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World History Myopia: Indians and Trade in World History Textbooks

James E. Wadsworth
Stonehill College

    "You mean to tell me that Indians still exist? I thought they were all gone." This statement came from a student in an introductory college-level history class in which we were discussing Native American responses to European contact and conquest. Her comment absolutely floored me. It had never occurred to me that anyone might actually believe such a thing. I was even more taken aback when several other students also expressed surprise that Native Americans were still around. I have pondered much on that experience and I have asked myself. What has gone wrong? How could we be sending students out of high school with such notions floating around in their heads? I believe that is has something to do with the way in which the textbooks we use to teach these students address the "problem" of Native American peoples. Indeed, the way textbooks address the native peoples of the Americas reflect very broad and deep seated biases and misconceptions that we have inherited from our past.
    Today a largely unconscious bias persists that the indigenous inhabitants of the land mass we now call the Americas possessed no true historical importance until they were 'discovered' by Europeans. Not only does history begin for them abruptly at the moment Columbus first sighted land, but the indigenous peoples seemed to have been inexorably drawn into the technologically, culturally, religiously, economically, and ethnically superior European universe that supposedly came to define them.
    This perspective only views Native American groups as important after contact, and primarily because they produced raw materials for the capitalist core. In the process, their societies are portrayed as having succumbed to the dramatic cultural, social, and economic alterations resulting from their apparent inability to adapt to the vibrant and expanding European capitalism. As capitalism swept over them like an irresistible tide, in other words, they were left broken in its expanding wake. Their social, economic, cultural, political, and religious institutions are depicted as having either entirely collapsed or else having been altered to the point of being unrecognizable. In this view, then, Native Americans seem to have been left wholly to the mercy of European domination, and as a result they quickly disappeared as significant historical actors.
    Such a picture simultaneously distorts historical reality while also denying the peoples of the Americas agency, economic intelligence, and rationality. It is an inherently dehumanizing view that relegates them to the innocent children of nature so frequently portrayed in the popular media—mere creatures of the environment. Indeed, this dehumanizing tendency persists in our 'natural' history museums, where indigenous artifacts are collected and displayed alongside stuffed birds, precious minerals, and dinosaur bones. This picture also relegates them to the status of mere pawns in the game of expanding capitalism. 4
    The view of the indigenous population of the Americas as non-economic, or at least primitive economic peoples, originated with first contact. By the nineteenth century it had developed into a full-blown racist explanation espoused by the best and the brightest in the anthropological and historical disciplines.
    It should come as no surprise that the dehumanization of the Indians and the homogenization of their cultures can be traced to the first decades of European contact. For example, in 1570, the Portuguese Pero de Magalh‹es observed: "All the people of the coast have the same language; it lacks three letters, namely, f, l, and r, a fact worthy of wonder because they also have neither Faith, Law, nor Ruler; hence they live without justice and in complete disorder."1 Captain John Smith, the one who, if we believe the Hollywood version of history (which many of our students do), supposedly loved and respected Native American peoples, described the Chesapeake Powhatans as "'cruel beasts' with 'a more unnaturall brutishness than beasts.'" Reverend Samuel Purchas said that they were "'like Cain, both Murtherers and Vagabonds' and therefore, 'I can scarcely call [them] inhabitants.'"2
    By the end of the nineteenth century, such notions about American Indians became entwined with Social Darwinist constructs that tried to discern between the 'fit' and the 'unfit' in the contest for survival. The native peoples of the Americas were, of course, seen as unfit. The famous American anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan stated that they were so attached to "the hunter life" that they had become chained "to their primitive state." Consequently, "the red race has never risen, or can rise above its present level." He later argued that "It must be regarded as a marvelous fact that a portion of mankind five thousand years ago, less or more, attained to civilization. In strictness but two families, the Semitic and the Aryan, accomplished the work through unassisted self-development. The Aryan family represents the central stream of human progress, because it produced the highest type of mankind, and because it has 'proved its intrinsic superiority by gradually assuming the control of the earth."3
    Fortunately, anthropology later distanced itself from social Darwinist evolutionary explanations for human development.4 Nevertheless, such ideas had an impact on the ways in which historians came to perceive human history 8
    William O. Swinton argued in 1874 that the general history of the world need only include a study of the Caucasian race because other civilizations were "stationary," and left no mark "on the general current of the world's progress."5Although few modern historians, anthropologists, or archaeologists can read Morgan's or Swinton's arguments without being offended, the belief that the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas left no indelible mark on the growth and structure of world history and the world economy post-contact remains unchallenged and widely accepted to this day 9
