Reading: Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America

I think I first saw Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen reviewed by Tyler Cowen. After reading about it a few more time, I decided to read it primarily to improve my rudimentary understanding of Native American history.

During the upheaval that was the 2016 election, I wrote here about why seeking diverse sources of information was critical to providing a rich idea environment for optimal decisions. Bad information is like a pollution of the environment of mind, but with diversity and differential survival of ideas, we have the principle of natural selection working for us to provide a model of the world that best reflects reality and thus should allow us to act most appropriately in the world. So I try to read widely in subjects that I feel I don’t have a good grasp on.

Indigenous Continent is a scholarly work. Actually a refreshing change from the current trend for books to be edited into collections of anecdotes and stories that illustrate points. Here, it means that the book is often a catalog of groups, people, events with some historical context but little biographical or psychological background presented other than in passing.

But it’s a book of grand historical sweep with a point of view firmly from that of the indigenous people of the Americas and how the arrival of Europeans occured to them. And the thesis of the book, that the continent remained largely indegenous through the mid 1800’s, until after the Civil War puts my understanding of American history into a new perspective. I knew about the death by epidemic from reading Jerad Diamonds’ Guns, Germs, and Steel when it as well as other sources. I had read about the forced relocations of eastern tribes during my travels through the US.

Two points struck me while reading the book. One was how adaptable these indigenous cultures were as their situations and locations changed. There was a strength to the culture in being cooperative societies without centralization and authority based on a nomadic cuture that could continue to function as situations changed drastically.

But then I was continuously struck by how dependent on European technology the indigenous survivors were. Guns, metal utensils, farm implements and other means of survival meant trade and reliance on the Europeans. The relationship was always so unequal that the outcome seems to have been determined from the start. Survival ended up being dependent on either capitualtion or hiding. The book ends on a positive note as our Indigenous Americans have survived and are experiencing something of a renaissance in todays multicultural America.

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