A Couple of Book Reviews

I finally managed to finish two books that I bought while on the Great Lakes Rendezvous trip. The first was In the Hands of the Great Spirit, by Jake Page. The subtitle summarizes the broad sweep of the book: “The 20,000-Year History of American Indians”. I bought this book at the Grand Portage National Monument because I was looking for something to fill the gap on my knowledge of Native American history in the Great Lakes region. I was learning lots about European Americans and their advance through the area, but I kept reading about references to Indian groups but wasn’t getting the history from their perspective.

The Page book was much bigger in scope than I had wanted, but I decided that it would certainly be worth reading. I have never seen a book that tries to tell the full scope of North American history from the perspective of the Indians. Starting with the multiple theories about the origins of the American Indians and their migration from Asia, it discusses how all the archeological evidence ties together to explain findings that have pushed back the Siberian migration to as long as 40,000 years ago. Then it follows the story forward to contemporary issues.

Page organizes the chapters not just chronologically, which you would expect in a history book, but also geographically. He groups Indian tribes by area because, depending on the local ecology, the problems tribes face, and the solutions they generate, can be substantially different. The history of Great Lakes Indians during the fur trade, for example, is an entirely different story than the one to be told about the pueblo tribes of the Southwest. It is only in the modern world where the stories seem to merge and the problems become common across the panorama of Native America.

The details change, but the major themes often remain the same. The book makes it clear that the impact of European settlement on the Indian population was never a fair fight. For reasons that have everything to do with the fact that Native Americans were almost perfectly in balance with their environment, they were in absolutely no shape to deal with the onslaught of white Europeans. Not because Europeans were intrinsically more powerful, or their culture naturally more dominant, but because of the invisible weapons they brought with them – germs. In many cases before Indians even met the white men, their germs rippled through the biosphere bringing death and illness. Census numbers are, of course, impossible to come by, but based on rigorous social science, it is estimated that up to 75% or more of some Native American populations were destroyed by disease. The European advantage was of being, essentially, unclean.

If that wasn’t enough, the white man’s bias brought with it debilitating understandings of how Indian societies worked. Early on, European settlers demanded that native Americans adopt their notion of how a social system works and that they develop permanent farms supporting agricultural activities. Page notes, though, that the Indians already had a fairly stable agricultural system in place. The problem was that it was run and managed by the females in the social system, while the men provided supplemental energy in terms of meat from hunting. White men, not understanding the more egalitarian and female centric organization of tribal societies, demanded that the men abandon their hunting social system and settle down to domestic farming. The demand that native Americans seriously alter their social structure to fit with the invading white men’s culture, acted as like a second wave of destruction through Indian culture. The problem was, really, that it was white man’s blindness that was the real problem, not how Indian tribal economies worked.

The compounding of problem after problem in how we have treated Native Americans is well documented in this book. If anyone really wants to understand how we have reached our current state of Indian affairs, they couldn’t do much better than to read this.

The second book I finished is A Storied Wilderness: Rewilding the Apostle Islands by James W. Feldman. This book is pretty much a history of the development of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore. The book outlines the fundamental problem of creating a park, especially on land from the eastern half of the country, where population and history create so many layers of additional problems.

In the case of the Apostle Islands, there was a long history of economic development of these islands, long before the park was created. That poses several problems for the park service. One of those is simply aggregating the land holdings so a park can even be established. It seems that it lots of people were excited about the prospects of creating a park out of these islands. However, everyone had a different notion on the details. People who already had summer homes on Madeline and Sand Islands obviously thought that their homes should be maintained and the park would be on developed on the other islands – sort of a grand vision of Not in My Backyard. But management of a park was going to be made much more difficult the more ‘exceptions’ were carved out. Eventually Madeline Island was exempted from the park boundaries and allowed to continue development, while Sand Island was included and people’s property ‘condemned’ for public use. Obviously, that didn’t go over so well on Sand Island.

Then there is the problem of how to designate and maintain something as ‘wilderness’ when there is an active history of human development? What do you do with the old logging and fishing camps? A real definition of the word ‘wilderness’ would have no place for such human artifacts. But how can you ignore the impacts of human development? Clearing land obviously impacts the landscape and changes the ecology for a very long time – you can’t return that to its prior state simply by declaring it a ‘wilderness’. As Feldman develops these issues in the context of Apostle Islands Lakeshore, he also suggests that these problems aren’t limited to this park. They surface in various degrees in all public lands, and pose important questions about how park management never involves easy questions.

I have several more books that I started reading on the Rendezvous trip. Hopefully, I’ll get through them before the Alaska trip, and another set of books, starts up.

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