    Scholarly blindness to the pre-contact American economic system represents the long and deafening echo of sixteenth- through nineteenth-century bias, and the corresponding refusal to take native peoples and their societies seriously. The once inherently racist notions that informed this bias have now burrowed beneath the surface of accepted scholarly discussions, only to rear their ugly heads as reincarnated monsters from the past. Often they resurface as unintentional neglect, or via the use of nineteenth century language such as 'barbarian,' 'chiefdom,' and the worst culprits, 'civilization' and 'savage.' Despite the many attempts to scientifically define these stages on the 'evolutionary' path from savagery to civilization, these terms cannot be separated from ideas about European cultural superiority. Indeed, sometimes these biases survive in muted form by otherwise competent and skilled scholars. 10
    We do not have the space here to review the current state of this myopic vision in the world historical literature. But a brief perusal of several of the most popular world history textbooks demonstrates why these views persist with such vehemence. World History, by William J. Duiker and Jackson J. Spielvogel, spends the first 167 pages of a 1003 page text (16.7%) discussing the rise and development of European Civilizations up to the fall of the Roman Empire.6 It then spends 22 pages (2.2%) discussing pre-contact America. This chapter begins with the stereotypical account of Cortés, the conquest of the Aztec, and the naiveté and paralyzing superstition of Aztec leaders. Cortés and his "forces" are accompanied by a "crowd of people" (instead of well over 100,000 formidable native warriors equipped and supplied for war).7 11
    The use of language throughout the text reveals the inherent eurocentric bias of the authors. The Aztecs are described as a "previously unknown civilization."8 The section heading on the Maya is entitled "The Mysterious Maya."9 The entire text focuses on the strange and mystical nature of New World civilizations. Color images of pyramids, human sacrifice, the sun calendar, a "fantastic creature pot," and Machu Picchu are scattered liberally throughout the chapter. In short, the account depicts pre-contact America as an exotic, mystical world with strange gods and stunning architecture ruled by sadistic and superstitious kings. 12
    The single page devoted to the non-Central American and Andean areas only mentions the "stateless" societies that built earthen mounds, large burials, and cliff dwellings. We learn that Pueblo peoples were probably cannibals until the Spanish brought them the horse so that they could take up hunting again. There is no discussion of the economy or of economic institutions, although there is at least one mention that the Hopewell "ranged from the shores of Lake Superior to the Appalachian Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico in search of metals, shells, obsidian, and manufactured items to support their economic needs and religious beliefs."10 13
    What are we to take from this portrayal? We learn that the native peoples of the Americas were interesting because they were exotic, but that they did nothing of lasting importance. Their societies and cultures developed slowly, waiting for the more dynamic European culture to provide them with new opportunities. With conquest they became permanently submerged into European cultures, died away, or ignorantly resisted modernization. 14
    Howard Spodeck's widely used text The World's History follows a similar pattern.11 Aside from a few references here and there to the very early migrations to the Americas, only 13 pages (1.5%) are given to American societies in an 879 page text. These pages deal only with the "high cultures" of Mesoamerica and South America, and they focus almost entirely on cities. Trade is only mentioned in the context of exchanging food for other important commodities such as cotton—where European trade in the immediate pre-contact period is described as dynamic. Two hundred pages later we return to America under the section entitled "The Movement of Goods and Peoples." In three pages Spodek argues that only two major trade networks had developed. The "northern network" existed to serve the cultures of Mexico and the "southern network" serviced the central Andes and the Pacific Coast. One wonders what the other millions of inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere were doing. Did they somehow manage to survive in completely self-contained communities with no interest or need for non-local resources? 15
    World Civilizations: The Global Experience, by Peter Stearns et al, attempts to give some coverage to the 'stateless' societies of the Americas in addition to the standard civilizational trio of the Aztec, Maya, and Inca. Forty-six (4.4%) of 1057 pages of text take us from the Paleolithic to the Aztec and Inca on the "Eve of Invasion." Three pages briefly mention the Northeastern Woodlands, the Southwest, and the Great Plains. Trade is only mentioned in the context of the Olmec and the Mound Builders—only mentioned, not discussed as it is with Afro-Eurasia. After discussing the Aztec and the Inca, the authors shove the rest of the Americas'—nearly 35 million people by their own count—into "The Other Indians" sections.12 16
    In all these textbooks the complexity and richness of Native American prehistory is sanitized and homogenized. The Moundbuilders are treated as if they represent all of North America. The Maya and Aztec represent all of Central America, while the Inca represent all of South America. 17
    Of the textbooks I surveyed, only Jerry Bentley and Herb Ziegler provide a more balanced treatment of pre-contact America (155 of 1167 pages or 13.3% of the text). Bentley and Ziegler also take pre-contact trade more seriously and weave in brief discussions of trade for the Olmec, Aztec, and North American peoples. Their one serious difficulty is that America is inexplicably joined with Oceania as if it did not merit a chapter of its own.13 18
    This kind of disparity in coverage can only be acceptable if we embrace the unsubstantiated view that pre-contact America left no indelible imprints on the post-contact world and that its people somehow managed to exist in isolated, static, self-sustaining communities with little need or interest in trade and exchange. These examples could be duplicated many times over. And yet they only represent a pale reflection of the biases inherent in the world historical literature. 19
