The New World: It's More Complicated Than 'Pocahontas'
New World for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early AmericaSkip to next paragraph
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By Colin G. Calloway
The Johns Hopkins University Press
216 pp., $24.95
The scholarly treatment of native Americans has gone through distinctive cycles. Before the middle of this century, historians focused more on the Anglo-Europeans who settled in North America than the Indians they displaced. Native Americans were either ignored altogether or dismissed as "godless" obstacles to progress fit only for removal.
During the 1960s, the idealism spawned by the civil rights movement led many among a new generation of historians to adopt a different point of view. To these scholars, the native Americans were tragic victims of exploitative capitalism and white racism. They portrayed the European colonization of America as placing two different cultures in mortal conflict.
More recently, scholars known as ethno-historians have combined the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and history to produce a more sophisticated - and less ideological - understanding of human interaction during the Colonial period.
In the process, they have dismantled many prevailing stereotypes about the Indians. Ethno-historians have demonstrated that the cultural encounters during the Colonial period involved a complex exchange of folkways and social practices that transformed both Indians and Europeans.
In "New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America," Colin Calloway, a professor of history at Dartmouth College, weaves together his own extensive research with the findings of many other ethno-historians to produce an engaging synthesis of the cultural encounters and exchanges during the Colonial and Revolutionary eras.
His impressionistic essays on an array of fascinating topics reveal the considerable influences that Indians and Anglo-Europeans exerted on one another during their 300 years of contact before 1800. The result is a more nuanced appreciation for the complexity of cultural relationships in Colonial America.
The mixing and mingling of peoples produced a unique multiethnic society.
Calloway employs lucid prose and captivating examples to remind us that neither Indians nor Colonists were a monolithic group. There were hundreds of tribes and thousands of different societies in North America. They spoke different languages, practiced different customs and economies, and often fought with one another over land and hunting rights. The European settlers were equally diverse. They came from many different countries, regions, and social classes, and they brought with them quite different motives.
Yet for all of their diversity and prejudices, the peoples of the Old and New Worlds were in daily contact throughout the Colonial era and exercised a profound effect on one another. The Indians, in other words, were not simply passive victims. They were active agents of change themselves.
The "European penetration of America," Calloway observes, "could not have been what it was without Indian participation in the process."
Indians coped with the newcomers in a variety of different ways. Some resisted, others sought accommodation, and still others grew entwined within white culture. Indians survived and even flourished in concert with European settlements over long periods of time and with varying degrees of advantage.
In other areas, land-hungry whites displaced or decimated the native populations. The interactions involved misunderstandings, the mutual need for trade and adaptation, and sporadic outbursts of epidemics and warfare.
Calloway highlights the ecological exchange that occurred as the result of Anglo-European settlement. The Colonists brought with them swarms of other invaders - plants, animals, birds, insects - that transformed the American environment.
Honeybees, blackflies, cockroaches, rats, cattle, pigs, and horses made their first appearance in the New World and quickly multiplied. At the same time, Europeans encountered animals they had never seen before: bison, beaver, moose, raccoon, muskrat, cougars, and alligators.
Indians shared strange new foods with the Europeans - potatoes, corn, tomatoes, squash, beans, pumpkins - that enriched the diets of the settlers and helped extend their lives. The Indians discovered new meats: chicken, pork, and beef, brought over from Europe.
"New World for All" punctures many enduring myths. Unlike movies that depict Indians and white settlers constantly at war with one another, Calloway demonstrates that the two societies developed more complex relationships.
To be sure, there were mutual suspicions, fears, and violent clashes. Tribes disappeared, others were displaced, and new ones emerged amid the chaos. But many Indians and Anglo-Europeans lived, worked, ate, traded, traveled, worshiped, and intermarried, together.
The borders between Indian and colonial cultures were thus permeable rather than rigid. Some Indians and some Europeans crossed over and became members of the others' society. Thousands of Indians were converted to Christianity, and many white traders lived in Indian villages and married Indian women.
Such interaction, Calloway concludes, created a series of new hybrid cultures, different from what had existed in both North America and in Europe. He surveys this complex story with imagination and insight, and provides an essential starting point for all those interested in the interaction of Europeans and Indians in early American life.
* Historian David R. Shi is president of Furman University in Greenville, S.C., and the author of "America: A Narrative History" (1997).