Printer Friendly

Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial America.

New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. xx + 376 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $39.95.

Many scholars of American Indian history watched with trepidation as 1992 approached. Although the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus's landfall was sure to put their cherished subject fairly in the limelight for once, they had good reason to apprehend that serious scholarship might be buried in an avalanche of T-shirts and bumper stickers. At the very least solid research was likely to be pushed aside by books and films churned out to catch the wave of popular interest. Certainly, the Columbian Quincentenary had its share of hoopla and drivel, but it could have been far worse, and there was much that was good. During the Columbian Quadricentenary of 1892, the United States celebrated four hundred years of "progress," excluded Indians from the ceremonies except as relics of the past, and looked forward to a future without Indians. In 1992, native people and native protests were prominent and persistent, reminding us that they were here long before Columbus, are still here, and intend to be here for the next five hundred years. No longer the unqualified hero of American mythology, Christopher Columbus, in some people's minds, came to personify the evils of Western civilization. He was blamed for everything from the slave trade to the current ecological crisis. Where one stood on Christoforo Colombo was taken as a measure of one's scholarship, one's political correctness, even one's humanity.

But as the strident voices and the furor over tomahawk chops subside, one can hope for results of lasting benefit as the nation confronts some of the hard questions the dissident voices raised. If 1992 was not for most people an occasion for mourning and national flagellation, neither was it a time of unrestrained jubilation. When even the popular media recognizes that American history did not by a long shot begin with Columbus, we are surely better placed to discard some old mythologies, rethink American history as a story of societies built on the ruins of other peoples' civilizations, and recognize the continuing struggles of native people in a world created by invaders.

Although James Axtell points out that his latest book of essays, like his second one, was unplanned, few people familiar with his work will have been surprised to see this most articulate exponent of the ethnohistory of colonial America be "drawn (quite willingly) into the Quincentenary vortex of commemoration and cerebration" (p. ix). Chairman of the American Historical Association's Columbus Quincentenary Committee, Axtell displays a mastery of the sources, provides thought-provoking insights, and writes with a clarity and elegance that make him a pleasure to read again and again. Beyond 1492 is Axtell's third connection of essays on the ethnohistory of early America. The first, 7he European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial America (1981), is still the best in many ways, reprinting his seminal article on "The White Indians of Colonial America," outlining his major theme of the contest of cultures in North America, and offering valuable thoughts on the challenges and methodology of ethnohistory. The second, After Columbus: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (1988), provided more of the same, offering reflections on moral judgments in history and on native reactions to first encounters with Europeans, and reprinting his provocative and well-traveled essay imagining "Colonial America Without the Indians." Beyond 1492 follows the by-now-familiar format and design.

Axtell's essays, articles, and lectures explore the themes of his magnum opus, a trilogy entitled "The Cultural Origins of North America," of which the first volume, The Invasion Within appeared in 1985. He introduces each essay with a brief explanation of when and why he wrote the piece, the occasion on which he delivered a talk, and usually a description of the reception it received (impossible in a couple of cases since the push to publish in 1992 meant the book was in print before the lecture was given). These informal introductions tell us more about the author than about his subject, but they seem to work as a way of personalizing the collections.

As in earlier works, Axtell considers the craft of the (ethno)historian, the role of moral judgments in history, cultural contests and confluences, missionaries as agents of change, the importance of the French contribution to the culture of North America, and how Indians and Europeans imagined, perceived, and (mis)understood each other. He again poses counterfactual scenarios, and reminds us that civilization and savagery lie in the eye of the beholder. Beyond 1492 also includes an essay on "Humor in Ethnohistory" (which hopefully was more effective as Axtell's presidential, after-dinner address to the American Society for Ethnohistory in 1989 than it is in print); a consideration of the inroads of European goods into Indian society as "The First Consumer Revolution"; a discussion of the "Columbian Mosaic," which emerged in the three hundred years following 1492 and in which the predominantly brown population of Native America became engulfed by the white and black population of colonial America; and a reprint of his American Historical Review (1987) critique of textbook treatment of Indians and Europeans in the Age of Discovery in which, like others before and since, he found persistent and alarming distortions of Native American history in United States history texts.[1]

Axtell is both advocate and exemplar of the art of making history accessible and enjoyable. His essay on "History as Imagination," like his earlier "Ethnohistory: An Historian's Viewpoint" (The European and the Indian, ch. 1) is valuable reading for undergraduates and essential reading for beginning graduate students. It also serves as a useful reminder to practicing historians that it should not be hard work to read their work. The concluding chapter, and the only one written specifically for this book, offers a review of the literature, exhibits, and films generated by the Quincentenary, as a way of assessing what we have learned from it all. It is not unlike a long bibliographic essay, and though Axtell is one of the few writers who could make such a list readable, it is already dated as a resource guide since some of the events it discusses were in the planning stages at the time of writing but have not and will not come to fruition (the Newbery Library's "Tales from the Center of the Universe," for example).

