On the Beaches

Richard White

  • Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America by Daniel Richter
    Harvard, 317 pp, £17.95, January 2002, ISBN 0 674 00638 0

When I was a child in the mid-1950s, there was an American television programme called You Are There. The pretence was that a reporter, who in my mistaken memory was always Walter Cronkite, would be on hand as a historical event unfolded. No matter what the century, the reporters were from the 1950s, with notepads or microphone in hand. ‘General Washington, General Washington,’ Mr Cronkite would call to George Washington, who was about to step into a boat to cross the Delaware and capture the Hessians, ‘do you have a moment?’ And, of course, General Washington, although understandably preoccupied, would have a moment. And unlike actual generals and politicians, he would be thoughtful, truthful, eloquent and frank. He would share with the television audience what he was doing and what he was hoping to accomplish. Then at the end of each show a narrator would say: ‘What kind of a day was it? A day like all days, filled with the events that alter and illuminate our time. Everything is as it was, except … You are there.’ I loved this stuff. As a child, I didn’t know that it was written by blacklisted writers who saw their scripts as ripostes against the McCarthyism that had so nearly undone them. These were blows for freedom and cautionary tales about the evils of persecution. It worked with me.

I confess this to establish that part of me wants Daniel Richter to succeed when his Walter Cronkite surrogate rides along with the 16th-century Spanish commander de Soto in an early chapter of Facing East from Indian Country. Richter enlists Cronkite (in this case travelling incognito) because he faces a big problem with the premise that governs his book: that there were views from Indian Country of eastern North America which can be recovered by modern historians. Historians can, of course, construct a history of Indian/European colonial encounters, but the sources are overwhelmingly one-sided. There are European sources galore, and increasingly sophisticated archaeological reconstructions of American Indian material life, but few purely Indian sources. Although he is careful in stating it, Richter wants somehow to move beyond the sources that have survived. As he writes of an imagined 17th-century Wampanoag woman watching the Pilgrims land in Massachusetts, he wants to ‘try to look over her shoulder – to appreciate the conditions in which she lived, to reconstruct something of the way in which her people might have understood the world . . . to capture something of how the past might have looked if we could observe from Indian country’.

But what does looking over her shoulder involve when we have no report from her or any of her companions? For starters, it involves a Walter Cronkite surrogate. The time is ‘Sunday, 25 May 1539’. The place is Tampa Bay on the Gulf of Florida. In my mind, I can hear the narrator: ‘What kind of a day was it? A day like all days . . .’ ‘We barely see,’ Richter writes, ‘the sails of nine Spanish ships anchored three miles or so off the coast.’ And then ‘we’ follow de Soto. But Richter is afraid to go where Walter has gone before: Richter only observes. He doesn’t interject himself into the action. He tells us that ‘we are not sure if this is the first time these particular Florida natives have encountered horses.’ Walter would have asked about the horses. He would have stepped in as a Timucuan was about to spear a Spanish horse, and said: ‘Excuse me, sir, excuse me, sir, but is this your first experience with this animal?’ The Timucuan would have answered; the mystery would be cleared up. Richter doesn’t ask because Richter is a historian, and his historian’s heart really isn’t in the charade. He isn’t looking over Indian shoulders. ‘We’ are marching along with de Soto and know largely what the Spanish tell us. The Timucuans are silent. Having established the ‘You Are There’ moment, Richter drops it. The narrative proceeds in the most conventional fashion. De Soto marches; de Soto does things, usually horrible things. He is murderous and cruel, a real evildoer as my President would say. Indians respond, but their actions and motives come to us only through the Spanish.

The conceit of Facing East from Indian Country that we are looking west to east, at what Francis Jennings entitled The Invasion of America, is the weakest part of what is in many ways a very good book. Stripped of its pretences, this is much less an account of how Indians would have viewed the colonial experience than a synthesis of thirty years of new scholarship on relations between Europeans, their colonial descendants and Indians.

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