Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Colonial Habits of Mind



Alvin Josephy acknowledged the havoc wreaked on indigenous Americans by diseases, wars, and alcohol, but he said many times that the most pernicious impact on the Americans was Eurocentrism, the idea that the newcomers’ cultures and notions of religion and politics were superior to those of the people they met when they got off the boats in the Caribbean and on the North and South Atlantic new world coasts.

When you read that the populations of the Americas, which might have been over 70 million when Columbus arrived,  were reduced by 70-90 percent with the initial introduction of measles, smallpox, malaria, and other European and African diseases, that the Northeast coastline was devastated by disease before the Pilgrims landed, that 75 percent of the remaining population of Indians (smallpox had made it around the Horn in the 1700s and done its damage) in the Willamette Valley was killed off and Sauvie Island reduced to piles of bones by malaria in 1830-31, when you think about all of this, how important and “pernicious” can cultural attitudes be?

A couple of weeks ago I found Farthest Frontier: The Pacific Northwest on the used bookshelf at Mary’s bookstore in Enterprise. The author, Sidney Warren, a PhD from Columbia, had a grant from the Library of Congress and its History of American Civilization program to explore the subject. The book was published in 1949. It’s a good and generally fair-handed account of the region’s early white days, but look at how Warren steps right into the Eurocentric trap:

“The coastal natives had not advanced very far up the ladder of civilization, and those of the inland region were even more backward. They were all, of course, excellent hunters and fishermen and knew how to preserve sea food to last till the next season’s run.  They made clothes out of animal skins and the bark of trees… They constructed houses, some of them of tremendous size, some of which survived for generations, using bone or stone wedges together with an ingenious cutting tool to shape the planks. They built canoes sturdy enough to hold sixty men to travel several hundred miles in ocean waters” (my italics)

Not bad for the “less advanced.”  And Warren obviously did not see the irony in his text.

But that was 1949, you say. Surely we are past it now. Well, not exactly. Daniel Richter, a distinguished history professor and author of many books on early Euro and Indian America, takes fellow historian Bernard Bailyn, a 90 year old distinguished professor emeritus at Harvard and winner of a couple of Pulitzer Prizes, to task for Eurocentrism in his new book on Euro-America’s beginnings. The book is titled The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600–1675. And there you have it.

Richter does praise Bailyn for his attention to detail, for accurately portraying the brutality and contentiousness of the times, and even for acknowledging an aboriginal presence on the Europeans’ arrival. But he takes him to task for minimizing that presence, and points to the title. “Our word choices continue to trap all of us in old colonial habits of mind,” he says.

Continue to trap the eminent historians of the day—and I admit from personal experience, most of the rest of us as well.

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