Book Review

Colin Calloway’s book New Worlds For All (1997) is a concise summary of the ways in which Native Americans and European settlers influenced each other in the colonial period of American history. Each chapter is devoted to a particular sort of cultural interaction, such as religion, medicine, trade, and war. While Calloway describes in great detail the profound impact that Europeans had on Indians, it is clear from his introduction and conclusion that he is most concerned to emphasize that Indians changed Europeans as well. The latter’s process of Americanization was in many ways a process of ‘Indianization.’ Scholarship has tended to ignore this fact, indeed to treat Indians less as agents in their own right than as objects of European colonization. In recent decades, it is true, historians have done much to remedy their earlier neglect of Indians’ agency and subjectivity, but, arguably, they still underestimate Indians’ impact on Europeans, being more interested in how Indians coped with European imperialism. Thus, traces remain of the ‘passive Indian vs. active European’ paradigm, which Calloway wants to do away with. In general, though, his book is simply an overview of more than three centuries of intercultural adaptation. His observation in the preface is worth repeating: the Indian-European encounter was not a mere ‘moment’; it lasted longer than the history of the United States itself has, and so provides a record rich with ambiguity and cultural cross-fertilizations.

           

Examples of Indian influence on Europeans are too numerous to list, but it is worth mentioning a few. An obvious example is Europe’s introduction to new foods, such as potatoes, corn, tomatoes, squash, and beans, foods that would have tremendous economic, demographic, and even political importance in the Old World in the coming centuries. In addition to eating American foods, colonists, for instance among the Spanish, also sometimes adopted Indian clothing -- which even became an act of cultural self-assertion, a means of asserting their new ‘American’ identity vis-à-vis their European heritage. Calloway notes that the colonists in the Boston Tea Party who dressed up as Mohawk Indians were not disguising themselves; “they were proclaiming a new, American identity” (7). This new identity extended also into methods of waging war. To Indians, European warfare was a fearsome thing: it entailed mass destruction, guns, the burning of villages, slaughter of women and children, total war. But Europeans eventually found Indian tactics useful as well: guerrilla warfare, hit-and-run tactics, silent sneaking up behind an enemy, were lessons that colonists learned quickly and continued to rely on even when fighting other Europeans. George Washington used such tactics to good effect in the Revolutionary War.

           

According to some historians, the American Revolution itself might not have happened, or not when it did, had there been no Indians to help mold an independent, non-British identity among the English settlers. “Without the steady impress of Indian culture,” argues James Axtell, “the colonists would probably not have been ready for revolution in 1776, because they would not have been or felt sufficiently Americanized to stand before the world as an independent nation. The Indian presence precipitated the formation of an American identity.” Colin Calloway’s book provides a thorough substantiation of that claim.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright