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Before Columbus

ISSUE:  Spring 1928

Maya and Mexican Art. By T. A. Joyce. Illustrated. London: “The Studio”. New York: A. & C. Boni. $3.50.

The Indians of North America: From “The Jesuit Relations and Allied Documents”. Selected and edited by Edna Kenton. Illustrated with maps. 2 vols. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company. $10.00.

The Story of the American Indian. By Paul Radln. Illustrated. New York: Boni & Uveright. $5.00.

The history of the American Indians has not yet been satisfactorily written. Up to the present moment the books dealing with it fall into five general classes: monographs, more or less scientific, treating of one or another special aspect of some special group of Indians, such monographs as a rule being beyond the reach of non-specialist readers; reproductions and reprints of original materials, either directly from Indian sources, or indirectly through the works of Europeans who wrote soon after the discovery and conquest of America; books and monographs of controversial nature; a few works of general history, honestly written and carefully documented; and finally, “popular works,” designed to attract the so-called general reader and painlessly inculcate into him some small knowledge of the subject after having lightened his purse by inducing him to buy the volume.

Of the five classes, the first three are usually of interest only to the specialist. But once in a great while a work of this sort comes along that proves to be valuable and inviting to every one intelligently interested in pre-Columbian American history. Joyce’s book on Maya and Mexican art is a work of this type. It is of value to the specialist and non-specialist alike because it brings together in a single volume materials hitherto widely scattered, and because it is competently written from the point of view of the most recent discoveries and extensions of knowledge in the field of Middle American archaeology.

“The Indians of North America” is made up of reprints of certain portions of the celebrated “Jesuit Relations.” The latter, a work running to seventy-three volumes in one of the best known editions, contains a vast store of invaluable information about Indians, embodied in the reports of Jesuit missionaries charged with the specific duty of learning all they could about the “savages.” Many of these men were able scientists and observers. In the “Relations” there are two hundred and thirty-eight reports of this nature, scattered throughout the seventy-three volumes. To locate a set of the “Relations” (few libraries have it), and then to plow through the vast accumulation of miscellaneous reports in search of the ones treating of Indians is a task that only the specialist will have the courage and patience to undertake. Yet much of this material is of great interest even to the casual reader, for some of the best of the reports, from a scientific point of view, are also adventure stories crammed with stingo. Obviously, a selection made from the two hundred and thirty-eight reports, properly edited and documented, would save the specialist much time and would make accessible to the general reader some entertaining and instructive reading. “The Indians of North America” consists of sixty-eight of the reports, with summary accounts of the others not included. No two specialists familiar with the “Relations” would ever agree upon a selection, and the present reviewer, as a matter of course, wonders why this was included and that omitted. But in general, the work has been well performed. The documentation is exceptionally well done, and the indices and cross references add greatly to the usefulness of the volumes. Some of the reports are “first chop” as adventure yarns. But the title of the work is a calamity. It does not treat of the Indians of North America; it is the story of some (by no means all) of the tribes of eastern Canada and north-eastern United States. To give a book of this sort so careless and inaccurate a title is quite inexcusable.

Of books belonging to the fourth class—real histories, that is—there is lamentable dearth. There is no recent work of this sort. The great studies of the past have been rendered obsolete by recent extensions of knowledge; but no one has tried to supplement them by a serious general work, scientifically written. All that we have had lately has been journalistically conceived books written to sell as popular pabulum, and to instruct the long suffering public in the best Chautauqua style. There has not been written, for twenty-five years or so, a work of dignity and scholarship, fit to be compared in any way with the histories of the Spanish cronistas, of Brasseur de Bourbourg, of Bancroft, of Windsor, and others of their sort. Until we have such works (and they could be written, for the materials are at hand in great abundance) American archaeology and pre-Columbian history can not take their places—where they belong—among the worthiest and most dignified branches of our scholarship.

Radin’s book, “The Story of the American Indian,” is better than the average journalese, but journalese for all that. It is “important” because it happens to be the only book recently written by a student who attempts to view the Indians from Canada to Tierra del Fuego as a whole, as a people with a continuity of culture and history. It is based on the most recent discoveries and extensions of knowledge. It does give a fair idea of what the best informed investigators believe to be the true history of the Indians.

But it lacks dignity. It is loosely written. It is designedly “popular.” It contains some astounding errors of fact. It is crippled here and there by the pointless repetition of certain hoary cliches that make the specialist rave when he encounters them. In other words, even the non-specialist who reads it is sure to realize, sooner or later, that the book was put together primarily to sell and incidentally to give the poor public a fairly accurate, but denatured and sugar-coated version of the history of the Indians. From a scientific point of view, the book is almost worthless. But from a “popular” point of view, it is good enough, as such things go.

The amount of harm that is being done to serious studies in American archaeology, and pre-Columbian history by such books as this is probably very great. All who are sincerely concerned about such matters ought to bow down at noon every day, as the Moslems do, and offer up a prayer that we shall some day soon be vouchsafed a Flinders Petrie!


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