- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

IN THE HANDS OF THE GREAT SPIRIT: THE 20,000 YEAR HISTORY OF AMERICAN INDIANS By Jake Page Free Press, $30, 464 pages, illus. Americans love the big picture, the bird’s-eye view, the world under one roof. In fact, the pressures tocondense and combine as such are as fierce in the book trade today as they are in the one-stop supermarket. Sometimes this leads, between the covers of a single volume, to a thin gruel of pallid generalization. On other, more rare occasions, it yields the virtues of good synthetic writing: broad-ranging, discerning, lucid, judicious. “In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000 Year History of American Indians” by Jake Page happily does the latter. The book’s hefty subtitle may give pause to general readers not prepared for extended time travel in Indian country. But the journey, all 400-odd pages of it, is well worth the trouble. Mr. Page, a Southwest-based scholar and novelist who has written widely on Indian history, is well suited for the project. He brings with his lively prose a propensity for good judgment, a virtue in a field often marred by ax-grinders, whether they be the politically prehistoric or the politically correct variety. The premise of “Great Spirit” won’t surprise insiders that the people we have come to know as “American Indians” are an amazingly diverse and complex group of nations and tribes. In Mr. Page’s hands, Indians are neither primitives nor victims nor New Age sages, but people who have struggled to maintain cultures and families in the face of disease, war, misguided federal policy, and, yes, even disputes with tribal neighbors and personal shortcomings. Be it the traditional or multicultural kind, Mr. Page likes to subvert the received wisdom. Most native people in North America in 1492 were small farmers, not nomads. No, the political philosophy of the Iroquois Confederation didn’t significantly influence the framers of the Constitution. Yes, there may have been mortal pathogens in the New World before Columbus (tuberculosis and syphilis), and imperial wars for hegemony weren’t simply a European invention. Mr. Page has plenty of critical ground to cover. The California Gold Rush, the Dawes Allotment Act, the Termination movement of the 1950s, all come under his lash for their catastrophic consequences, whether directed by Washington or fueled by large-scale demographics. Thankfully, he censures without resorting to the kind of shrill invective that often dominates discussions of Indian policy. Nor is the author content with easy targets. He examines controversial claims that the ancient Anasazi practiced cannibalism. He considers charges that native peoples sometimes make bad conservationists, from “Pleistocene overkill” to the historic exploitation of deer in the Virginia tidewater. He reflects on the promise and the failures of the modern gambling industry. His judgment deftly avoids a doctrinaire stamp. A huge (but unappreciated) difficulty for a writer who does a historical overview is the question of what to leave out. Major trends, from migration to settlement to allotment to tribal sovereignty, are given their due in a straightforward chronological plan. While another writer might justly have done more on energy resource development or tribal enrollment issues (and less with, say, the unfortunate Chiricahua prisoners of war), the major contours of the book are sound and defensible. Mr. Page’s research, almost all of it secondary, is solid. It’s rare to find a gaffe (though the Great Sioux Reservation is misplaced in eastern, not western, South Dakota). Then too, the current class action suit against the Interior Department over trust land royalties is mischaracterized, likely the casualty of a hurried pace in telling a big story. What makes “Great Spirit” so valuable is Mr. Page’s effort to bridge pre-and post-Columbian America. Most authors choose between archaeology and history when writing about native people, so intimidating does the combined chore seem. This tendency to choose one discipline or the other, however, has given us a fractured picture of the past. Indian history, as a result, is commonly told as a two-act drama that recounts a “rise and fall” story, moving from native “innocence” at the beginning (archaeology) to the corruption of all that followed Columbus in 1492 (history). It’s rare that we find a coherent “before” and “after” narrative in one book, as we do in “Great Spirit,” especially in a work that suggests the complexities of cultural exchange with little or no moral posturing. Even for those well schooled in the subject, “Great Spirit” has much to teach. The creative mix of tribes in the 17th-century Great Lakes region; the ambivalent Indian response to World War I, complicated by issues of citizenship and segregation; the forgotten presence of urban Indians; the promising yet skeptical project of the Indian Claims Commission, intended, so very much in the American grain, to settle ancient grievances simply by giving people their day in court. “Great Spirit” is also a handsome volume, filled with fine pen-and-ink illustrations (though sometimes cryptically labeled and placed). Not least of the virtues of a book that covers 20,000 years of history is that it can fit in a small briefcase. You’ll never get everything in one book. But if you’re looking for a lively and readable compendium in a single volume of what we know about native history, “Great Spirit” is an excellent choice. You may be able to put the book down along the way, but not, perhaps, without a sense of regret at the end. It leaves us, as all good histories do, looking squarely at ourselves in the here and now. Philip Burnham is a freelance writer in Washington. His next book, “So Far From Dixie,” will appear in September.

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