I recently read Charles C. Mann’s 1491 and it’s no exaggeration to say I was profoundly impacted by it. First published in 2005 and subtitled New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the book was truly revelatory for me. Attempting to gather all the current knowledge about pre-Columbian life in the Americas into one accessible but thoroughly researched volume, Mann has created a work that reads like a novel but carries the perspective-altering power of Jared Diamond’s similarly weighty tome Guns, Germs and Steel.
Mann’s stated goal with the book, other than the obvious one of painting a portrait as accurate as possible of what life was like before European contact, is to redress the annihilation of Indian history. Even those sensitive to the rights of indigenous people, he argues, tend to neglect their contributions to history. The fallacy of the “noble savage” endures to this day in the widespread belief among well-meaning liberals (especially environmentalists) that Indians were “one with nature,” living in a primeval wilderness, free of the constraints of society, in a timeless time. While it’s true that their societies were a good deal more egalitarian than European ones at the time of contact, this naïve view actually damages our ability to consider the Indians as agents of their own destinies, with civilizations, philosophies and technology that were in many cases on par with or more advanced than European ones at the time. More importantly, most historians now believe the Americas were much more populated than previously believed. There may have been as many people in Mesoamerica alone as in all of Europe in 1491. The “Aztec” capital of Tenochtitlan was, when Cortés arrived there in 1519, bigger than Paris – and much cleaner too, considering it had a functioning sewage system and Paris did not. The Inka empire that stretched for thousands of miles along the Andes Mountains of South America was the largest on earth at the time.
Much of the book is concerned with demonstrating the ways Indians tended the land and shaped their own environments, something the one-with-nature idea doesn’t give them credit for. There are fascinating indications that much of the North American “wilderness” was one gigantic public works project – something like a national park, except it covered the entire continent – carefully cultivated and maintained with controlled burning, so that Indians could farm and hunt according to their needs. (Incredibly the same might be true of the Amazon rainforest.) The reason the continent seemed empty when Europeans began to push westward – a perception that led to the myth of Manifest Destiny – is that most of the native inhabitants, up to 90% of the population, had been wiped out in a series of apocalyptic plagues of measles, smallpox and influenza – diseases that were brought over from Europe and spread like wildfire, killing millions of Indians that had never seen a white person. The “primitive” hunter-gatherers of the plains and the west coast that we’ve always assumed were charming relics of the stone age were actually post-plague refugees; the “primeval” wilderness (romanticized by Thoreau and others) was actually a post-plague wasteland, overgrown after years of neglect.
I’ve been wanting to talk about this book here, but not sure where to begin – there’s so much in it, so much to cover, it’s hard to type up a summary or rview without getting excited and overdoing it. But the Fourth of July seemed like a natural opportunity to share the below excerpts, which concern the crucial contributions of Indian culture to the American notions of liberty and independence. Though I’m very happily an expatriate living in Australia now, distance has given me perspective and a new appreciation of what it is to be American. Mann’s unabashedly bold hypothesis that Indians invented the modern ideal of individual freedom – which more or less forms the conclusion of his book – made me so proud and excited I wanted to punch the ceiling.
Fleeing the Nazi conquest of Europe, the writer Vladimir Nabokov took a ship to the United States in the spring of 1940. Although Nabokov was the scion of a noble Russian family, he detested the class-bound servility ubiquitous in the land of his birth. He was delighted when the lowly US customs officers on the Manhattan dock failed to cringed at his aristocratic bearing and pedigree…. Their straightforward, even brash demeanor, with its implicit assumption that everyone was on the same social level, enchanted him.
