One Vast Winter Count

“History is the continuance of the biological evolution of homo sapiens by other means.” So says Eric Hobsbawm in a cogent essay appearing in today’s UK Guardian.
I have been enjoying some long books lately, and just finished another impressive opus, One Vast Winter Count by Colin Galloway (Univ. of Nebraska Press), the first volume of a new History of the American West Series. This book covers the “native american west before Lewis and Clark,” and as you might imagine, it’s really broad and sprawling.
Essentially this book recasts the history of North America in terms of Indian agency, through the prism of specific nations and regions and their own development over hundreds of years.

Galloway is a supple writer, his prose never tires, and though there is a preponderance of detail about hundreds of civilizations, “tribes” and cultures, he manages to keep a certain regional focus present. This helped me read the book through the narratives of New Mexico and the northern edge of the Spanish empire, the Great Lakes and the battles between Iroquois and Huron (actually most of the familiar Indian names are weird bastardizations of European labels, and Galloway provides the “real” self-referential names for dozens and dozens of groups), the movement of the French inland across the lakes, the British through their allies in the Iroquois confederation. But his story is not about the Europeans, it’s about the numerous Indian tribes and their choices with respect to contact, trade, technology, war, agriculture, settlement, land ownership, and more.

Galloway provides a sweeping account of what’s known about cultures and civilizations that disappeared long before European contact, with a careful look at what anthopologists and archeologists have learned over the past generation or two of new work. He tracks the spread of corn from Mesoamerica to the furthest reaches of cultivability at the far corners of North America in the period 500-1000 AD, explaining how the slow domestication of plant life led to the even slower development of sedentary communities dependent on food crops.

The largest “city” in North America before the rise of New York and Philadelphia in the 18th century was the planned town of Cahokia, near present-day St. Louis. A global warming trend between 900-1200 led to a boom in corn cultivation and population in this Mississippian culture, which concentrated some hundreds of villages in its environs, surrounding a “downtown” of over 5 square miles. Temples, plazas and mounds filled this area, paralleling the enormous constructions we are more familiar with in Egypt and Mexico. One temple covered 16 acres at its base, had four terraces and stood over 100 feet high, containing 22 million cubic feet of earth… the largest ancient earthwork in North America. For 300 years it was the center of a vast interregional exchange network. Items were exchanged with communities as far north as Red Wing and Lake Pepin in Minnesota, Aztalan in Wisconsin, and Iowa and the junction of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. “Shells from the Atlantic, copper from Lake Superior, obsidian from the Rocky Mountains, and mica from the southern Appalachians all made their way to Cahokia.”

The Caddo chiefdom at Spiro, lay at the western edge of the Mississippian world, on the Arkansas River between the Ozark highlands and the Ouachita Mountains. At its peak it may have had 200,000 inhabitants spread over a wider region, engaging in trade over great distances as did the Cahokian culture.

Galloway describes in inspiring detail the rise and fall of these cultures, and then brings us to the 1500s, when Spanish wanderers began to appear, like Cabeza de Vaca, or the Coronado expedition. It would be another 100+ years before regular contact becomes routine, but the cultures that came in contact with the strangers from afar were quickly altered by the knowledge and artifacts that came with them. French traders made their way west through the Great Lakes and down the Mississippi, British settlers pushed inland from the East Coast, barely breaching the Appalachians until the mid-1700s. In the late 1600s horses spread rapidly among Indian cultures, changing forever the way they lived, made war, and related to the rhythms of their lives.

Amazing history of North America, right up to the American Revolution, recasts our understanding of the interplay between specific Indian civilizations and tribes (and their own evolution through war and migration), and the extent to which they dictated the terms of engagement with the European empires’ representatives coming to trade and gain advantage. Hundreds of years go by with countless wars, battles, migrations, conquests, changing access to weapons, horses, etc., and a steady reshuffling of the strategic deck, sometimes depending on decisions taken in far-off European capitals, but more often reflecting the changing interests and loyalties of specific North American indigenous groups vis-a-vis each other. War and slavery was more common in pre-European America than I realized, and the locations of tribes that I’ve learned over the years turn out to be much more recent than I knew (the Sioux were much feared in the 1600s when they controlled the northern areas west of the Great Lakes, but they were not pushed out onto the plains until more than a hundred years later).

Anyway, I could go on and on, but the last, amazing bit of missing history is in the very end of this great book, where Galloway describes the underreported Smallpox Pandemic of North America, 1779-1784, which wiped out huge percentages of natives in hundreds of tribes, setting the stage for Lewis and Clark to find so many broken cultures and abandoned villages as they travelled across in 1804-5.

A serendipitous connection for me was the arrival in my mailbox of the latest issue of San Bruno Mountain Watch‘s Buckeye, a more regular newsletter these days. It has a couple of pieces about Shellmounds on San Bruno Mountain, and also the lost shellmound in Emeryville under the new malls there, underscoring how much of our local native history is lost and obscured, but still very much present. In fact, I cannot recommend too highly going for a hike on San Bruno Mountain, to the far upper areas of it, or in the wild canyons relatively untouched by urbanization. You can find wild cherry trees (Islays), Wax Myrtles struggling to hold on to their canyon against the encroachment of european Gorse, and more species and stories than I can tell… they have weeding parties on the 3rd Sunday of each month, and I’ve been meaning to get out there one of these days and help out. SB Mountain is an amazing treasure of local history and ecology, and speaks loudly to the presence of a history that hasn’t been destroyed in spite of overwhelming odds..

As Galloway concludes, the very short time that U.S. culture has existed and spread across North America, just over 200 years, is probably just another temporary chapter in a many thousand-year history. The fact that the history we teach our children is so short, so disconnected from the land and the peoples that lived here for so long, is more about our cultural and historical willful ignorance than it is about the strength or survivability of “our” way of life.

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