Thursday, November 24, 2011

Five top books on Native Americans and colonizers

Colin Calloway is Professor of Native American Studies at Dartmouth.

With Eve Gerber at The Browser, he discussed five books on American Indians and colonizers, including:
The Columbian Exchange
by Alfred W Crosby Jr

This seems an apt time to consider the consequences of European arrival on the existing population of the Americas. Tell us about the core argument of Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange.

Alfred Crosby’s Columbian Exchange was published in 1972. If we read it today, especially in the wake of reading something like 1491, it might seem quite sparse, because since then scholars have done a huge amount of work in fleshing out this idea.

I think titles are important and I think this title, Columbian Exchange, is hugely important because it puts early colonial history into a broader context, so that the European invasion of America is not seen as a one-way street with humans simply crossing the Atlantic and landing in America. It’s two continents coming into contact and so opening up transoceanic exchange of people and plants and animals and disease. Crosby was the first scholar to point to the impact of epidemic diseases. Much more intensive and sophisticated work has been done since, but Crosby’s work was crucial, and there’s nothing more important to understanding that early history of America.

Is the communication of communicable diseases what led to European dominance over the hemisphere?

It’s not the only factor. As Jared Diamond’s book title says: Guns, Germs and Steel. There are a number of issues to consider but I think disease is important to understanding the invasion and colonisation of the Americas and even the subsequent expansion of the United States nation westward. Whenever we consider how native peoples are coping with, responding to, and adjusting to the presence of Europeans and the expanding power of the United States, we should recall the impact of disease on the population. Disease undermines Native Americans’ capacity for resistance at the very time when they need the utmost capacity. It upsets the balances of power and relations between native peoples so I think it certainly has to be high on the list, if not at the top of the list, in understanding how things play out in this continent.
Read about another book on the list.

--Marshal Zeringue