The Contested Americas: Strait Talk

Image Source: NASA/GSFC/JPL/MISR-Team – Public Domain

The crossing of the Bering Strait from Asia to North America is the stuff of legends. Geographically, it’s a strait between the Pacific and Arctic oceans, separating the Chukchi Peninsula of the Russian Far East from the Seward Peninsula of Alaska. Supposedly, it was all frozen over up there, many thousands of years ago, allowing so-called paleo-Indians to cross over — nicknamed Beringia — and disseminate throughout the North and South American continents. They established ancient civilizations; and became what we would later refer to as the Indigenous nations.

A couple of years ago, I was looking into the origins of the state of California, the state where I was born. Take away -ornia and you got Calif.  As in Caliph? Yeah.  This led me to eventually read Edward Everett Hale’s California 1864 Atlantic origin account, “The Queen of California.” The state’s name was conferred by Cortes, who took it from a 1510 chivalric romance tale, “The Adventures of Esplandian.” Moors and Christians. Indeed: a place “peopled by black women, without any man among them, for they lived in the fashion of Amazons. They were of strong and hardy bodies, of ardent courage and great force.” I immediately thought of Angela Davis as Queen Califia, thinking, Imagine a whole state filled with take-no-shit stupidly beautiful black woman-warrior types. Yowser. How we could change the world!

So, I set out to write an epic poem that reflects what I’m reading in this romance.  I bring it up here because of Beringia.  The ancient tale makes references to proto-Chinese and proto-Russians having set up coastal encampments after crossing the strait. I have them killed by griffins in my poem because they are caught perving on the ideal feminine warriors as they bathed. No male gaze wanted. Although, let’s face it, I wrote the bathing scene in and lived to tell about it.

More recently James A. Oliver has examined the Beringia phenomenon in his witty and ironic prose, The Bering Strait Crossing: A 21 Century Frontier between East and West (2006). It includes forays into the ancient past and discusses the possibilities and plans for bridges and tunnels and new airways and swims and the long-held desire to make the strait a grand new high speed lane that would revolutionize shipping. It would require a melting Arctic, but it appears they have that under control with the serendipitous climate change gift of the Arctic thawing and oilmen already there salivating in the tundra and the military already planning for new war over the goodies there. I picture: Ice Station Zebra, starring Patrick McGoohan, star of the cult classic (and prescient) The Prisoner. Check out Oliver’s cheek:

“A super virus might yet have its way with us – in which scenario the global pressures on fresh water – water, especially – food, arable land, and energy resources . . .will all cease to be concerns. Since it is now thought that virus may have triggered the whole process of life on this planet in the first place, then the virus will have only reversed what it started.”

Alas, one can’t linger as one might, as this is to be a review of another book. A new one. By a Finnish historian.

I’m referring to Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen. The author begins by bringing the reader through the peopling of the Americas by Paleolithic hunter-gatherers that took place from Siberia to Alaska around from 26-19 kya, when, it is thought, the sea-level fell and an intercontinental bridge was temporarily established. These migrations continued down through South America and east to the Atlantic sea coast and the Caribbean. These are our beloved Ind’gens of today. Still looking for a guarantee that their vote will count in the presidential elections. (h/t Greg Palast)

Indigenous Continent is divided into eight parts, including the Dawn of the Indigenous Continent, Appear at a Distance Like Giants, The Contest for the Great American Interior, The Indigenous Backlash, The Enduring Indigenous Continent, The Heart of the Continent, American Revolutions, and, The Age of Equestrian Empires. These headings give a fair idea of the focus of each section.  What I liked about Hämäläinen’s approach is his decision to design the narrative around the migrations and movements of peoples, not just Indigenous  but European.  We see how human restlessness and the search for material gain and political power all came at each other like competing circles in a Venn diagram — indigenous nations intersecting, and European nations competing for new turf. While interested in the nature and doings of each nation, Hämäläinen opts to not overfocus. He describes his concern:

“Each nation comes across as unique, embedded in its own microworld. Multiply this by five hundred, and the problem is plain to see. Examining Indigenous America in this way is like looking at a pointillistic painting from mere inches away: it overwhelms; it loses coherence; the larger patterns are impossible to discern.”

The author takes the middle course “between the general and the specific.” The effect is lots of movement, of the contestation that is being argued by the book. Hämäläinen writes of the narrative that Indigenous Continent is “a biography of power in North America.”

The narrative of contestation begins with the Bering Crossing and follows the hunter-gatherers into the New World.  Hämäläinen paints  picture:

“The melting of glaciers started in North America roughly twenty-one thousand years ago. As the mile-high ice caps slowly melted into the oceans, a narrow ice-free corridor opened on the eastern flank of the Rocky Mountains. Groups of people began moving southward through the passage around 11,000 BCE, eventually arriving in the great continental grasslands that were swarming with huge mammals: imperial mammoths, six-ton mastodons, eight-foot-tall bison, giant ground sloths, short-faced bears, camels, horses, and several species of antelope.”