    We cannot excuse the lack of attention on a lack of research. Archaeologists have been addressing the question of pre-contact societies, exchange, and social transformation for many decades—although they have been less successful in communicating their findings to a broader audience.14 World historians, who now have a considerable literature of generally high quality regarding the Eurasian economic systems of exchange, seem to expect the Americas to lack any such system.15 Yet we must ask ourselves: were there any societal, geographic, environmental, political, or economic constraints that inhibited the formation of extensive exchange systems in the Western Hemisphere? The simple answer is no. Interpreting the economies of the peoples of the Americas through the prism of European economic activity has placed blinders on world historians that must be removed if we are ever going to be able to approximate a truly global history of trade, exchange, and the European expansion—let alone a comprehensive account of the Western Hemisphere before the European invasion and the residual influence of its peoples and economies on the modern world. 20
    So what are we to do? Several options seem viable, but each carries its own set of challenges. One could simply discard world history textbooks and go it alone. Beyond the problems discussed above, and to say nothing of saving students the cost of such books, there are at least two good reasons to consider tossing the textbooks. The first is that textbooks, by their very nature, distort not only the broader patterns of human history, but they also submerge the important sources, methodologies, interpretations, and debates that are the true craft of our discipline. How can we expect students to understand what history is and how it is done, or even enjoy it, when we only feed them watered-down, sanitized history devoid of debate and discovery? 21
    The second has to do with the recent and startling findings that students have learned that textbooks represent the more authentic and reliable versions of history. Sam Wineburg demonstrated that when confronted with several descriptions of an historical event—including a textbook account, a primary source, and a scholarly discussion—students associated authenticity and accuracy with the simplified textbook version.16 If nothing else, these findings should cause us all to reconsider how we use textbooks in the classroom and how we present history to our students. 22
    Students need to be exposed to contradictory evidence, to arguments and debates, to complex and confusing primary sources if we ever want them to become educated critical thinkers capable of engaging the complexity of their own time with a more or less accurate perception of the human past. 23
    But to toss the textbook can leave the instructor (not to mention the students) floating in a sea of detail without a coherent structure or unifying story. One option might be to use a creative combination of monographs, articles, videos, and lectures to take the place of conventional textbooks. For Native American history, we are fortunate to have some very good and very accessible works on pre-contact American societies. Two works that are accessible for both students and instructors alike are Alice Kehoe's America Before the European Invasion, and Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Christopher Columbus.17 24
    In addition, in 1992 the Annals of the Association of American Geographers published an excellent series of articles dedicated to current geographical research on the Americas before 1492. Of these articles, I have found William Devenan's contribution "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492" to be particularly useful in challenging student perceptions of pre-contact America.18 25
    Alven M. Josehphy's America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus also offers a broad synthesis, first by regional grouping and then by theme.19 Likewise, the new six-volume study The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas is an excellent resource that lays out what we know of this history in accessible essays complete with maps, illustrations, and bibliographical essays.20 In many ways these volumes are successors and complements to the older but nevertheless magisterial Handbook of North American Indians, Handbook of Middle American Indians and Handbook of South American Indians.21 26
    For North American Indians, I use Colin G. Calloway's First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History.22 It surveys that history from pre-contact to the present, using documents as a fundamental part of the discussion. My students find the book very useful in laying out general patterns and offering viable explanations for them. All of these sources are readily available and can be mined for readings that introduce students to the fascinating complexity and vitality of pre-contact America. 27
    Yet another option is to retain the textbook and supplement it with some of the readings suggested above. One might also challenge students to confront and question the persistent stereotypes of Native Americans that cause us to distort their history. I do this by having the students analyze video clips from movies that most of them have seen including Pocahontas, Peter Pan, Last of the Mohicans, and Dances With Wolves. I have them read James Axtell's two articles on scalping.23 We discuss how and why the history of scalping became distorted. I also have them compare native accounts of important events with European accounts and compare and contrast the different perspectives. 28
    One such approach that has been particularly effective is to have the students read Chief Joseph's and General Howard's account of the Nez Perce flight to Canada and compare them with the television production I Will Fight No More Forever.24 We are able to discuss the creation of historical myths as well as the competing and contradictory accounts that force students to confront the complexity of history and of historical production. This history is not clean-cut and comfortable. It is contentious, confusing, and contradictory. It is also the real world of history, and it is what our students need if we are to salvage their interest in our past and the relevance of that past to the world they now live in. 29
Biographical Note: James E. Wadsworth is Assistant Professor of History at Stonehill College.  He teaches several World History courses, Native American History, and several Latin American History courses.  He specializes in the Portuguese Inquisition and is beginning to work on trade and exchange in pre-contact America.  


