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Book Review

America, As Its Natives May Have Seen It

Facing East From Indian Country

December 18, 2001|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Native History of Early America

by Daniel Richter

Harvard University Press

$26, 320 pages

Two hundred years after the Pilgrims on the Mayflower landed at Plymouth on Dec. 22, 1620, Daniel Webster delivered a bicentennial address praising their influence on the American Revolution and what would become the United States.

"The world has seen nothing like this," Webster said. "Regions large enough to be empires, and which, half a century ago, were known only as remote and unexplored wildernesses, are now teeming with population, and prosperous.... Ere long, the sons of the Pilgrims will be on the shores of the Pacific."

Webster, writes Daniel Richter in "Facing East From Indian Country," was "more than any other figure responsible for creating the triumphantly mythic story of the nation's history that sees its beginning at Plymouth Rock." Richter, who is director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, tries to look at American history from another point of view, that of the Indians in the eastern half of America. In the jargon of academic writing, which Richter fully employs, he wants to create a historical "narrative" that differs from the standard model of steady progress across the continent.

It is a good try, but it is only partly successful. The problem, as Richter admits, is that we know very little about how the Indians saw their role in the early days of the European settlements. Having no writing, the Indians relied on oral history. What we do know of their thoughts and feelings was filtered by the Europeans, each group of whom brought their own prejudices to bear on their experiences with Indians. The New Englanders tried to convert them to Puritan Christianity; the French, in Canada, to Roman Catholicism.

Richter argues that many of the numerous Indian tribes and confederations tried to "accommodate" themselves to the new people in their midst. They tried to "incorporate Europeans into an Indian world on indigenous terms," he writes. Thus, he argues, Pocahontas' marriage to John Rolfe represented not a romantic fable from American history but a diplomatic marriage by which her father, Powhatan, hoped to solidify relations with the English at Jamestown. The relationship did not survive Pocahontas' death. Richter argues that ""there was a genuine moment when an alternative history might have been made." That it wasn't, he says, is "perhaps ... the deepest tragedy of her story."

Likewise, Richter writes that Kateri Tekawitha, the Mohawk Iroquois who converted to Catholicism and was beatified by Pope Paul II, "symbolizes one of the many ways in which Native Americans tried to come to grips with the challenges of the 17th century by incorporating people, things and ideas from Europe into a world still of their own making."

Richter says that Metacom, in Massachusetts, attacked the English because they arrogantly rejected "the system of relatively equal intercultural relations [between whites and Indians] under which he and his people had relatively prospered." Here, Richter implies that history might have been otherwise if the English hadn't been so aggressive.

Even in the 18th century, Richter argues, there was an opportunity that "the dreary, inexorable tale of European advance and Indian retreat" might have been avoided between 1720 and 1750, when the Indian and British-American histories "moved along parallel paths in a single, ever more consolidated, transatlantic imperial world." But the colonists' growing clash with England ended all that. The victorious Americans went on to subdue a continent and its people.

For all Richter's goodwill toward the Indians and his earnest effort to imagine a different "narrative," it is hard to conceive of a history much different from that which occurred. Given the energy, skills and number of the invaders, the Indians never had a chance.

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