convert). But these play a crucial role in getting indigenous viewpoints into history.

Oral history

Oral history gets a lot of crap from historians and laypeople alike, because there has long been an attitude that oral history is not “real” history, which is written down in books. Increasingly historians are recognizing that oral history is not inferior history, just a different way of keeping history. The list goes on and on about why people don’t think oral history “works”: it’s unreliable, it’s all just mythology, it’s all been forgotten because of colonization. In the end, this mostly just comes out to the same effect of stubbornly refusing to accept oral history as a legitimate way of telling history. And this is a major problem, because oral history is the primary place where indigenous people have maintained sovereignty over our own histories.

Like with archaeological data and Native-made written records, people, both Native and non-Native tend to vastly underestimate the amount of information that exists in the form of oral history. It’s true that colonization, through the deaths of so many people and the attempts to convince survivors that their history is without value, has done a lot of damage, but there’s an incredible amount that has survived. It covers greater time depth than you’d expect, too. For instance, a lot of oral history was collected from elders in the very early 1900s. If you’ve got an elder whose about 90 years old in 1900, they may remember things their elders told them when they were kids–people who were in their 80s in 1825 or so, who were born in the mid-1700s. In the book “The Cheyenne Nation” there’s a story in which members of one military society, in 1982, recite a two-hour list of grievances with another society, going all the way back to events that happened in 1837. Native politics, they never change 😛

There are a lot of cases of indigenous people with oral stories about past events and migrations and ways of life that were initially dismissed as entirely made up but in recent years have been validated by archaeology (e.g. the origins of the Nahua people in the American Southwest, the Dhegiha migration from the Ohio River valley, Choctaw stories about Nanih Waiya and the mound builders). Like with written sources, you need to make sure you understand particular pieces of oral history. Unlike written sources, which freeze a particular moment in time for future generations to see, oral history is a demonstration of what things are deemed so important that they manage to be told even years later.

In many ways the analysis of oral history is not, at a structural level, significantly different from analyzing written history. In both cases you need to examine who is speaking, to whom, why… but while academia has developed over a great span of time very precise ways of picking apart written history, the serious academic study of oral history is much younger, and the same kind of technical understanding doesn’t quite exist. This is especially an issue for indigenous people, because in many (if not all) communities, oral histories are part of very complex traditions unique to that particular community. If you’re listening to a Cree story, you’re not going to be able to fully understand it and what it is doing on a meta level if you’re not familiar with the genres of Cree speeches (acimowina, atayohkewina, wawiyatacimowina, kakeskihkemowina), the stylistics of the language used, the allusions to what is assumed to be known by the listener. If you don’t know that, it’s going to be like trying to analyze a piece of literature without any knowledge of the format of novels, nonfiction, letters, newspapers, etc., or the poetic traditions of Europe, or Enlightenment philosophy, or any of the cultural knowledge held in common by your average American.

Putting it all together

So you get all this information, and what do you do with it? A lot of it is contradictory, or vague, or difficult to piece together. There are endless debates about the accuracy and the ethics of linking archaeology with oral history with historically recorded people with modern indigenous nations.

Personally, my ultimate goal is returning the power to indigenous people to tell our own histories. We are deprived of control of our own history on so many levels: through government and private ownership of ancestral remains and objects, through the lack of Native voices in popular history, through the poor education given to indigenous youth, through the delegitimization of indigenous ways of telling history. The only place we have kept sovereignty over our own history is amongst ourselves, in the stories our grandparents tell us and we tell each other. For that reason, I tend towards the view of using archaeology and written records to illuminate the oral and written traditions of Native people, rather than the other way around as many academics do it. Because at the heart of it, indigenous history belongs to indigenous people–people not only deserve but need to know their own history. So my priority is returning it to them where it has been forcibly severed from them.

It’s a messy project, for sure. It’s all well and good to say “let’s do this!”, but the actual work of putting this all together and making sense of it is really tough, and there’s not a lot of people who want to or have the skills to properly mix these three rather different fields of archaeology, written history, and oral history. You’ve got academic archaeologists with detailed understanding of their particular specialty, you’ve got the historians who work with all the tiniest documents you’d never imagine exist, you’ve got tribal historians whose knowledge would astound you, but they all tend to exist in isolation from each other. The work of getting a full view of indigenous history in North America involves managing to put all these things on the table with people who know how to interpret them, and to put indigenous people in charge of understanding and telling their own history.

What if people told European history like they told Native American history?

