- A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England: Voices from Past and Present
A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England: Voices from Past and Present opens with a scene familiar to many Americans, both Native American and non-Native: the 1620 landing of the Mayflower in present-day Massachusetts, setting the tone for the book's focus as a cultural history. The main purpose of this book is to offer "words and perceptions and thoughts [from primary sources] so that readers can form their own judgment in light of modern experiences in American civilization" (15). O'Brien and Jennings are successful in their goal of presenting the historical culture of Native people from the southern New England area and, specifically, of enhancing readers' knowledge and understanding of the customs and language of the region's Indians. Using a combination of historical documents and modern-day tribal sources, this book provides an overview of subjects such as sleeping and lodging, family and relations, the heavens and heavenly bodies, and other topics, including wampum, marriage, religion, trade, hunting, and sickness. These topics are concisely presented in just under 150 pages. Seven appendices contribute an additional fifty-plus pages.
The authors fittingly acknowledge that "most standard academic books read like a clinical autopsy of a dead culture with big words few can understand" (i). Their book offers a refreshing alternative to such inaccessible resources on New England Native tribal peoples.
With a reliance on many of the same sources utilized in more academic books, O'Brien and Jennings follow a format similar to that in Roger Williams's [End Page 397] A Key into the Language of America (1643) and rely heavily on Williams's seventeenth-century accounts in combination with other well-known sources such as Thomas Morton, Edward Winslow, Daniel Gookin, and William Wood. These have long been viewed as reliable standards for English Colonial recordings of Native customs by twentieth-century historians and anthropologists and do provide insight into New England Indian culture in the absence of other sources, such as Native texts from this time period.
A Cultural History of the Native Peoples of Southern New England offers a contribution by scholars with Native American ancestry who are reappropriating their history by presenting their own version of a regional Native culture history. This book provides an excellent introduction to the subject of southern New England Indian culture and history at the high school or upper middle school level or for nonacademics seeking more knowledge about Indians in this region. The language and material are both very accessible for readers of all ages (thirteen- to fourteen-year-olds and above), and the inclusion of information from several Native informants separates this book from similar texts. The contributions by twentieth-century New England Indians remind readers that Indians in New England are still very present and knowledgeable about their history and culture.
This book would have been further enhanced by the inclusion of even more contemporary Native people from area tribes rather than such a heavy reliance on the perspectives of English settlers and a focus on past culture. The authors' goal to demonstrate that Native culture in the southern New England region has continued into the present could only be strengthened with additional Native voices from the contemporary period and more balanced information that makes connections between the past and present. The primary Native voice is that of Princess Red Wing (Mary Congdon), an active New England Indian leader from the 1930s through the 1980s well known for her publication Narragansett Dawn, her storytelling abilities, and her extensive public talks throughout the region on Native history and culture. An important acknowledgment for the younger scholars for whom this book is suitable is that Colonial sources are biased (which many high school students probably have not been told) yet have long been considered "the 'official' history … [of] this land" (16). Admittedly, it is difficult...