Many thousands of these migrants moved South over time and populated Central and South America. They were supported in their movement by the vast availability of kelp. The author describes a “kelp highway.”  He writes:

“[P]eople moved in skin boats along the shore, subsisting on the rich marine and estuarine life that flourished in a cool-water offshore zone—a “kelp highway”—that spanned from northeastern Asia to the Andean coast. Nutrient-rich kelp beds supported colonies of fish, shellfish, seabirds, seaweed, and sea otters, enabling people to enjoy rich and balanced diets.”

You nod at reading this, but “rich and balanced diets” seems like a cheap shot, and I put my spuckie down. Later, Hämäläinen talks about the first Californians and their lifestyle:

“What would become known as California was an affluent, politically sophisticated, and safe world. A maritime civilization tethered to an unusually fertile kelp-rich  shore and boosted by acorns, it may have been the most densely populated region of North America.”

I wish we all could be Californian. That way.

The author spends a few pages talking us through a taster of indigenous origin stories — Pawnees, Cherokees, Sicangu Lakotas, Iroquois. Sky People, Sky Woman. Tirawa, Morning Star, Evening star, “the search for social and cosmic order in a very particular place,” the Cherokees and their “reciprocal relationships between humans and animals and between humans and the Earth.”  The Navajos rising from a lower world. The First Man, the First Woman, The Mist People “moved through several worlds, accruing knowledge and reason in each, and finally arrived in the present world, fully formed and with a gender balance in opportunities and challenges.”  A dim sum cart of tasty whims, rather than an entree. Hämäläinen writes of the Northwest Coast people,

“By 1500 BCE, the Indigenous worlds in North America were flourishing, built on kelp, acorns, hunting, and fishing, and laying the foundation for later civilizations.”

Hämäläinen is interested in laying the spread of his story and to offer up the sense of stability and teleological design; it’s a pleasant strategy. I go along for the ride.

Indigenous Continent is a book primarily concerned with the contest for North America, but the author does provide a brief foray into the mighty empires of Mesoamerica — Oltec, Maya, Aztec, Olmec, Zapotec. Mesoamerica  is a region and cultural area in the Americas, extending approximately from central Mexico to Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. But the empires are not discussed here. Except for the emergence of corn. It is perhaps ironic that we worry today about GMOs and their unintended effects on crops, but, Hämäläinen writes,

“Corn is one of humankind’s greatest feats of genetic engineering. It does not exist in the wild; its kernels are too tightly attached to the cobs to allow self-seeding, so it needs to be sown and tended to survive. It is a cultural artifact, created and perfected by humans through systematic and bold biological manipulation.”

What follows, then, is an extended anecdote about the emergence of corn and the start of long term stability. He continues:

“A true dietary revolution came later, with the arrival of maiz de ocho in the first millennium of our era. A major step in the long evolution of corn, the maiz de ocho variety was robust, adaptable, and easy to process. It flowered quickly, requiring less labor, and could withstand harsh weather. When farmers began growing beans and squash along with maiz de ocho some fifteen hundred years ago, they created an ecologically compatible triad of crops—the “three sisters”—that revolutionized food production and diets in North America.”

This leads us to talk of the Southwest and of Ancestral Puebloans and their “monumental” stone edifice known as Pueblo Bonito, which served as a kind of “elite redistribution center” and “the political, commercial, and religious center of the Chacoan world.”

One of my favorite sections of  Indigenous Continent is on the development of Monk’s Mound.  This, too, coming as the result of the cultivation and spread of corn. Hämäläinen begins his description of the scene by framing its time and place:

“The Indigenous history of North America in the late first and early second millennia CE was characterized by a distinctive pattern of simultaneous centralization and decentralization. Regional centers hoarded power, fueling resentment among subordinate groups that eventually revolted or splintered off, sometimes founding new regimes. The pattern was evident in the sequence from Mogollon to Hohokam to Ancestral Puebloan in the Southwest, and it was particularly pronounced in the shift from Poverty Point to Adena-Hopewellian culture in the Mississippi Valley.”

If it was a pattern, then there was a lot of splintering over cash crop corn and its power. These cornhuskers built a “great city” the central focus of which was “a colossal central mound—a stately, pyramidal structure that rose in four terraces to one hundred feet above ground.” Later explorers named it Monk’s Mound, and called the city it was in Cahokia. Of the Mound, the author tells us,

“Cahokia may have begun as a collective effort of people who understood themselves as a single kin community, but over time it transformed into an elite-run state. The triggering factor was the colossal building projects that absorbed inordinate amounts of labor. Monks Mound alone consisted of twenty-two million cubic feet of soil, all of it transported in baskets carried by humans to the construction site. Completing that gargantuan project may have taken 370,000 days of labor in total, and although it was the largest, it was but one of some two hundred mounds that would eventually dot the cityscape.”

This seems rather like the awe-inspiring tales of labor that produced pyramids at Giza. (“Eat, drink, and be merry,” a poet said. “Tomorrow we build the pyramids.” “Fack,” came a response.) I had no idea that such amazing projects, that rival the best and brightest of the Army Corps of Engineers, was happening in ol’ proto-America.  Then one day Cahokia pulled an Ozymandias and disappeared:

“Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

(Bonus: A National Geographic podcast speculates on what happened to Cahokians. It’s fascinating.)

Hämäläinen switches to Europe and its hungers in a chapter titled, Blind Conquests. But before he does he paints a lingering picture of the kinship relationships that dominated Indigenous America. It’s a set-up strategy for the coming chapter. It’s worth quoting from in length:

“Kinship was the crucial adhesive that kept people and nations linked together. It would be a mistake to see this adaptation as some kind of a failure or aberration of civilization, as European newcomers almost invariably did. North American Indians had experimented with ranked societies and all-powerful spiritual leaders and had found them deficient and dangerous. They had opted for more horizontal, participatory, and egalitarian ways of being in the world—a communal ethos available to everyone who was capable of proper thoughts and deeds and willing to share their possessions.”

Sounds good, or someone was smoking the peace pipe too long, methinks. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

Back in Europe it was anything but kinship; in fact, it was about kingship. The author does a good job bringing in climate as a force that must be reckoned with, even back then; the melts, the freezes, from good agro switching to good bison-hunting; migration patterns. “As Rome shrank back into the small city-state it had once been, the gaping power vacuum it left behind was filled by hundreds of small fiefdoms. Europe languished as an atomistic world until the tenth century, when the climate began to warm up,” writes Hämäläinen. Out of this pointillist power palette, he continues, “Ruthless warlords built private armies of heavily armed horsemen and staked out vast personal fiefdoms. Land was controlled by the few, and local peasants were reduced to serfs, agricultural laborers bound to a lord’s estate. In return, they received the protection of lords and their knights against Vikings, Muslims, and local thugs.” This sounds a bit like the Indigenous Continent he’s previously described.

Hämäläinen provides a very brief sketch of the rise of a modernizing Europe, its new city building:

“Cities were the great economic engines of the incipient nation-states in western Europe, bustling with business, innovations, unprecedented wealth, and soaring ambitions. By the late fifteenth century, France and England possessed the means and organizational capacity for overseas expansion.”

This seems a quick run up, needing more pithy anecdotes. You’ve read Candide and this ain’t the bustle and depravity that Voltaire fluffed Leibniz’s pillow in. In any case, Hämäläinen settles for having France and England at each other’s throats, while Spain sees Christendom duke it out with Islam. Then, after successes against Islam, Spain began to want to expand its might and influence, and beat the shit out of an unsuspecting Canaries, and, our Finnish writer tells us, “The lessons in cruelty and brutality that they learned in the Canaries would serve Spanish adventurers well in the ‘New World’ that was about to appear to them.”  And before you know it, 1492 is here, and Columbus has been introduced, and here he is in Jamaica in search of gold and finding only hospitable Taínos. Hämäläinen writes,

“They welcomed the exhausted Spanish with gifts and food, hoping to turn the strangers into kin, but they lived in seemingly modest villages that contained none of the treasures—gold, silver, spices, silk—that Columbus and his party sought. Appalled, Columbus enslaved the Taínos.”

And it was on.  Conquests galore. The search for El Dorado. Jesuits out of Taxi Driver climbing waterfalls in search of missionary positions; De Niro goes from slave hunter in The Mission to his next film as pimp hunter. Wasn’t Jodie Foster something in her debut? (Only Ned Beatty had more charisma in a debut (“squeal like a pig” — isn’t that something?)) Soon we have references to obscure inner workings of scrounging power — Cabeza de Vaca’s Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. Ind’gens who only want to get you lost.  (“Unlike Central and South America, North America was a poor target for Spain’s ready-to-rule colonialism. Native misinformation thwarted one expedition after another.”) And de Soto. Hernando. And Ponce de Leon’s unhappy ending after searching with all his heart for the Fountain of Youth — “Puerto Rico’s sugar, gold, and Indian slaves had made Ponce de León stupendously rich,” scripts the Finn, but then in Florida, some comeuppance: Ponce is struck with a Calusa arrow and dies, and with him, the dream of eternal life — until CRISPR came along in a new Conquistador series soon streaming on HBO. Then the conquers and the chancre-Urs are teeming everywhere, in a voracious vision of violence and greed not abated until Custer lost his nutsack at Little Big Horn (get it?) and the rubbernecking Hekawes laughed at the joke. Shucking the corn. The tale can at times seem to lose its direction, but not in an unpleasant way.