The first immigrants to Europe arrived thousands of years ago from central Asia. Most pre-contact Europeans lived together in small villages. Because the continent was very crowded, their lives were ruled by strict hierarchies within the family and outside it to control resources. Europe was highly multi-ethnic, and most tribes were ruled by hereditary leaders who commanded the majority “commoners.” These groups were engaged in near constant warfare.

Pre-contact Europeans wore clothing made of natural materials such as animal skin and plant and animal-based textiles. Women wore long dresses and covered their hair, and men wore tunics and leggings. Both men and women liked to wear jewelry made from precious stones and metals as a sign of status. Before contact, Europeans had very poor diets. Most people were farmers and grew wheat and vegetables and raised cows and sheep to eat. They rarely washed themselves, and had many diseases because they often let their animals live with them.

Religion infused every part of Europeans’ lives. Europeans believed in one supreme deity, a father figure, who they believed was made of three parts, and they particularly worshiped the deity’s son. They claimed that their god had given humans domination over the earth. They built elaborate temples to him and performed ceremonies in which they ate crackers and drank wine and believed it was the body and blood of their god, who would provide them with entrance into a wondrous afterlife called heaven when they died. Many wars were fought over disagreements about the details of this religion, each group believing their interpretation was the right one that should be spread across the land.

Now imagine that is part of a textbook that has entire chapters on the Mississippian polities of the 1200s and a detailed account of the diplomatic situation of the southeastern provinces in the 1400s and 1500s, an enormous section that goes through the history of the rise of the Triple Alliance in Mexico and goes through the rule of each tlatoani and their policies, the heritage of Teotihuacan and its legacy in later Mesoamerican politics, elaborate descriptions of the trade routes that connected and drove various nations in North America. Long explanations of the rise of various religious movements such as the calumet ceremony and Midewiwin, and how they affected political agendas and artistic trends. Pages and pages and pages going through the past thousand years of American history century by century.

And these three paragraphs are the only mention of European history before the year 1500.

If your textbook of North American history goes into the details of the Middle Ages, the Reformation and Renaissance, the Silk Road, and European monarchies, and you don’t include equal description of the Mississippian coalescence and dispersal, Haudenosaunee-Algonquian relations, the Woodlands, trans-plains, and southwestern trade systems, the Mexica conquests and the Fifth Sun ideology with explicit naming of various places and leaders, then your textbook is inadequate.

Why do you include those “pre-contact” European things? Because they explain the motivations and reasons for what Europeans did. But people largely imagine North America as this timeless place and don’t recognize that pre-contact American history had just as much of an effect on post-contact history because it provides explanations of the motivations and reasonings behind indigenous peoples’ actions.

But of course, that would require people to recognize that indigenous people had their own histories and agendas and agency that affected the course of history rather than making them a passive recipient of European historical force.

Recognizing Hopewell and Cultural Continuity

I saw a post of a Hopewell pipe a few days ago and it got me thinking about Hopewell. For the unfamiliar, Hopewell is the name for the general cultural tradition and exchange network that spread across the eastern woodlands from about 200 BC to 500 AD. It’s an archaeological culture, not a linguistic or ethnic one, meaning the defining characteristics are similar types of pottery, pipes, sculpture, jewelry, and most notably, mounds. Here is a map of the various permutations of Hopewell:

Ohio Hopewell is generally considered the heart of the Hopewell exchange network,  but obviously you can see Hopewellian style things appeared throughout the east. Hopewell is most famous for the large earthen mounds, created in animal shapes and swirly designs and also plain conical burial mounds, as well as the extremely beautiful pipes carved in the shape of animals and people.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years learning about Cahokia and Mississippian history, and I recently got a book called Hawk, Hero, and Open Hand that was about ancient art of the eastern woodlands, in which there were a few articles about Hopewell. And looking at them, I noticed that fascinatingly the designs seemed rather familiar to me. In Mississippian art, there are certain things that are culturally familiar to me, like the duality of the sky beings and the underwater beings, but it’s a fairly mild connection with only a few elements, familiar but still not something I instinctively understand. Most people agree that the direct cultural descendants of the Mississippian tradition are Muskogean, Caddoan, and Siouan speaking people: Choctaw, Chickasaw, Maskoke, Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, Oto, Iowa, Ho-Chunk, Dakota. I was raised with Great Lakes Anishinaabe-Metis traditions, and while I have some Dakota ancestors and my ancestors were on the edges of the Mississippian/Oneota, I wasn’t raised with Dakota or Ho-Chunk or Choctaw stories and ceremonies. People who were raised with them look at Mississippian art with much more recognition, because their cultures retain elements from that, passed down for a thousand years.

