1491

1491 by Charles C. Mann, second edition9781400032051

publication date: 2011
pages: 541
ISBN: 9781400032051

The title of this book came from the year immediately before Christopher Columbus landed in the Americas. Charles C. Mann wanted to show what life was like for the people in the Americas before European contact. The book, originally published in 2005, was very popular. I was reading the second edition, published in 2011. After reading it, I understood why the book was popular and why it warranted a second edition.

Mann wasn’t just describing American Indian life in 1491. He also was attempting to show why our modern conceptions of pre-Columbian peoples are wrong. He had three main ideas about the American Indians before European contact. First, that they were numerous and the Americas were densely populated. Second, that the native peoples’ societies were old and complex. And third, that American Indians manipulated the land around them to suit their needs and desires.

Mann used extensive research to support his ideas. He quoted academic papers, interviews, and primary sources. He also included evidence and sources that contradicted his own ideas. Notwithstanding this inclusion, most of his arguments were effectively convincing. For example, Mann argued that the number of Indians killed by European diseases was extraordinarily high: perhaps 9 in 10 killed within 200 years of contact. His explanation for this was clear and persuasive:

When humans and domesticated animals share quarters, they are constantly exposed to each other’s microbes. Over time, mutation lets animal diseases jump to people: avian influenza becomes human influenza, bovine rinderpest becomes human measles, horsepox becomes human smallpox. Unlike Europeans, Indians did not live in constant contact with many animals. They domesticated only the dog; the turkey . . .; and the llama, the alpaca, the Muscovy duck and the guinea pig . . . .

Mann then went on to explain that when the Europeans brought domesticated animals, especially pigs, to the Indian homeland, Indian immune systems were not prepared for animal diseases, and some communities experienced death rates of 96 percent.

Mann not only provided compelling arguments for his theories, he also included interesting and enlightening details about American Indian life. For example:

The Olmec, Maya, and other Mesoamerican societies were world pioneers in mathematics and astronomy – but they did not use the wheel. Amazingly, they had invented the wheel but did not employ it for any purpose other than children’s toys. Those looking for a tale of cultural superiority can find it in zero; those looking for failure can find it in the wheel. Neither line of argument is useful, though. What is most important is that by 1000 a.d. Indians had expanded their [agricultural] revolutions to create a panoply of diverse civilizations across the hemisphere.

Although 1491 was sometimes dense, it was routinely interesting and presented an innovative and compelling picture of the Americas before European contact.

5/6: seek this book out

other reviews:

New York Times
Root Simple
Foreign Affairs

House Of Rain

House Of Rain by Craig Childs9780316067546

publication date: 2006
pages: 496
ISBN: 978-0-316-60817-6

In House Of Rain, Craig Childs presented a piece of reportorial nonfiction, interwoven with narrative travelogue. For several seasons, Childs trekked the southwestern U.S. in order to discover for himself the world of the native people who inhabited that land before Europeans. Childs moved through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and northern Mexico, often on foot, to follow the centuries-long migrations of a people he usually called “Anasazi.” There is some controversy surrounding the term Anasazi, both because there is disagreement about how large their territory actually was and because Anasazi, a Navajo term, can be objectionable to modern-day Pueblo people – who instead may use the term “Ancestral Puebloans.” Childs used this phrase sometimes, along with another – Hisatsinom – that is used by contemporary Hopi. Childs explained his use of the word Anasazi and used other words when he thought it was appropriate.

House Of Rain described Childs’s travels as he explored cliff dwellings, seemingly uninhabitable gorges, great Anasazi kivas, and active archaeological digs. His travelogue writing was compelling, although often pretentious. A good example was this passage, when Childs was exploring Anasazi construction on what is now a national park:

A cascade of flute music emanated from speakers tucked among the ceiling beams. I stood still for a moment, a little surprised, recognizing immediately that the music was played not on a Native American flute, but on a traditional Japanese shakuhachi. . . . This kiva was tangled in eclectic ancestry, unrelated histories passing in and out of each other, brought together by this place. What was it Einstein said, that time and space are the same entity? Does that mean that if you stand in one place and are a keen enough observer, you can see clearly through time’s entire lineage?

