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Facing East From Indian Country: A Native History of Early America

Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.

In Facing East from Indian Country, Daniel K. Richter attempts to shift the traditional perspective of colonial and U.S. history from that of the European traders, colonists, and settlers looking west towards the native peoples and their resources and lands, to the viewpoint of the Indians as they attempted to understand, resist, and achieve viable accommodations with the invaders and their new and unfamiliar economic, social, and political systems. He argues that Indian societies and civilizations were never static, but constantly shifted and reformed over the millennia prior to European contact. He notes that despite the violence that often accompanied the first encounters between the Indians and the Euroamericans, the most remarkable aspect of their interaction was that the native people consistently tried to trade and build alliances with the newcomers on their own terms.

Thus, the Indians originally used European trade goods such as copper kettles as new sources of the raw materials from which they fashioned age-old ceremonial objects or items for circulation in their own prestige-goods economies. They attempted to incorporate captive European women and children into the same social locations as captive native people; or, in the case of Pocahontas and her marriage to John Rolfe, to form an alliance and incorporate the British into their world through marriage. Native religions, which recognized numerous spiritual beings and a web of relationships with these “other-than-human” persons, were equally inclusive and open to new ideas and rituals. In their political and diplomatic interactions with the French and British colonists, the native peoples employed concepts and rhetoric similar to those that structured their interactions with other native groups.

Despite the Indians’ openness and accommodations, however, the relentless land hunger and brutality of the white settlers and militia increasingly caused native attitudes to harden. Racial antagonisms developed on both sides, and Indian prophets called for the purification of their societies through rejection of the whites’ goods and ways, even as the whites viewed the native peoples, even those who lived peacefully among them, as dangerous enemies who could never be trusted, but only pushed further and further away.

Richter’s study is a sincere and sustained attempt to interpret events from the native standpoint; however, his discussion of the Indians’ position in the imperial world, in particular, often seems to focus on a top-down approach that emphasizes British officials and policies and native leadership. And his statement that “we must consider the role of disease problematic for most of sixteenth-century eastern North America” (p. 35) is far from convincing. For example, he points out that the DeSoto expedition wandered the southeast for several years, so the Spaniards who perished from various causes could not have been dying from diseases they carried with them. But how would that extended odyssey preclude epidemics of disease that could have spread from the Spaniards, initially, then to one group of Indians to another over the months or years, and then perhaps even back to the Spaniards themselves as they traveled? Elizabeth Fenn’s work on the smallpox pandemic of the late eighteenth century, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775 – 82 (2002), traced its course across the continent from the east coast to the west coast, and from Mexico City northwards, over a period of several years.

Richter also contends that the excavation of one mass grave indicated that most of those buried were killed by steel weapons, not disease—but that would just seem to indicate a discrete violent event that would have been dealt with by the survivors in an organized fashion. Those primary sources that do discuss epidemic disease among the Indians during later periods usually do not indicate that the native people buried their dead in mass graves during these horrific episodes, or perhaps even buried their dead at all, because of the massive dislocations these disease events wreaked on the entire society. Richter himself notes that community organization broke down to such an extent that nobody was left to hunt, draw water, cut wood, or care for the sick—often, in fact, the survivors would flee, leaving the dead and dying behind.

He then points out that as much as seventy-five percent of the Atlantic coastal Indian population perished during the first decades of the seventeenth century: “Entire towns . . . disappeared, with no one remaining to bury the dead.” (p. 60). This appears to completely contradict his earlier argument about mass graves; thus Richter’s insistence on discounting what was probably the equally devastating impact of epidemic disease on native peoples during the sixteenth century is puzzling and seems jarring and unnecessary.

Richter’s research is thorough, his prose is lucid, and his examination of the work of William Apess is especially compelling; however, in some respects he seems to be setting up and knocking down strawmen that have already been debunked by other scholars for some time. There is little that seems strikingly original in his conclusions about the complex human dynamics of Indian societies or the maneuvering and manipulations by the rival European colonial powers. The greatest strength of this work may be that he presents a coherent and sensitive synthesis that spans several centuries and consistently attempts to view and interpret events through the eyes of people who were not merely passive victims of disease and displacement, but crucial historical actors at the very center of the drama.

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