Indian Givers How Native Americans Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford Book Review

Excerpt from Book Review :

Weatherford Indian Givers

Brief summary of the book: What date was it published? What is the main subject? What time frame does the book cover?

Jack Weatherford's 1988 book Indian Givers: How Native Americans Transformed the World, described the many contributions that the Native peoples of the Americas have made to world civilization from the 16th Century to the present, which have generally been ignored by mainstream academics and the general public.

Who is the author? What is his/her background?

Weatherford received his B.A. In political science (1967) and M.S. In sociology (1972) from the University of South Carolina, and his Ph.D. In anthropology from the University of California, San Diego. He has taught cultural anthropology at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota since 1983, specializing in tribal cultures and the influence of the Native Americans on world history. His other publications include Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2004), Savages and Civilization: Who Will Survive? (1994) and Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America (1991).

3. What is the author's thesis, main point? The thesis is expressed in a sentence or two, usually in the first paragraphs of the book's introduction.

The main point in Indian Givers was to integrate "the Native peoples of North and South America into the mainstream of world history" (Weatherford, 1988/2010, p. vii). At the time it was first published, there seemed to be a Renaissance in American Indian history and culture, with books like Dee Brown's Bury my Heart at Wounded Knee and films like The Mission and Dances with Wolves. In 1922, Rigoberta Menchu was the first Native American to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, while 1993 was the United Nation's Year of Indigenous People. This brief period of attention did not continue, however, and American Indian history, literature and culture have remained segregated in academic ghettos.

4. What are the major questions that the author's poses and addresses? What questions does the book stimulate in you as you read it?

Native Americans influenced the rest of the world in a wide variety of ways, such as food, medicine, money, government and politics, but have received little notice or credit for their accomplishments and contributions. Gold and silver from Latin America, mined by Indian slaves, made Spain the wealthiest empire in the world in the 16th and 17th Centuries and financed the Catholic Church and the religious wars against the Protestant Reformation, but the indigenous peoples of the Americas never benefitted from this wealth and any time in the past 500 years. Spanish conquerors and colonizers from Christopher Columbus onward extracted this wealth for their own benefit and those of the ruling elites, and nearly exterminated the Natives in the process. This is well-known, at least to historians and academics, as is the fact the Europeans also obtained food and medicinal products from the Americas, including squash, potatoes, tomatoes, quinine and digitalis. They also have a long tradition of resistance and wars of liberation that has continued to the present, from North America to Mexico and Central America to Peru. The main question I always have after reading accounts like these is how little appreciated these people were, how their treatment was a crime against humanity, along with amazement that they have been able even to survive -- if not exactly prosper.

5. Choose one question to address at length.

It has always struck me that negative or inaccurate portrayals of Native Americans have continued in the mass media and popular culture up to the present, even though our era is supposedly more 'sensitive' and aware of these issues. I really do not believe that is the case, and could point to some truly atrocious films that were made in 1992 on the 500th Anniversary of the 'discovery' of America by Christopher Columbus. In reality, it was the beginning of invasion and conquest for the Native peoples of the Americas, often ending in enslavement and genocide -- or confinement to the instant ghettos of the reservation system. Famous historians like Samuel Elliot Morison lionized Columbus and made him a great hero, while minimizing or glossing over his crimes. Within fifty years of his arrival on Santo Domingo the Indian population was effectively reduced to zero.

Columbus: The Discovery (1992) was a box office failure, mocked and lampooned by the critics as being an unintended comedy and the producer Alexander Salkind was sued for fraud, racketeering and breach of contract. Marlin Brando, the film's only real star, also threatened to sue and remove his name from the project because he objected to the way the Carib and Arawak Indians were portrayed. Few people saw the movie at the time and it is deservedly forgotten today. Almost nothing about the movie or its portrayal of Christopher Columbus is historically accurate, except perhaps for the appearance of the Nina, Pinta and Santa Maria. It depicts him as being a typical romantic hero and swashbuckler of the Hollywood type, who was also romantically involved with Queen Isabella, while the real Columbus was manipulative, deceptive, extremely greedy and ambitious, and a harsh colonial ruler guilty of slave labor, genocide and other atrocities. His main concern in later years was collecting the full 10% of the profits that he had been promised, although despite his protests of poverty he died a wealthy man.

Even in small matters, the historical Columbus had a way of demonstrating his true character, which was quite different from that portrayed in this film or in popular culture in general. In the movie, Columbus did offer a bounty to the first sailor who sighted land, but in reality when he returned to Spain he claimed it for himself. Indeed, he wrote an entire book asserting that he was not adequately rewarded for his conquests and never his full 10% of the profits as originally promised (Morison 1974). As the historical record shows, the real Columbus was very much a modern man in the sense that he was eager to advance himself and extremely egotistical and ruthless in the pursuit of wealth. His own logbook and diary show a man obsessed with finding gold, using the raw materials of the New World for plunder and profit, and exploiting the native peoples as slaves (Columbus 1992, p. 37).

As for Haiti and the Dominican Republic, they were almost certainly better off in 1492 compared to what they have become today, after centuries of colonialism, slavery and authoritarian rule. None of this is shown in the movie in any way that even comes close to being historically accurate. Certainly the indigenous peoples would have been since most of them were dead from disease, slave labor and outright extermination fifty years after Columbus arrived. No Hollywood film has ever portrayed the kind of atrocities and mass killings that were carried out on these islands, or the epidemics that wiped out millions of natives. Columbus was the first European governor of the New World, and turned out to be an extremely harsh and repressive one, forcing the Indians into slave labor and cutting off arms and legs if they did not pay their gold quotas four times a year. He led expeditions into the interior to round up slaves to ship back to Europe, burned down villages and fields and massacred the inhabitants. In other words, the real Columbus was a mass murderer determined to wring as much profit as possible out of his colonies, of which 10% went to him (Morison 1974). Santo Domingo was a nightmare under his rule, rather than a paradise, and the degree of his greed, brutality and misrule shocked even Isabella, who finally removed him from office and summoned him back to Spain. As a resident of the Canary Islands, where most of the native peoples had also been exterminated to make room for sugar plantations and African slave labor, Columbus did have a model for how colonies should be governed, and he was the first to inflict it on the inhabitants of the Americas (Morison 2007). Rather than being the romantic hero and adventurer as he is depicted in this film any others like it, however, by present-day standards he should be condemned for committing crimes against humanity.

Apart from the basic facts then that Columbus did take three small ships to the New World in 1492, the entire film Columbus: The Discovery (1992) is myth, fantasy and pseudo-history, both for the way it depicts characters and events and the information it leaves out. Even by Hollywood's standards, it is bogus to an extreme extent and certainly deserves to be forgotten. No Hollywood film or popular text has ever portrayed Columbus as he really was, and even major historians like Samuel Morison have tended to gloss over the crimes and atrocities he committed against the indigenous peoples when he was governor of Santo Domingo, although all historians are well aware of them. Columbus was certainly persistent in seeking financing for his voyage to the west, and will to be…

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