Book presents Native American history in proper context
When Indian Givers was first published in 1988, author Jack Weatherford sought to place Native American history in its proper context: not as a separate category outside mainstream history, but as an essential element that has had great influence on civilization today.
“In the drama of world history, the only appropriate role for Indians seems to have been as villains, in the work of scholars who disdained them, or as victims, in the work of scholars who championed them,” Weatherford explains. “Instead, we need a history that moves beyond stereotypes to assess the importance of Indians in world history.”
Weatherford hoped his book would help do that. But in a new introduction to the 2010 edition, he laments that native cultures — their art, their history — are more segregated than ever before, with Indian art and culture relegated to separate museums and libraries.
“The brief flurry of attention to tribal and indigenous people during the late twentieth century has now passed, and public attention has moved on to other topics,” he says.
And that makes it even more important that the significant contributions made by native cultures in the Americas are recognized. That’s where Indian Givers shines. Weatherford, an anthropologist, engagingly traces the American Indian influence on the U.S. federal system of government, modern medicine, democratic institutions, agriculture and architecture.
Deep, rich detail
While many people have a superficial understanding of native influences, Weatherford goes into deep, rich detail on a host of topics — the way we govern our country today, for example. Benjamin Franklin was a lifelong champion of the League of the Iroquois political structure, and he advocated its use. Thirty years later, the Founding Fathers incorporated some of the essential features in crafting the U.S. Constitution. Charles Thomson, the secretary of the Continental Congress, spent so much time studying native governance that the Delaware Nation adopted him as a full member.
And the influence doesn’t just span the American continent. For example, Weatherford delves into the ways Locke and Rousseau were both influenced by the concepts of power and government held by the people of the Americas, before they produced their great documents of the Enlightenment.
A chapter on silver and capitalism takes readers from a minute-by-minute account of a modern Peruvian native’s day in the silver mine to a discussion of how his Incan predecessors’ vast stores of silver and gold changed the world. “At the time of the discovery of America, Europe had only about $200 million worth of gold and silver,” Weatherford writes. “By 1600, the supply of precious metals had increased approximately eightfold. The Mexican mint alone coined $2 billion worth of silver pieces of eight.”
In his discussion of American Indian agriculture, Weatherby points out that their products — zucchini, tomatoes, and green beans — were shipped around the world. Even today, people often believe tomatoes came from Italy.
Indian Givers is an important discussion, as well as a fascinating read. With an understanding of the true breadth of influence of native cultures over world civilization, American Indians can take their rightful place in history.
“My purpose, at the time I wrote the book and still today, remains to bring the native people of the Americas out of academic apartheid and back into world history,” Weatherford says.
Residents of Oregon and Siskiyou County, California, can get this book for free from The Ford Family Foundation Select Books Program.