Since my last post it’s been a crazy few months, including a move and the birthdays of everyone in my house — but I FINALLY finished reading 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, and I’m all excited to talk about it! So let’s dive in! (NOTE: If you are considering reading this book and haven’t, STOP NOW. Here there be spoilers!)
What I Expected to Find…
When I chose this book for my “Imperial Geography” project, I expected that it would give me somewhat of a baseline. One of my driving questions behind this project was “What happened to the earth when European settlers colonized North America?” So I wanted to know, well, what the earth looked like BEFORE European settlers colonized North America.
Just from reading the dust jacket of 1491, I knew that there was more here when Columbus arrived than I had learned about in school (or at least, more than I remember). I figured I’d hear about all sorts of technologies and practices that made 15th-century North, Central, and South American contemporaries just as “advanced” or “civilized” (if not more) than their European contemporaries. And there were those things. Like:
- What we today call “the Maya” were actually a “collection of about five dozen kingdoms and city-states in a network of alliance and feuds as convoluted as those of seventeenth-century Germany” (p.24).
- The Inka empire in 1491 was the greatest on earth, the equivalent to “if a single power held sway from St. Petersburg to Cairo” (p.64).
- A large part of the reason that Indians were able to be defeated by invading Europeans was that Indian strongholds from North to South America were first visited by European disease (usually smallpox) that killed 90-95% of the population and caused political fragmentation, giving conquistadors a HUGE foothold: “Conquistadors tried to take Florida half a dozen times between 1510 and 1560 — and failed each time” (p.91-2).
One of the examples of the “advanced-ness” of some of these cultures that really stuck with me was a fairly long and detailed section on Nahuatl/Mexica philosophy and poetry. The excerpts were really beautiful and complex — a part of me wanted to make a study of it! Unfortunately, these days it’s a pretty obscure topic:
Cut short by Cortes, Mexica philosophy did not have the chance to reach as far as Greek or Chinese philosophy. But surviving testimony intimates that it was well on its way. The stacks of Nahuatl manuscripts in Mexican archives depict the tlamatinime [Nahuatl philosopher-poets] meeting to exchange ideas and gossip, as did the Vienna Circle and the French philosophes and the Taisho-period Kyoto school. … Voltaire, Locke, Rousseau, and Hobbes never had a chance to speak with these men or even know of their existence — and here, at last, we begin to appreciate the enormity of the calamity, for the disintegration of native America was a loss not just to those societies but to the human enterprise as a whole. (p.123)
To me, this passage sums up a lot of my feelings on the topic of Native peoples — they were (and ARE!) an integral part of our human family. Sadly much of their ancient culture was destroyed and lost, but thankfully some of it — and some of them! — live on, and we can all benefit from their unique perspective. As the late Richard Twiss often said, Native Christians have something without which the rest of the church is incomplete. We need each other. So I’m sad not only that so many human/Indian lives were lost to European invasion, but that still today the rest of us have yet to fully embrace and learn from our Native sisters and brothers.
What I Didn’t Expect…
Before we got into any talk of different civilizations or people groups, the author nailed us with a “check your privilege” stereotype-buster. Mann leads off by explaining what he calls “Holmberg’s Mistake,” which is, in short, the mistaken assumption that all Indians and Indian cultures are by nature simplistic and naive. This assumption leads to the two sides of the stereotype coin, the “savage brute” — the Indian who is hopelessly degenerate — and the “noble savage” — the Indian who is childlike, innocent, and admirably at one with nature. Adherents to the “savage brute” school may think of Indians as animals; adherents to the “noble savage” school may venerate Indians as mystical, ancient elements of nature, hence the “wise old Indian” trope.
Going along with this “noble savage” stereotype about Native peoples is “what geographer William Denevan calls ‘the pristine myth’ — the belief that the Americas in 1491 were an almost untouched, even Edenic land” (p.5). Mann points out that the modern environmentalist movement has been based on this myth — think of the famous crying Indian commercial from the 70’s. But not only do these ideas of the “noble savage” and the “pristine America” turn Native peoples into something akin to endangered animals whose habitats need protection, they’re also… totally untrue! At least according to Mann and a wave of new research. (Stick with me — examples below…)
Mann’s thesis in this book — and it’s one that totally shocked me, in all honesty — is that the “pristine myth” is totally false, and that Indians from the Amazon to Alaska actually did have an impact on the land — a managerial impact. He takes the opportunity of this book to acquaint us with all sorts of new research about the peoples of the ancient Americas, and I have to say, his research and the research of the experts he interviewed is pretty compelling. According to this book:
- Indian farmers in Central America were such masterful farmers that they developed maize — and no one has figured out how they did it yet! In fact, “one writer has estimated that Indians developed three-fifths of the crops now in cultivation, most of them in Mesoamerica” (p.177). EPIC.
