7 11 2009

So…how did people live in this part of North America, back before us Europeans overflowed our native continent and made ourselves at home on this one?  How did they survive without central heat and air, insulated buildings, or even screens to keep the flies and mosquitoes out?

Charles Hudson’s The Southeastern Indians provides definitive answers to such questions, and many more.  I spent a good portion of my reading time this summer studying this thorough, eloquent, scholarly volume, which is really at least three books in one.

It is a guide to low-impact living in this bioregion, enumerating and describing the tools and techniques used by indigenous people to live in balance with their ecosystem.

It lays out what we can reconstruct of the social relationships, political organization, and belief systems that created the matrix of everyday life.

Its closing chapters are a kind of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee for the native peoples of the Southeast, telling the awful story of how they were overwhelmed, out-gunned, marginalized, ripped off, and ultimately run off.  That’s why there are virtually no “Indian Reservations” in the Southeastern US–can you say “ethnic cleansing,” boys and girls?

The first thing we have to remember about the European invasion of North America is that the native people were decimated more by the diseases our ancestors introduced than by the depredations of our ancestors themselves.  It is estimated that 90% of the native population was wiped out by diseases that spread ahead of the newly-arrived white people, and this may have something to do with why the tribes encountered by the first European expeditions had no account of the construction of the numerous mounds that dot the southeast  and proclaim a certain cultural continuity with the more elaborate native civilizations of Mexico and Central America.  Archaeological reconstruction, recounted by Hudson, tells us more about these people than the remaining tribal people knew, but there is much we can only guess at.

The people of the southeast lived in small villages, made clothing, dwelt in well-constructed homes, and maintained public buildings and other community gathering places.  The only metal they knew was copper, which was rare and reserved for ceremonial objects.  They fired pottery, gardened, and caught fish, but their main food source was the deer, and they practiced a kind of silviculture, burning the forests regularly to encourage open spaces and new growth so the deer could flourish.

They were also extensive gardeners, and I was surprised to learn some of the crops they tended.  I had long known that squash, corn and beans were introduced from Central America, but I had no idea that, before those plants traveled up the trade routes, the natives harvested the seeds of big-leaf ragweed, knotweed, and a plant I had not even heard of, sumpweed.  They also made use of amaranth and lambs’ quarters seeds and greens, as well as sunflowers, though all these crops became secondary once “the three sisters,”, with their abundant yields, arrived.

Their “chiefs” were not active rulers in the European sense,but more like overseers of the common good or a court of last resort for questions that could not be resolved at a lower level.

They had no money, but practiced barter and  “gift economy.”  In Hudson’s words:

…person A would donate his labor or a share of his food to person B as a “gift,” without specifying any kind of return.  At some time in the future, person B would return an equivalent amount of labor or food to person A, with no haggling.

This is a truly radical meme, and its widespread reintroduction might well prove to be one of the best ways to heal our excessively monetized culture, which understands the price of everything and the value of nothing.

The main “crimes” the native people had to deal with seem to have been murder and sexual infidelity.  The latter, as in our own society, sometimes lead to the former, but there were no jails, of course.  A murderer’s life might be forfeit to the family that had lost a member, but there were other ways to atone for crime, and there was also an annual general amnesty at the time of the Green Corn Ceremony, which Hudson describes in great detail.

Stealing, within a given tribe, seems to have been pretty much unknown, which is not surprising, since communities were small and tightly knit, and there was no anonymity.  Inter-tribal raiding was quite another matter.  Whatever their virtues, the native people were not pacifists.  The difference, of course, is that for them, war was, in many ways, fun.

Much of the energy of warfare found a less lethal outlet through inter-tribal or inter-village ball games.   While the game they played was a rough, informal version of lacrosse ,the enthusiastic preoccupation of whole villages in the games and their outcome seems to be carried on in the modern-day south’s love affair with high school and college football.

The story of European intrusion into this vibrant, sustainable culture casts its sad shadow through the entire book, and fills its closing chapters.  The new settlers took unflinching, cold-hearted advantage of their superiority in organization, numbers, and firepower to systematically deprive the native people of their rights, their land and property, and even the possibility of judicial remedy. Some whites, I discovered, protested these injustices, but were unable to sway the politicians and land dealers from their determination to displace the native people.  The process was remarkably similar to the institution of segregation after the Civil War, and I see its  modern echo in
Republican attempts to disenfranchise the poor and minorities across the country today.  Alas, some things just don’t change in some peoples’ psyches.

We are so enveloped by our manufactured, monetized, alienated culture that it has become difficult to imagine a realistic alternative.  Charles Hudson’s book is a window into just such a world.  While we cannot go back to it,we can take a great deal of very practical inspiration from it as we move forward into what comes after this age of oil, imports, and plastic.

music:  Buffy St. Marie, “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone



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