Nabokov was hardly the first emigré to be surprised by the difference between Americans and Europeans – a cultural divide that Henry James, like many others, attributed to the former’s “democratic spirit.” As has been widely noted, this spirit has consequences both positive and negative. The sense that anyone is as good as anyone else fuels entrepreneurial self-reliance, but can lead to what outsiders view as political know-nothingism. For better and worse though, this spirit is widely identified as one of America’s great gifts to the world. When rich stockbrokers in London and Paris proudly retain their working-class accents, when when audiences show up at La Scala in track suits and sneakers, when South Africans and Thais complain that the police don’t read suspects their rights as they do on Starsky & Hutch reruns, when anti-govenment protesters in Beirut sing “We Shall Overcome” in Lebanese accents – all these raspberries in the face of social and legal authority have a distinctly American tone… To be sure, apostles of freedom have arisen in many places. But an overwhelming number have been inspired by the American example – or, as it should perhaps be called, the Native American example, for among its fonts is Native American culture, especially that of the Haudenosaunee [“Iroquois,” or Five Nations].
…Compared to the despotic societies that were the norm in Europe and Asia, Haudenosaunee was a libertarian dream. [Mann cites evidence that the Haudenosaunee had one of the oldest forms of representative governments on earth, a great council that relied on consent of the governed – including powerful women clan heads – and may have influenced the US Constitution.] …As Benjamin Franklin and many others noted, Indian life was characterized by a level of personal autonomy unknown in Europe. Franklin’s ancestors may have emigrated from Europe to escape oppressive rules, but colonial societies were still vastly more coercive and class-ridden than indigenous villages. The Haudenosaunsee, colonial administrator Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, had “such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow of no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories.”
Indian insistence on personal liberty was accompanied by an equal insistence on social equality. Northeastern Indians were appalled by the European propensity to divide themselves into social classes… The Baron of Lahontan, a 17th-century French adventurer, wrote that Indians could not understand why “one man should have more than another, and that the Rich should have more respect than the Poor… They brand us for Slaves and call us miserable Souls, whose Life is not worth having, alleging that we degrade ourselves in subjecting ourselves to [a king]…”
Indians who visited [16th-century] France [wrote the essayist Montaigne], “noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”
“When an Indian Child has been brought up among us,” Franklin lamented in 1753, “taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, though ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, when there is no reclaiming them.”
In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists’ allegiance. Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members – surrounded by examples of free life – always had the option to vote with their feet. It is likely that the first British villages in North America, thousands of miles from the House of Lords, would have lost some of the brutally graded social hierarchy that characterized European life. But it is also clear that they were infused by the democratic, informal brashness of Native American culture. [Elsewhere Mann argues that the town hall meeting, that quintessential feature of New England life, was a democratic innovation borrowed from the Indians of the region.] That spirit alarmed and discomfited many Europeans, toff and peasant alike. But it is also clear that many others found it a deeply attractive vision of human possibility.
A plain reading of their texts shows that Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Thomas Paine took many of their illustrations of liberty from native examples. So did the Boston colonists who held their anti-British Tea Party dressed as “Mohawks.” When others took up European intellectuals’ books and histories, images of Indian freedom exerted an impact far removed in time and space from the 16th-century Northeast. For much the same reason as their confreres in Boston, protesters in South Korea, China and Ukraine wore “Native American” makeup in the 1980s, 1990s and the first years of this century.
So accepted now around the world is the idea of the implicit equality and liberty of all people that it is hard to grasp what a profound change in human society it represented. But it is only a little exaggeration to claim that everywhere that liberty is cherished – Britain to Bangladesh, Sweden to Soweto – people are children of the Haudenosaunee and their neighbors. Imagine – here let me now address non-Indian readers – somehow meeting a member of the Haudenosaunee from 1491. Is it too much to speculate that beneath the swirling tattoos, asymmetrically trimmed hair and bedizened robes, you would recognize someone much closer to yourself, at least in certain respects, than your own ancestors?
I love the last bit of imagery – the tattooed, freakish-looking Indian as the soulmate of the modern lover of liberty. It calls to mind punk rockers and Occupy protesters, and makes me think that indigenous styles must have influenced us over the years as much as their philosophies. Maybe we’re only now coming to grips with how deep that influence runs.