- Plains Indians strategically used fire to maintain North American prairies as essentially a giant game park, while they gathered food and farmed elsewhere, away from the big game. Mann argues that “carrying their flints and torches, Native Americans were living in balance with Nature — but they had their thumbs on the scale. Shaped for their comfort and convenience, the American landscape had come to fit their lives like comfortable clothing” (p.252). MIND. TOTALLY. BLOWN.
- Amazonian Indians practiced a complex form of agro-forestry and much of the rainforest is actually “managed forests”. In some places that are known to have been inhabited by early Amazonians, “almost half of the ecologically important species are those used by humans for food” (p.304-5), compared to 20% for non-managed forests. In addition, ancient Amazonian Indians had a particular way of enriching the thin tropical soil so much that even today farms are built on “terra preta” left over from their cultivation — and scientists today are still stumped as to how they made it. WHAAAAAT.
Seriously, there were so many mind-blowing revelations in this book that I still feel like I’m reeling, even though I finished reading like a week ago.
Honestly, when I first encountered Mann’s thesis — and even when I got to the part about the prairie being a product of Indian fire management — I was skeptical. I resisted. “But,” I said, “How can I respect Native environmental activists’ authority and self-stated cultural connection with the land if they’ve been CHANGING it this whole time???” I reacted really strongly and had a lot of push-back. I started to get nervous to read the Winona LaDuke book I’ve got on my list down the road… How could the indigenous inhabitants of this land have authority if they controlled the land just like we do today?
At the end of 1491, Mann has this to say: “Native Americans ran the continent as they saw fit. Modern nations must do the same. If they want to return as much of the landscape as possible to its state in 1491, they will have to create the world’s largest gardens” (p.326).
My push-back was about wanting to hang onto the nice, wise, “noble savage” image that I’d inadvertently embraced. I wanted Indians to be the moral guides, the ones who somehow stay clean and untouched by modern environmental sins. It’s easier that way — Westerners are the bad guys; Indians are the good guys; bada-bing, bada-boom. But you know what? They’re people too! In fact, they’re a LOT of peoples. Some of those peoples (like the Maya) overextended — they tried to live beyond what their land could sustain and it set the stage for political upheaval that probably led to their demise. Some peoples cut down trees to create farms. Some of them maintained forests but encouraged food-bearing trees to grow in greater abundance than the other trees. All of them ate food (plants and animals) and left traces of their existence and affected the land they lived on. The point is that everyone tried to interact with their land in a way that meant survival, and the ones that were most successful for the longest time, it seems, were the ones who also did it with respect, and with a thought to the sustainability of their relationship with their “large gardens”.
There’s a concept that I’ve heard from multiple Lakota friends I’ve talked to — though I believe it originates with the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) — called the “seventh generation.” Basically the idea is that all decisions should be made thinking about the impact of those decisions seven generations from now. To me, this concept sums up how many Indian cultures think about humanity’s relationship with the land. Is it wrong to live in a way that leaves traces on the land? Certainly not! To the contrary, all relationships leave marks on all the participants. However, I think it’s quite possible — even advisable — for humans to relate to and manage the land in a good way that leads to good outcomes for both the land and our descendants in seven generations.
Native peoples still have an authoritative voice as stewards of this land for thousands and thousands of years. They can make mistakes — they’re not perfect either, and they’re not required to be animalistic nature-sprites — they’re human, like the rest of us. But to me, that makes the goal of balance and cooperation with the rest of nature seem all the more attainable and worth pursuing. You don’t have to be a “noble savage” to be an environmentalist — you just have to want your children for the next seven generations to have food to eat and a beautiful place to live. And while the rest of us immigrants have come to live here through violence, we still can share in the responsibility of, as Charles Mann says, “creating the world’s largest gardens” for our children.