- Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America
In a sweeping narrative transporting readers geographically from the Mississippi to the Atlantic, Daniel Richter asks a deceptively simple question: how would early American history look if we inverted the traditional westward perspective of colonialism to look instead over the shoulders of Native Americans facing eastward as the first Europeans arrived? Such a shift in viewpoint, Richter argues, would make the dispersal of Indian groups from the Mississippian complex of Cahokia central to American history and the sudden appearance of the English in Plymouth peripheral. Richter’s goal is not to offer an exhaustive survey of Native American history, but to “turn familiar tales inside out, to show how old documents might be read in fresh ways…and to outline stories of North America during the period of European colonization rather than of the European colonization of North America” (9). Using the wide variety of sources required of any good ethnohistory, Richter’s book succeeds in retelling the history of America through the Revolution, challenging the meta-narrative of Manifest Destiny that subtly underlies much of American historiography. Implicit in Richter’s thesis is a critique of the notion of inevitability in the history of European-Indian relations in early America. The well-known tale of the devastation and destruction of Native American cultures was not a pre-ordained outcome given the introduction of European diseases, material goods, and imperial government, Richter suggests. Instead, examining the history from an Indian perspective reveals the missed opportunities for cultural accommodation that might have resulted in an entirely different America.
Richter offers his analysis in six chapters that include broad generalizations and more specific case studies, following a rough chronology from the contact period through the American Revolution. The first chapter examines the period when the residents of “Indian country” became aware of the European visitors. Long before actual face-to-face meetings took place, “Rumors and objects, not men and arms, were the means of discovery” (11). Richter uses Hernando de Soto’s arrival in 1539 and Jacques Cartier’s journey of 1534 to imagine what Native Americans might have thought about the newcomers. In Richter’s telling of the story, the Europeans inserted themselves into an Indian narrative of profound cultural change that had begun at least a hundred years earlier. While the presence of Europeans may have accelerated the collapse of great chiefdoms in the Mississippi Valley and the coalescence of isolated groups into larger polities in the Northeast, these trends predate the contact period and serve as an important reminder that American history was not entirely European-driven.
Chapter Two focuses on the material forces that began to alter the Indian world in the seventeenth century, particularly intercultural trade, environmental change, and disease. Richter certainly is not the first historian to identify these agents of change—James Axtell, William Cronon, Karen Kupperman, and Richard White among many others have cited the same evidence of transformation—but his focus on the Indian perspective allows a slightly different interpretation of the events. Without downplaying the horrific impact of disease or the consequences of the rapid adoption of European goods, Richter demonstrates that even in the face of these great challenges, Native Americans refused to give up their way of life entirely. Resilience made the Indians active participants in the history of America as they tried to rebuild their communities in the face of massive change.
In the third chapter, Richter turns to case studies of three individuals, Pocahontas, Kateri Tekakwitha, and King Philip (Metacom), whose stories are well known to many Americans, yet when retold from the Indian perspective suddenly take on new meaning. The popular mythology of Pocahontas suggests that her main purpose in life was to save the struggling Jamestown colony, thus paving the way for the future United States. But for Richter, an Indian perspective on the same story would be that of a “road not taken,” a missed opportunity for genuine intercultural cooperation. (77). The English colonists misunderstood Pocahontas’s diplomatic role...