Paula Mitchell Marks
In a Barren Land: American Indian Dispossession and Survival
With the possible exception of Stephen Ambrose, Paula Mitchell Marks is probably the most popular historian to write on the American West since Bernard DeVoto in his heyday some six decades ago. Marks writes much better than most academics--it's hard not to finish reading her, whether on the topic of the gunfight at the O.K. Corral (And Die in the West) or the California gold rush (Precious Dust). Her weakness is that she thinks like an academic; so many points of view are presented in Marks's on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand accounts that it's possible to get through them without a clear idea of what the author believes actually happened. (One frustrated reviewer memorably dubbed And Die in the West "Equivocation at the O.K. Corral.")
Yet in a departure from form, In a Barren Land, Marks's account of American Indian land dispossession from the Pilgrims to the present, leaves one wishing the author had been a bit more evenhanded. The arrival of Europeans in North America, she seems to feel, was a bad thing for Native Americans. Of course, she is far from alone; the prevailing sentiment among Patricia Nelson Limerick and just about every other current Western historian with three names seems to be that the world would have been a lot better off if Europeans hadn't made it as far as New Jersey.
This attitude isn't entirely new. The record of white historians who have championed the Indians is at least as old as Helen Hunt Jackson's A Century of Dishonor: The Early Crusade for Indian Reform, published in 1881 (though Marks, curiously, cites Jackson for her 1884 novel Ramona rather than for her nonfiction work), and includes modern books as diverse as Edmund Wilson's Apologies to the Iroquois and Dee Brown's 1971 best-seller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Most of them, despite varying degrees of merit, partake of what Bertrand Russell called the "fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed."
By that, Russell meant the tendency of a victorious people to view the vanquished in a sympathetic if not sentimental light, e.g., the myth of the Irish as a folksy, lyrical people came not from the Irish but from British intellectuals; and the myth of the Germanic noble savage originated with Roman historians such as Tacitus, who used primitive peoples as a club with which to beat their decadent readers. The overall effect of such books, as with In a Barren Land, is not so much to make readers feel that they have a greater insight into a historical process but to make them feel guilty for something they haven't done.
The purpose of In a Barren Land seems to be expressed in her preface, where Marks writes, "I think we must acknowledge that the story has too often been told from the viewpoint of the victors in the struggle for North American empire." She's right, of course, but then Marks should acknowledge that one reason for this is that North American Indians, with a number of prominent exceptions, were largely unable until this century to record their own histories on paper.
Marks tries in vain to do it for them, but In a Barren Land lacks any deeper sense of what Native American culture was like before contact with whites. As such, the author falls into the trap of treating the pre-Columbian North American continent as a distant Eden; and, true to this view, Marks's inclination is to absolve Indians of all original sin--all their transgressions are invariably the result of contacts with whites. "The natives," she writes, "could be aggressive and brutal, too. What our popular history overlooked until fairly recently is that they usually acted this way in a desperate response to white encroachment..." One's eye settles on that "usually" and wonders from where Marks drew such conclusions.
Even violence of Indian to Indian is the white man's fault: "Many tribal clashes were brutal, the Iroquois practicing such cruelties as impaling captive Indian children on stakes.... Increasingly, however, extreme violence erupted as a result of tensions between natives and settlers..." Marks doesn't elaborate on the "tensions"; the mere presence of white settlers is adequate to explain away any atrocity.
And facts that don't support Marks's view of Indians as victims are simply omitted from the narrative altogether: In her account of the expulsion of the Cherokees from the Southeast (perhaps the most disgraceful act of the U.S. government toward native peoples) Marks fails to mention that the settled Cherokees held hundreds of Negro slaves. So did the Seminoles, who fled with their slaves over the Georgia border into Florida. Knowledge of these facts makes the brutality of Andrew Jackson no less heinous, but it may modify the simplified portrait of the so-called "civilized" tribes of the Southeast. The reader's reaction to the government's policy is rather like Groucho Marx's line in A Night at the Opera: "You big bully, stop picking on that little bully."
Marks acknowledges that white officials "occasionally" mandated humane treatment of Indians, but tempers that by asserting that Anglos also imposed "cultural standards that were unjustifiable by any but the most ethnocentric reckoning." No doubt this claim is true, but it calls into question the very definition of ethnocentric: Is the phrase merely an affliction that plagues more technologically advanced peoples? To write off all Indian failures to get along with Anglos or Hispanics--or for that matter with other Indians--as a result of Western ethnocentrism might almost lead to an unintended kind of absolution. Behind such a blanket indictment of Western civilization there seems to lurk an attitude that says, "What can you really expect from these white savages?"
What's missing from In a Barren Land is a sense of how the conquest of North American Indians and the ultimate takeover of their land differ, if at all, from what has happened just about everywhere else on a planet where, in the words of Mark Twain, "Not a single inch of land is in the possession of its rightful owners." Such an enriched perspective--sensitive to the real, complex identity of the continent's original inhabitants--might help free American Indians from the final and most insidious aspect of white domination: perpetual victimization.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.