But with Hopewell art, I saw some of that familiarity and it surprised me. Even on just an aesthetic level, Hopewell art seems more familiar to me than Mississippian; Mississippian art reminds me of the stark Plains painting traditions, while the curlicue lines of Hopewell look a lot like the Anishinaabe paintings I’ve seen on rocks and birchbark and canvas in modern Woodland Medicine Style art. So I started to look into Hopewell some more, curious about the connections. Like I pointed out above, there’s fairly broad agreement about who the descendants of the Mississippians are, and there’s happily increasing efforts to involve them with their own history rather than archaeologists keeping it for themselves. But Mississippian cultures continued in a recognizable form until contact with Europeans, meaning that written sources could help identify ethnic affiliations. The Hopewell peoples stopped building Hopewell-style mounds about five hundred years before the Mississippians got started, and as a result not too many people have really even tried getting into the issue of their linguistic or cultural affiliation.

I happen to think that this is in large part because archaeologists have still failed in bringing the information they’ve gathered to indigenous people and having them direct the course of research; if my untrained Great Lakes Metis eyes can see similarities, then if you get elders looking at this stuff there is so much potential for understanding. And I do think some people have been working on this, which is good.

Anyway, from the scarce resource I could find speculating on this, the predominant opinion is that Hopewell doesn’t correspond to a single ethnic or linguistic group, but rather was a tradition shared across many. Which is sort of obvious given the history and culture of the woodlands people. The general thought is that Ohio Hopewell built off of the earlier local Adena culture, and then increased trade with other areas spread many art styles, rituals, and ideas around the area east of the Rocky Mountains. The more western types of Hopewell were probably made by Siouan speaking people, likely the ancestors of the Mississippians, who for their part built on certain Hopewell traditions. The Point Peninsula and Laurel complexes have been associated with Algonquian speakers, Laurel in particular being associated with Cree people. At least one person has suggested based on archaeology, linguistics, and oral history that the Hopewell interaction may have been associated with the spread of Algonquian people from the Proto-Algonquian homeland in southern Ontario, which I find fairly compelling. Other Hopewellians, perhaps even the Ohio Hopewellians themselves, were most likely Iroquoian-speakers.

Though I haven’t done a ton of research yet, much of this rings true for me in an instinctual way. It made me think of thee books I’ve read recently, one about Dakota history, one Wendat, and one Anishinaabe, each by indigenous people from their respective nation. In all three, there was a story of a flood caused by the underwater beings in which a muskrat dove deep into the ocean and pulled up soil which was formed into the earth on the back of a turtle. It’s the same story that I have heard from Metis, Anishinaabe, and Cree people all my life, and I was amazed at how similar all of our traditions were for three different cultures from three entirely different linguistic groups. I’ve heard it remarked by scholars that nearly all indigenous people east of the Rockies share certain basic understandings of the world, and I’d noticed that I’ve always found it easiest to understand people from that area, regardless of whether they were from the plains or the lakes or the east coast, but learning more about Hopewell has given me a very intriguing historical perspective on that. These things that we share, they were most likely also shared by Hopewell peoples, with their huge exchange influence getting farflung nations to interact and share ideas and ceremonies.

If that is the case, then Hopewell is a huge part of the shared cultural heritage of the entire eastern 3/4s of North America. And (as I continually argue) it needs to be returned to the hands and hearts of those people. For me, this entry into the world of Hopewell has been a real reality check for me because of the emotional, visceral reaction I have to it, unlike other areas ancient American history which I’m not a descendant of. It made me think, for instance, about the pipes that are some of the most famous Hopewell “artifacts.” Pipes are an extremely sacred part of modern traditional culture for most people in the eastern woodlands, and they’re things that must be treated very carefully. One elder (I forget what tribe he’s from, but one that is connected to Hopewell and Mississippians) commented that as he got to know the pipes better, he began to wonder if it was appropriate for them to be displayed. And he said he was still conflicted, because certainly there is the way our ancestors would have done it (if they buried it, it was intended to stay buried), but there is also to consider the fact that these things are incredibly precious in teaching our youth about our history, and the fact that time passes and things change, and we are no longer in Hopewell times. I personally am still struggling with the question of how I feel about displaying images of the pipes, which is why none appear here.

It’s an extremely touchy thing. If indigenous people lay claim to the bones and art of ancestors like the Hopewell, there’s even more opportunity for clashing with archaeologists than already exists, and that will be a difficult thing to navigate. In addition, there’s also the difficulty that due to the long amount of time that has passed, no individual tribe can lay sole claim to Hopewell, and that has the potential to create conflict between and within tribes who disagree about what to do with the pieces of history. Still, I think all of these things are worth dealing with for the benefits that will come from returning Hopewell history to the hands of indigenous people whose ancestors made it. Learning this, about the influential history that my direct cultural ancestors were involved with, has been really amazing, and that is something I want other indigenous people to be able to share.

A brief, somewhat annotated bibliography for this quarter

Most of the ones I have un-annotated I am either still in the process of reading, or they were really unremarkable, being neither great nor especially horrendous. Books I found especially valuable are starred.

*Manitou and Providence: Indians, Europeans, and the Making of New England 1500-1643, Neal Salisbury (decent overview of early contact Dawnland; it’s been so long since I read it I honestly don’t remember much but it taught me a lot)

Native people of southern New England, 1500-1650, Kathleen J. Bragdon (ethnography/history of Dawnland peoples, good for finding sources but lacks indigenous perspective)

*Huron-Wendat : the heritage of the circle, Georges E. Sioui (really great, written by a Wendat author, combines oral tradition, archaeology, and Native perspectives of history)

For an Amerindian autohistory : an essay on the foundations of a social ethic, Georges E. Sioui

*The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Richard White (a very good foundational, almost definitive, source on intercultural interactions in the Great Lakes region)

From Chicaza to Chickasaw : the European invasion and the transformation of the Mississippian world, 1540-1715, Robbie Ethridge (solid information connecting historic nations to older Mississippian ones, but the author explicitly decided to exclude modern Chickasaw people)

Hero, hawk, and open hand : American Indian art of the ancient Midwest and South, Art Institute of Chicago (surprisingly good and understandable analysis of Hopewell/Mississippian history, includes multiple indigenous authors)

Separate Peoples, One Land: The Minds of Cherokees, Blacks, and Whites on the Tennessee Frontier, Cynthia Cumfer (pretty good overview of the intellectual development of various people in Tennessee ca1768-1810, but her analysis of Black history in the area is notably poor in comparison to white and Cherokee history)

*The Comanche Empire, Pekka Hamalainen (extremely good analysis centering Comanche people, but falls flat on some cultural issues)

Storms Brewed in Other Men’s Worlds: The Confrontation of Indians, Spanish, and French in the Southwest, 1540-1795, Elizabeth A. H. John (often problematic but covers a wide range of time and people)

*Common and contested ground : a human and environmental history of the northwestern plains, Theodore Binnema (EXCELLENT book centering indigenous people, connecting archaeology to written records and oral history, not by an indigenous author though)

Indians in the Fur Trade: their role as hunters, trappers, and middlemen in the lands southwest of Hudson Bay 1660-1870, Arthur J. Ray

Twin Tollans : Chichén Itzá, Tula, and the epiclassic to early postclassic Mesoamerican world, Jeff Karl Kowalski & Cynthia Kristan-Graham, eds.

*The Mixtec pictorial manuscripts : time, agency, and memory in ancient Mexico, Maarten E.R.G.N. Jansen, Gabina Aurora Perez Jimenez (very good, one author is Mixtec herself and they focus on indigenous conceptions and responsibilities re: history in addition to giving a good base in Mixtec manuscripts)

Acercamiento a la filosofía y la ética del mundo mixteco, Ignacio Ortiz Castro (philosophical writing by a Mixtec author)

Nuu Nudzahui: La Mixteca de Oaxaca, Ronald Spores

Columbus and Other Cannibals, Jack D. Forbes (very on-point analysis of Western civilization through wihtikow understandings)

*Native American autobiography redefined : a handbook, Stephanie A. Sellers (fantastic analysis of Native ideas of literature)

Research is ceremony : indigenous research methods, Shawn Wilson

Âh-âyîtaw isi ê-kî-kiskêyihtahkik maskihkiy = They knew both sides of medicine : Cree tales of curing and cursing, Alice Ahenakew, H.C. Wolfart & Freda Ahenakew

Africans and Native Americans : the language of race and the evolution of Red-Black peoples, Jack D. Forbes.

Indigenous Historiography


, , ,

EDIT: (zaagibagaa-giizis 2013) My thoughts on this continue to evolve and I’ve come to realize certain weak spots in what I wrote here. Particularly the stuff about mino-bimaadizin as a historical lens. More thinking needed, take with a grain of salt. 

