Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Guidelines for the historical study of Native Americans - it's so complex!

Exam question: Describe the material conditions of 13th century Plains Indians.

Answer: It's a trick question.  There were no Plains Indians in the 13th century:

The dry period that had begun in the thirteenth century had plunged the plains' vast bison herds into a sharp decline, discouraging the Shoshones from entering.  In fact, the decrease in animal populations was so drastic that most plains people had sought refuge from the bordering regions, using th grasslands only for seasonal hunts. (The Comanche Empire, 21-2)

This startling fact is not Pekka Hämäläinen's own, but is borrowed from the work of archeologists and anthropologists and such.  See David A. Baerreis and Reid A. Bryson, "Historical Climatology of the Southern Plains: A Preliminary Survey," Oklahoma Anthropological Bulletin, March 1963.  Note carefully, 1963!  Note also that this coincides with the Medieval Warm Period.  Note also (also) that it lines up with the collapse of Cahokia, which was not on the Great Plains at all. 

I'm developing some personal guidelines for the study of Native Americans.  Please add more, or tell me I don't know what I'm talking about (since I don't).  Maybe they're all obvious.

1. Categories are necessary, but any statement beginning "Native Americans were" or "Native Americans did (not)" is likely to be wrong. Be specific.

2. Expect nothing to stay the same, large or small.  Civilizations rise and fall.  Climate changes.  Cultures intermingle and split.  Fish and fowl were taboo foods for the Comanches, until the catastrophic drought of the 1850s, when the starving Comanches "routinely ate both" (302). 

3. Native Americans were human (I just violated Guideline #1).  Some were innovative and adaptive, others were stubborn and hidebound.  They made use of their physical environment to increase their material comfort.  The Comanches deliberately turned western Texas into an enormous grazing land for their horse herds, driving out the buffalo, on which they traditionally subsisted.  Timothy Pauketat, who wrote the short book on Cahokia that I recently read, is withering in this subject.  An older generation of researchers told him that Cahokia could not have been a city, because Native Americans did not build cities.  It could not have been ruled by a imperial religious elite, whose power was partly based on mass human sacrifices. 

At the peak of Comanche power, during the 1830s, about one-sixth (very roughly) of the population of Comanche territory were slaves (see pp. 250-1). About one-sixth of the population of the United States at that time were slaves. Comanches were human.

These guidelines of course applies to the study of anything.   I always know something is going to be wrong when a sentence begins "In Europe during the Middle Ages..."  Whatever follows may very well be true for England or parts of France, but rarely has much applicability to medieval Poland or Greece or Iceland.

Scholars continually divide and recombine. The historical study of Native Americans seems to be in an aggressively divisive stage.  It's intensely interesting.


  1. Your Native American cycle of late has spurred me on to buy and borrow a couple of related books on the (vast, complex) topic, Amateur Reader. Thanks for leading by example. Cheers!

  2. Richard - hey, good. I look forward to reading about them. This is likely to be a continuing theme here, although I doubt every book will be as surprising as The Comanche Empire.

  3. I like your guidelines. I've always found traditional Native American history -- Native American history as it was usually written in the Twentieth Century, I guess I should say -- pretty stultifying, exactly for the temporal and cultural vagueness of it all.

  4. I had the same impression. Something about the way the subject was taught, I suspect.