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Book Reviews

The Mythological Native American
Book Review by Peter J. La Grasse

Cannibalism, Headhunting and Human Sacrifice in North America, A History Forgotten
(A Vivid account of the barbaric practices of both Native Americans and European explorers and colonists)
By George Franklin Feldman
(Alan B. Hood & Co., Inc., Chambersburg, PA 2008)
The Ecological Indian
(Myth and History)
By Shepard Krech III
(W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1999)

George Feldman’s book is a serious historical study of the history of numerous tribes of American Indians throughout the United States from 100 BC to Custer’s defeat at Little Big Horn in 1876 and Apache Geronimo’s surrender in 1886. This book does not attempt to be an exhaustive history of all these tribes or nations, as to their specific land occupancy at one time or another, or necessarily their migration, or specific military actions, but instead snapshots of specific incidents. These snapshots are developed in detail to show the practices of genocide, human sacrifice, decapitation and corpse mutilation and cannibalism as practiced by Indian against Indian, American against Indian and visa versa, and finally the U.S. Army against the Indian.

Feldman’s documentation of unspeakable atrocities, often presented verbatim from contemporary sources, diminishes to zero any doubt as to the truth of his assertions. The Native American Warrior, 1500-1890, by Chris Mc Nab (St. Martins Press, N.Y. 2010) further analyzes battle tactics of the American Indian. While Mc Nab concedes that the Indian was brutal in battle, and killed all including women and children, he cautions that some contemporary reports were distorted to fuel animosity against the Indians. Feldman fully develops his case and evaluates sources to avoid sensational distortions. He establishes the fact that brutal warfare was a well-engrained cultural trait from the earliest times in America:

“Long before the white European knew a North American continent existed, Indians of the Northern Plains were massacring entire villages,... at least five hundred men, women and children were killed—and not just killed, but mutilated. Hands and feet were cut off, each body’s head was scalped, the remains were left scattered around the village, which was burned... Other excavations...also indicate that warfare in the plains was a way of life in the pre-history era of Middle America.” (p. xv)

The reader is tormented with a subject too horrific to deal with, and asks to what end is this aired? Does it help us to understand contemporary Native America activism, or the world at large, to be familiar with atrocities known to have occurred in North America long before the era of European settlers to this country? The answer is yes, this study adds a perspective. As Feldman states:

“Readers may not be surprised at the cruelty of the Puritans, not of the scalp hunters, but they may be surprised and outraged to discover that early American Indians were not quite the Indians depicted in Disney movies. The prehistoric Native American was no different than early warring people everywhere. He fought and killed without mercy, took heads from his enemies, and proudly displayed them, ate the young children of his enemies as he fled, captured young maidens and sacrificed them, stripping the flesh from tortured captives for feasts, and threw babies into sacrificial fires to mollify his gods. Of course, no single tribe was responsible for all of these cruelties, yet they happened regularly.” “For me, discovering the underside of our history has banished the mythic and fictive illusions portrayed by guilt-ridden idealists and erased the compulsion to go easy on my subjects simply because there have been no people in recorded history so badly treated by invaders” (p. xx-xxi)

Feldman has documented the practices of Indians, pre- and post-Columbian influence, and the Indian is far from the innocent or noble character that they are often portrayed as. While not part of Feldman’s thesis, and not to down play the injustice dealt out by the European settlers, it is fitting to also comment about the environmental character of the Indian because environmentalists have idealized the Indian as the model of environmental consciousness, and yearn for a romanticized pre-Columbian America.

For an ecological orientation of the Indian, The Ecological Indian, by Shepard Krech III, (W.W. Norton & Co., N.Y. 1999) deserves attention. It is equal to Feldman’s text in describing the Indian assault on the land and the wildlife.
While the Indian impact on the environment is a complex subject, lacking the personal observations of European observers in the pre-Columbian period, reasonable conclusions can be made:

“As in Europe, prior to” [the industrial revolution] “indigenous people had a lasting impact on their surroundings, especially on the local and regional levels. This does not mean they did not know their environment intimately, with knowledge and insight that a botanist, zoologist, or ecologist might envy today. It simply means that we cannot assume that they always walked lightly on the earth. We need not look far for evidence of their impact on any continent, beginning with fire, the domestication of animals, and farming...Where they were thickly settled, American Indians pressured land and resources because they placed demands on the forests for fuel, building materials, and domesticated crops. Regardless of their numbers, they resorted frequently to the widespread practice of burning.” (pp. 98-99)

In the post-Columbian period there is an abundance of environmental degradation, some of it well within the category of wanton animal cruelty.

“In 1632, somewhere off the mid-Atlantic coast, a Dutch mariner and merchant ...wrote about land ‘smelt before it is seen. An entire continent to the west lay beyond sensation except for the smell of smoke in the air. On arrival, Europeans would find thick clouds of hazy smoke enveloping the land, grasslands reduced to charred stubble, and park-like forests clear of undergrowth. Fire had clearly modified this landscape, and sometimes scarred it deeply — not lightning-caused fire... but fire ignited by Indians.’” (p. 101)

These were not small local fires, but extensive in area, and in many parts of the country, according to Krech. The fires destroyed the ground and raised havoc on wildlife, and appeared to have been either set purposefully, or caused by systematic carelessness in extinguishing campfires.

Krech goes on to show that the buffalo hunting practices of the Indian were wasteful and cruel in the extreme. The Indians simply stampeded whole herds of buffalo down cliffs, or the like, and used a pittance of what they destroyed. Much of the pressure on the buffalo was the European-American demand for fur, “yet the body of evidence suggests that Indians also wasted animals killed at communal hunting sites and used in domestic consumption only, well before the mature commercialization of the buffalo trade.” (p. 143) The combined effort of both Americans and Indians led to the near extinction of the buffalo.

The story of the white-tail deer is a story of near extinction of this species in the South by the Indians until restocking programs were instituted in the 1930s and 1940s. (p. 171)

The beaver is another example of near local and much local extinction (p. 177), again, market forces and the Indian.

“One major purpose of this book is to determine the extent to which Indians were ecologists and conservationists (as is commonly understood today). ...at the buffalo jumps, in the many uses of fire, in the commodity hunt for beaver pelts and deerskins, and in other ways many indigenous people were not conservationists. Yet their actions probably made little difference for the perpetuation of species until Europeans, with their far greater numbers, commodified skins, pelts, and other animal and plant products. (p. 213).

Today some Indians may be very active in humane and conservationist causes. Americans also. The fact is, however, Indians and Americans of the past have been far from noble in their action toward each other. To now paint a rosy picture of the noble Indian is a farce.

The research of these writers discredits the idyllic understanding of Native American history held by those who press to “restore” vast areas of the country to pre-Columbian “wildlands.”

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