Even though mainstream historical/anthropological scholarship doesn’t claim “civilization” to be inherently superior to other way of living anymore, the way they talk about human societies still very clearly shows their belief in the European idea of “progressing” uniformly from a lower, more “primitive” way of life to a more advanced and thus better one.

For example, settler scholars writing about Cahokia, the Anasazi, Tenochtitlan, and the Maya. There’s a strong thread in scholarship about these places that basically like, “Look! The Indians managed to get advanced civilizations too! [ergo they are also worthy of being included history]” And especially with Mississippian and Mayan society, there’s a narrative that when the Europeans arrived, people were living in the “aftermath” of the “ruin” of their great civilizations (and that this made them more susceptible to colonization). I mean, I understand why Western-trained writers talk about them this way. They are making analogies to how, for instance, the ‘fall’ of Rome is dealt with in European history.

But for an indigenous history, we cannot accept that. As an indigenous person, I ask, “Why is one kind of way of life elevated over another, as though it is improvement?” In particular, I question why a major part of the definition of civilization, having a socially stratified society, is considered a good thing. Really? We’re gonna say having inequality is a sign of progress?

Here is the main point of my argument: History is not a linear march of progress and improvement from a primitive state to a better civilized one, but a continuous, cyclical readjustment of life in accordance with the shifting of the environment around us. 

While in the European model of history, people are thought to be constantly seeking material improvement of their lives, in an indigenous view, I suggest that people are trying to live mino-bimaadiziwin. Mino-bimaadiziwin is an Anishinaabe word, but I have been taught about it by Cree and Metis people as well (who call it miyo-pimatisiwin). It literally means “good life” but the meaning is very different from the English. To put it simplistically, mino-bimaadiziwin means living a life fully according to your community’s values. It includes both material aspects of life and spiritual ones. (This is a big simplification; mino-bimaadiziwin is a major thing in Anishinaabe thought that has a lot of ideas involved I’m not getting into here.)

When I read and talk about indigenous history, I look for how people were trying to live mino-bimaadiziwin. That is, what they did to try to have good conditions (of having enough to eat, a happy family, shelter, comfort) and to live a good life according to their community’s values (following spiritual practices, connection to the community, respecting and honoring, etc). Where this tends to confuse people in the European model of history is that sometimes, the way to live mino-bimaadiziwin leads people to so-called “primitive” ways of life.

Some examples of how this can be applied to our understanding of history:

Cahokia and the Mississippian cultures. Westerner historians treat this like a standard narrative of the rise and fall of “advanced civilization.” They take it for granted that people would move “towards” a stratified society, and are thus confused and constantly trying to find out why it “fell.” The narrative looks different from an indigenous perspective. People moved to villages and cities because they offered a way of mino-bimaadiziwin: Cahokia has shown that it offered abundant shelter and food as well as a strong spiritual grounding.

Eventually, however, the changing environment made other ways of life offer the best ways of mino-bimaadiziwin. Weather, crop failure, and health problems meant that living in smaller villages or hunting buffalo offered better material conditions, and it’s likely that the political and spiritual situations (because they were tightly interwoven) were similar. There is no reason to regard life in the cities of the Mississippians as superior to the ones they lived in after.

The plains way of life. Although people have always hunted buffalo and lived on the plains, the real height of the horse-based buffalo-hunting way of life didn’t kick off until 1700. To Western eyes, the change from life in sedentary agricultural villages to nomadic hunting ones looks like a regression. But to indigenous eyes, it is a very sensible change in the continuous search for mino-bimaadiziwin.

Before the 1700s, buffalo hunting was very beneficial to communities both from a material and spiritual perspective, but it was also very dangerous and difficult to manage on a long-term basis. Starting in the early 1700s, however, horses and guns began to arrive on the plains. This change in the environment (particularly the horses) made it possible to hunt buffalo more or less full time. Hunting buffalo offered mino-bimaadiziwin: food, shelter, clothing, spiritual fulfillment. Even European accounts record that the way of the buffalo hunt was a constant enticement to Native people.

Thule and Inuit history. I recently read something that described people north of the tree line as having lived roughly the same way of life for thousands of years. While I suspect there’s much more to it than that, I want to address the Western view that living in the same way for a very long time is bad, or at the very least “stagnant.” In the Western view, progress is assumed the default and thus not only “regression” but also a lack of progress is considered a failure.

