The Lost World of the Pre-Columbian Indians, Essay Example

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Essay

The Other “Dark Ages”: The Lost World of the Pre-Columbian Indians

In  “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans,”  Professor Neal Salisbury carefully and respectfully illuminates lengthy histories of Native Americans before the European settlers and explorers first arrived on American shores.   His work is extraordinary, not least due to the early acknowledgment he makes of the enormity of any such ambition; as Salisbury correctly notes, the bulk of Early American history tends to present a largely fictional picture of the initial interactions between Europeans and the Native American peoples, setting up scenarios wherein mutual curiosity and commercial interests formed natural alliances.  More importantly, these histories, only recently challenged, uniformly ignore the complex, lengthy, and vast societal epochs of the Native Americans themselves.  In this admittedly brief article, then, Salisbury seeks to more accurately offer the truth of long centuries lost to interpretation and historical bias.

The author’s own credentials are provided in the work, along with his gratitude to the scholarly institutions and individuals to whom he turned for assistance.  The list is impressive, and it seems Salisbury devoted himself only to the most unimpeachable sources in an archaeological methodology of his own, one relying on maps as well as records.  Moreover, and going to the integrity of the article, the author plainly notes that the work is by no means meant to definitively cover the issue, but more to “stimulus to debate” (Sal;Salisbury  436).  If there is bias here, it is undetectable; rather, Salisbury reserves judgments other historians might be tempted to make, and records only the trajectories his research reveals.  Evidence is his cornerstone, and what he presents is truly striking.  As the author notes, Native American history before the advent Columbus is typically perceived in a vague, nearly “fairy tale” way.  The Indians led simple and natural lives, and the conquering Europeans destroyed them (Warren  4).   In a manner that steadily takes into account geographical ranges as well as time periods, Salisbury systematically presents a very different picture.   In simple terms, even as Europe was plunged in the Dark Ages and its civilization was in a state of stagnation, the Native Americans were engaged in extensive and dimensional societies: “By the twelfth century, Cahokia probably numbered 20,000 people and contained over 120 mounds within a five-square-mile area” (Salisbury  440).  Salisbury’s research, in fact, consistently indicates large native settlements engaged in trade, and prospering only until depleted natural resources required relocation.  Moreover, as with European societies, this trade encompassed customs, religions, and the acquiring of languages.  There were conflicts as well as political wars, yet the evidence strongly promotes a nation, not of a few, scattered tribes, but of a network of evolving and unique social entities.

As informative as the article is, Salisbury’s reluctance to deviate from strict scholarship and reasonably speculate on native response to European colonization leaves the reader with a few questions.  He does refer to the less agreeable aspects of the European presence.  For example,

Spain did not venture far beyond its power base of colonial St. Augustine: “Nevertheless, their explorers and missionaries opened the way for the spread of smallpox and other epidemic diseases”  (Salisbury  449).  Then, he interestingly notes the documented evidence of just why Native Americans were willing to barter with the newcomers, in that the relatively worthless trinkets first offered by the Europeans were valued as ceremonial objects, and then discarded in favor of more useful goods (Salisbury  452).  Nonetheless, the larger question of colonial subjugation and oppression is largely left alone.

Ultimately, the reader of Salisbury’s article may safely infer one reality: an enormous amount of history has been dismissed in the canon of true “American” history, in that centuries of growth, civilization, trade, and shifting cultures have been generally categorized under the blanket terms of American Indian life.  This is an inescapable inference, if only because of the documented evidence Salisbury provides pointing to societies of great complexity.  The maps and the records are there, as are the proofs uncovered in burial sites, clearly indicating degrees of rank and status within the tribes.  In this one article, Professor Salisbury sheds light on a lengthy and complicated national history that has been allowed to be rewritten and condensed, to serve the record-keeping interests of those who became dominant in the new land.

Works Cited

Salisbury, Neal.   “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of Europeans.” The William and Mary Quarterly, 53.3 ( July, 1996):  435-458.  Web.  Retrieved 4 May,  2012, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2947200.

Warren, Louis S.  American Environmental History.  Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2003.  Print.

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