It was about at this point that I decided to take a break from my very enjoyable reading; I’d neglected Native American history since the 60s, when a resurgence of white man’s burden brought many of us back to a more grounded approach to reality and the whole earth catalog of our commonweal.  For some reason, I wanted to remember the corn Hollywood had shucked in the childhood days, rugged, if drunken men and their horses fending off frontier fiercos, be they white or be they red.  I decided to pick films that might depict some of the cultural intersections of the continent’s contestations as loosely described by Hämäläinen’s broad “pointillist” narrative.

I watched The Comancheros with John Wayne and Stuart “Monsewer” Whitman and pondered why Whitman was being described as a “handsome young man” that all the swans commended.  The title role referred to rogue whites hoodlums — proto-mafia?– who worked with the Comanches to undermine a fledgling empire. Meh.  Then I gave a look-see to The War Wagon, with Wayne and Kirk Douglas, a sheriff turned alkie over love’s demising ways, and helps Wayne steal a wagon full of some “evil banker’s” gold. No Ind’gens though.  Then there was El Dorado. I thought that for sure I’ll hit paydirt here. El Dorado, the famed city of gold, that the Conquistadors were always seeking in their quests in the New World. Oh, wait a minute, it was Robert Mitchum who turned alkie over love. Love is the only el dorado in this flick, and half of it is unrequited. But there’s a lot of drinkin’ over it.

Then I topped it all off by watching two classic Indian-exploitation ads: Mazola (you call it corn, we call it maize); and, the Native American who weeps to see how mighty whitey has trashed a once civilized world (the “Indian” turns out to be an Italian actor — maybe, I’m thinking, it’s the part Don Corleone secures for his godson Johnny Fontane, after the thoroughbred horse’s head fiasco. That’s a crude stereotype and I beat myself up over it.)

The narrative picks up where it left off, as it so often does.  Pekka paints a busy picture, lots of energy, kind versus kings.  In the chapter Terra Nullius, our scribe discusses the concept of land grab by colonists based on rules they brought with them from back home with fiefdom cultures thrived and modern democracy and equal opportunity was still a pipe dream. For an example, we’re back to Ponce de Leon, Columbus’s second voyage, eyeing off Calusa territory. Hämäläinen grims, “These were men who wanted everything the Calusas had: their land, their treasure, their labor, their souls.” He continues, after my pause, “Although the Calusas knew what to expect, Ponce de León knew very little about the land and people he meant to seize through the doctrine of terra nullius, ‘empty land’ or ‘no-man’s-land.’ In reality, Florida was home to some 350,000 Indians.” It was the same doctrine that the convict settlers — far flung from England by Mad King George — claimed when they landed in Australia and took a few boomerangs upside their unwelcome heads. And then they saw kangaroos.

There are an astonishing number of intersections described in the book. Hämäläinen’s narrative is anything but static, and this works well to bolster his claim of contestaion of the continent. His tale constantly works against the myth:

“Indians are doomed; Europeans are destined to take over the continent; history itself is a linear process that moves irreversibly toward Indigenous destruction.”

This is bosh, he argues.  Instead, the Indigenous were well-established and ruled the roost:

“The reality of an Indigenous continent has remained obscure because European empires, and especially the United States, invested power in the state and its bureaucracy, whereas Native nations invested power in kinship…Time and again, and across centuries, Indians blocked and destroyed colonial projects, forcing Euro-Americans to accept Native ways, Native sovereignty, and Native dominance.”

And this is the thesis — refreshing — that drives the author’s thesis. Contestation.

It’s worth noting that not everyone enjoyed Hämäläinen’s narrative strategies. In a NYT review, Claudio Saunt, a historian from the University of Georgia, writes, “Pekka belongs to a small but growing group of scholars who are taking up the challenge of re-envisioning the grand narrative of early American history.” It is certainly that; a re-envisioning. But a Native American reviewer was more cautious with his reception. Ned Blackhawk, a Western Shoshone, and a Yale historian, likes some aspects — “[Hämäläinen’s] an important historian of the early American West, who studies equestrianism as well as anybody” — but he also notes “the book’s ability to trace across eras and epochs is limited, particularly by its occasional disregard of things like law and policy, which are central to Native American sovereignty and lives.” This seems fair enough and a byproduct of the author’s approach. One other criticism, levied in the Times piece, is that Indigenous Continent does not speak much to the present.

It’s a high quality read. It may well win book awards. I can see it as a streaming series.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.