Looking at this from an indigenous perspective, however, it look instead that people have found a way of mino-bimaadiziwin that is fulfilling within their environment and that the environment has not changed enough to require substantial alterations to that way of living. For certain, it changes constantly and so some changes occurred, but on the whole that method of mino-bimaadiziwin sustained people for a very long time.


There’s a ton more stuff I could get into—I’m really excited, there’s a lot in this way of looking at history that I want to explore. Looking at modern indigenous life as a continuation of our seeking mino-bimaadiziwin. How the mino-bimaadiziwin model of history can even be applied to Europe, with some alterations. The importance of recognizing individual peoples’ approaches to history, recognizing that mino-bimaadiziwin comes from specific groups and may not be the most appropriate for all indigenous people. I’m also really excited to see how the ideas Marimba Ani has suggested in Yurugu (such as asili, utamawazo, and utamaroho) can help in an indigenous (specifically indigenous African) idea of history.

Pre-Columbian contact that probably happened


, , , , ,

Pre-Columbian American history is one of my biggest areas of interest. And one of the things I’ve learned over the course of studying it is that unlike in European history, where “theory unsupported by most mainstream historians” generally means “crazy pile of nonsense someone dreamt up to further their political cause,” in Pre-Columbian American history it generally means “explanation of ambiguous evidence that may very well come to be accepted as true in another ten years.”

Non-Native historians of the Pre-Columbian Americas are very reluctant to let go of their preconceived ideas of American history. But after looking through evidence, I think there’s strong suggestions that the following things really happened:

1. Norse in Greenland and the Canadian Atlantic, ~900s to 1400s
This one has been actually definitely proven with lots of records and archeology and stuff. They sailed in from Iceland, set up some camps, got in a lot of fights with the Native people (either Inuit or Tuniit/Thule).

My thought: yeah we know this one happened for sure.

2. Polynesian-South American trade, probably between ~300-1000 AD
This was the period when Polynesian people were sailing all over the place through the Pacific. It’s also the time when sweet potatoes, native to South America, showed up in the Pacific Islands. There’s some material evidence of Polynesian bones and art in Chile. This one is also fairly widely supported by archaeologists although there are some people who disagree.

My thought: 95% sure it happened.

3. Inuit sailors in Europe
This one baffles me because there’s extensive evidence of it but no one actually talks about it. I guess it’s because Native Americans discovering Europe is less exciting than the other way around. Anyway, there were for sure records of Inuit people going to Europe with Norse, mostly as prisoners. There’s also a good amount of evidence in both material and historical records of Inuit-style artifacts and people getting shipwrecked in Iceland, the British Isles, and Friesland.

My thought: This one 100% definitely happened.

4. Japanese sailors in the Pacific Northwest, ??-1800s
There’s a LOT of Japanese shipwrecks in the PNW. There were about 187 shipwrecks of Japanese boats on the PNW coast from 500-1750. Later records from the 1800s write that of the shipwrecks at that time about half had survivors. Records of Japanese sailors sailing into the Pacific the distance it would take to get to the PNW exist and actually it would have been easier to get there than to some of the other places they were going. There are a good amount of Japanese artifacts from Pre-Columbian times in the PNW, though some contest the significance because they might have been old items brought by more recent Japanese sailors.

My thought: I think it almost definitely happened but probably not as a major, regular thing. It’s not as certain as the first three but the evidence is pretty solid.

5. Basque fisherman on the northeast coast, 1300s-1400s
There’s a lot up in the air on this one, with some people taking it as a given that it happened and others saying there’s no evidence whatsoever. The evidence is compelling but all very circumstantial: the Basque established themselves ridiculously early in the region of the North American northeast (the first record is 1517 but they already appeared well-established with the Native people), a Basque-Algonquian pidgin showed up almost immediately, and adult light-skinned, curly-haired, green-eyed Natives were around the area very early on. In addition, European records show that the Basque had found a mysterious source of cod on an island west of Iceland. They were highly secretive of this source but even when they were cut off from Icelandic fishing they continued to bring in fish from the west.

My thought: the evidence isn’t solid enough to say it definitely happened but I would be very very unsurprised if this gets proven to be true in the next decade.

PRE-COLUMBIAN CONTACTS BETWEEN THE ASIAN FAR EAST AND THE NORTHWEST COAST OF NORTH AMERICA, Africans and Native Americans by Jack D Forbes, numerous other sources I didn’t write down as I plowed through the internet trying to make sure I was remembering the evidence right.