His discussions of the Anasazi people could also be self-serious or extravagant, but he did present many interesting facts about their daily lives and viewpoints. Here was his discussion of Kinishba, a vacated Anasazi compound:

I sensed manners and social regimentation in the way the site was laid out. It was not the monastic atmosphere I had once imagined in the halls of [another compound called Chaco], but a busy, orderly setting, an urban trade center. Everyone had a place, some families having doorways that opened prominently onto plazas, others living in smoky, poorly lit rooms deep in the pueblo’s interior.

The nonfiction account of the Anasazi people and Childs’s descriptions of his expeditions was often woven together effectively and he presented a convincing case that the land he was exploring needed to be walked or hiked to ever understand the Anasazi people.

Childs’s tone was often dense and he imbued even the smallest event with meaning. However, he created a generally compelling and informative work.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews:

Orion Magazine
Ms. M’s Bookshelf
Light+Space+Structure blog

One Thousand White Women

One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus

publication date: 1998
pages: 434
ISBN: 978-0-312-18008-9

Here’s another book brought to my attention by the “Request-a-Review” feature. One Thousand White Women was a novel of historical fiction, which chronicled the journey of May Dodd and her life with the Cheyenne Indians in 1875. Written largely as May’s journal entries, the book began with May banished to a mental institution for creating a family with a man out of wedlock. While there, she was discovered by a government doctor, who promised her freedom from the institution if she took part in the United States’ secretive, new “Brides for Indians” program. As a member of the program of one thousand white women, May would be an ambassador of the United States living within the Cheyenne Tribe and would be required to marry a Cheyenne husband and bear his children for two years. May agreed to be a member of the program, largely to escape the hellish mental facility.

The plot was based on an event that actually happened, wherein a Cheyenne chief requested one thousand white women to live with the tribe to foster peace between the Cheyenne and the United States. In real life, the request was met with shock, disgust, and a resounding “NO,” but Fergus explored what life would have been like for the women who agreed to the program. Fergus took an inventive idea and crafted a penetrating plot that made the book a worthwhile read.

The plot was engaging, thought-provoking, and well-executed by Fergus, but it isn’t the only satisfying aspect of the book. Fergus used the plot to explore themes such as the relationship between the federal government and the Indian tribes at that time and the role of women in pre-Industrial American society. Fergus discussed Cheyenne society so thoroughly that I keenly felt its absence in contemporary culture. As a small example, here is a great anecdote from the book:

At [May’s Father’s] and Mother’s endless dinner parties [Father] is fond of giving credit to his and his wealthy guests’ great good fortunes by toasting the Sac Chief Black Hawk, who once said that “land cannot be sold. Nothing can be sold but for those things that can be carried away” – a notion that Father found enormously quaint and amusing.

Fergus also excelled at creating a voice for his characters, especially May Dodd. Dodd’s narration encapsulated an 1870s American woman, from the word choice and diction, to her dialogue and values. In fact, because the book was so steeped in May’s voice, there were times I couldn’t separate the author’s views from May’s, as a 19th century woman. This became problematic for me when Dodd’s viewpoint ran counter to my sensibilities. For example, May held condescending feelings for the Cheyenne and American blacks. Her primary description of people of color was “a proud and noble race.” She also fixated on motherhood and thought of motherhood and child-raising as the highest goal for any person or civilization. If Fergus was merely weaving these historical viewpoints into Dodd’s narration, he did a masterful job. I was left wondering, however, if these were some of his values that he worked into the story.

A heinous example of this was Dodd’s recounting of a gathering of Cheyenne where they drank whiskey. It became a complete bacchanal, crowded with rape, assault, and pedophilia. Dodd described it thus:

Throngs of drunk savages, men and women, jostled me as I pushed by. Naked couples copulated on the ground like animals.

Now was this just an urban white woman’s experience, viewed through the lens of her culture, of the Cheyenne drunk on whiskey? Or does Fergus actually believe that a majority of Cheyenne people responded to whiskey in this way? I’m not sure.

Notwithstanding any missteps, the book is an absorbing read.

4/6: worth reading

other reviews (this book is very popular in book clubs, I’m told):

Book Club Queen
The Eclectic Book Worm
News Herald book club