1 Pero de Magalhães Gândavo, Tratado da Provincia do Brasil (Rio de Janeiro: Instituto Nacional do Livro, Ministério de Educaçao e Cultura, 1965), 181-182.

2 Frederick E. Hoxie, ed. Encyclopedia of North American Indians: Native American History, Culture, and Life From Paleo-Indians to the Present (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1996), 249.

3 Quoted in Francis Jennings, The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism and the Cant of Conquest (NY: WW Norton & Co., 1976), 8-9, 110.

4 The German Franz Boas (1858-1942) rejected these notions and trained a whole generation of anthropologists who compiled lists of cultural traits in an attempt to save what knowledge they could of the American Indians whom they believed were on the verge of extinction.

5 William O. Swinton, "Outlines of General History," in Outlines of the World's History, Ancient, Mediaeval, an Modern, with a Special Relation to the History of Civilization and the Progress of Mankind (NY: Ivison, Blakeman, Taylor, 1874), 2-4.

6 William J. Duiker and Jackson J. Spielvogel, World History, 3rd edition (Belmont: Wadsworth/Thampson Learning, 2001).

7 Duiker and Spielvogel, World History, 169.

8 Duiker and Spielvogel, World History,169.

9 Duiker and Spielvogel, World History,171.

10 Duiker and Spielvogel, World History, 188. Richard W. Bulliet, et al, The Earth and Its Peoples: A Global History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2001) follows a similar approach although less stereotypical and less Eurocentric in its presentation.

11 Howard Spodek, The World's History, 3rd edition (Upper Saddle River: Pearson Prentice Hall, 2006).

12 Peter N. Stearns, Michael Adas, Stuart B. Schwartz, and Marc Jason Gilbert, World Civilizations: The Global Experience, 4th ed. (NY: Pearson and Longman, 2004), 175, 182.

13 Jerry Bentley and Herb Ziegler, Traditions and Encounters: A Global Perspective on the Past, 3rd edition (Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006).

14 See, for example, Jonathon E. Ericson and Timothy G. Baugh, eds., The American Southwest and Mesoamerica: Systems of Prehistoric Exchange (NY: Plenum Press, 1993); Timothy G. Baugh and Jonathon E. Ericson, eds., Prehistoric Exchange Systems in North America (NY: Plenum Press, 1994).

15 See, for example, Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System, 3 vols. (Academic Press, 1974, 1980, 1989); K.N. Chaudhuri, Trade and Civilisation in the Indian Ocean: An Economic History from the Rise of Islam to 1750 (Cambridge, 1985); Janet Abu-Lugod, Before European Hegemony: The World-System A.D. 1250-1350 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1989); Andre Gunder Frank, Reorient: Global Economy in the Asian Age (Univ. of California Press, 1998).

16 Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001), 67-73.

17 Alice Beck Kehoe, America Before the European Invasions (London: Longman, 2002); Charles C. Mann's 1491:New Revelations of the Americas Before Christopher Columbus (NY: Knopf, 2005). Although Mann's work is aimed at a popular audience, it is well-written and brings together much of the most important new discoveries and arguments from a diverse body of scholarship.

18 William Denevan, "The Pristine Myth: The Landscape of the Americas in 1492," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 82:3, (1992): 369-385.

19 Alven M. Josehphy, ed., America in 1492: The World of the Indian Peoples Before the Arrival of Columbus (NY: Vintage Books, 1991).

20 Frank Salomon and Stuart B. Schwartz, eds., The Cambridge History of the Native Peoples of the Americas, 3 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). South America, Mesoamerica, and North America each have a separate volume.

21 William C. Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians vols. 1-20 (Washington : Smithsonian Institution, 1978-); Julian Haynes Steward, ed., Handbook of South American Indians, vols. 1-7 (Washington : U.S. G.P.O., 1946-1959); Robern Wauchope, ed., Handbook of Middle American Indians, vols. 1-16 (Austin, University of Texas Press, 1964-76).

22 Colin G. Calloway, First Peoples: A Documentary Survey of American Indian History (Boston: Bedfrod/St. Martin's, 2004).

23 James Axtell, "The Unkindest Cut, or Who Invented Scalping?: A Case Study, in The European and the Indian: Essays in the Ethnohistory of Colonial North America (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1981), 16-38 and James Axtell, "Scalping: The Ethnohistory of a Moral Question," also in The European and the Indian, 207-244.

24 I take the two accounts from Peter Cozzens, Eyewitnesses to the Indian Wars 1865-1890: The Wars of the Pacific Northwest (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2002), 300-325.


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