Three of the essays attempt to view the invasion of America from the perspective of Native Americans, always a difficult task for white historians who rely primarily on sources written by nonnative observers. When Axtell delivered his talk on Indian perspectives on the exploration of Norumbega at a conference in Maine in 1988, he was "roundly thumped' (p. 76) for what some critics took as a failure to incorporate native oral traditions. Most scholars of Indian history strive to develop sensitivity to the emic realities of native societies and to guard against their own etic perceptions, but for many of us it is a struggle, and the gap between white academics and native communities often remains large. Some native people maintain that taking intellectual stock of the Columbian Encounter from the comfort of an endowed chair is simply irrelevant to the very real problems they confront today. But Axtell does not presume to speak for Indian people, and, like the best ethnohistorians, he avoids polemics and advocates a consistent common-sense approach to the reconstruction of Indian-white relations. Axtell knows and we should remember that politically correct does not necessarily mean historically accurate.

As in most collections of essays, there is repetition. This perhaps is unavoidable when speakers often are encouraged to recycle their best work, and it is forgivable when each essay is designed to stand on its own as well as being part of a collection. More annoying is repetition across books and the feeling of deja vu one occasionally gets. Examples from the sources appear and reappear in different guises. We learned in The European and the Indian (p. 40) that Harold Nicolson was taking a bath when he decided he needed two chapters instead of one to describe the death of Edward VII; do we really need to be reminded of it eleven years later (Beyond 1492, p. 18)? Likewise, as in After Columbus (p. 253), we are given Margaret Atwood's definition of the "ideal reader" (p. xiii).

As one has come to expect from Axtell, errors are few. Complaints center on impressions created rather than mistakes of fact. The map of eastern woodland tribes at their earliest contact with Europeans (reprinted from After Columbus) places the Seminoles squarely in Florida, and thereby gives no indication that when those people first encountered Europeans they had not yet become Seminoles: their separation from the parent Creek confederacy and their relocation in northern Florida did not occur until the eighteenth century. The context for Axtell's work is the enormous impact of European invasion on Indian America, but his attention on the confluence of cultures, his emphasis that Indian people also reshaped their own new world, and his interest in encounters that are ironic and even downright funny may seduce some readers into forgetting that the Indian participants in those encounters inhabited a world that was falling to pieces around them.

Now that Axtell is beyond Beyond 1492, we await completion of his life's work trilogy. Now that America is beyond 1992, we wait to see whether the attention paid to Native Americans in that year will result in any lasting changes in their place in American society, and whether the substantial advances made in scholarship on the Native American past over the last generation will produce more than cosmetic changes in teaching and textbooks. Giving Indian people special attention for a year, or adding a few Indian names to the standard narrative of American history, adds little to our students' understanding of their past. The historical profession professes to look with disdain on popular fads, but the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Historical Association both encourage scholarship on "hot topics." Scholars of Indian history must surely have taken heart at the AHA program for the December 1992 meeting which offered sessions on American Indian history in each time slot and everyday, instead of, as has happened in the past, only on the last afternoon of the conference. The program for the Organization of American Historians meeting just three months later indicated a return to "business as usual," with only a couple of sessions on Indian history. Even Hollywood's rediscovery of Indians has lasted longer than that.

The current popular interest in Native American history and culture runs deeper than commemoration of 1492, and it has much to do with a cultural and political renaissance that began in Indian America before 1992 and which involves Indian people taking back their history. We can dismiss Native interpretations of their own past as politically motivated distortions, or we can welcome them to the polyphony of perspectives that American history should be. Fully recognizing and integrating the Native American presence in our common history requires more fundamental rethinking and restructuring of the narrative to include both Indian presence and perspectives.

For more than a decade, james Axtell has been offering food for thought on the history of Indian and European encounters in colonial America. It is elegantly served and easily digested. While it is not surprising that the hunger for Indian things has abated after last year's gorging, one nonetheless hopes that historians will retain Native Americans as a standard part of their professional menu to ensure a permanently more balanced diet for their students. Above all, American historians must not relegate Indian history back to the bottom of their agenda now that the Columbian Quincentenary and "the need to have something on Indians" is out of the way. As Axtell has shown us once again in this volume of essays, the drama of early American history makes no sense if presented without Indian actors. [1.] Frederick E. Hoxie, "The Indians versus the Textbooks: Is There a Way Out?" AHA Perspectives 23 (April 1985); Richard White, "|Far West. See Also Frontier:'the New Western History, Textbooks, and the U.S. History," AHA Perspectives 30 (Sept. 1992).

Colin G. Calloway, Department of History, University of Wyoming, is the author of The Western Abenakis of Vermont: War, Migration, and the Survival of an Indian People, 1600-1800 (1990) and editor of Revolution and Confederation, a volume in the series Early American Indian Documents: Laws and Treaties (forthcoming, gen. ed. Alden T. Vaughan).
COPYRIGHT 1993 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Calloway, Colin G.
Publication:Reviews in American History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
Words:2089
Previous Article:The Search for Order.
Next Article:The Spanish Frontier in North America.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters