Saturday, January 11, 2020

National Geographic's Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture, Not Recommended, Part 2

Encyclopedia of American Indian History & Culture: Stories, Time Lines, Maps, and More
Written by Cynthia O'Brien
Published in 2019
Publisher: National Geographic
Reviewed by Jean Mendoza
Status: Not Recommended

 Debbie's review (1/4/2020) of Encyclopedia of American Indian History & Culture: Stories, Time Lines, Maps, and More focused mainly on visual images used in the book. There are enough problems with a number of the photographs and other images used to warrant not recommending the book. I reached a similar conclusion after looking at selections of the Encyclopedia's written content, and here I'll talk about that process.

My focus was on terminology and concepts relevant to Indigenous/US political history. I wanted to know what the book had to say about the Doctrine of Discovery, settler-colonialism, Manifest Destiny, Native sovereignty, the taking of Indigenous homelands, and Indigenous resistance. What words writers choose, and what they leave unsaid, reveals much about their understanding of a topic and about what they want readers to understand.

Let's start with sovereignty. The term is in the glossary, but the definition says nothing about its connection to Indigenous reality. It's not in the index, but as Debbie mentioned, the publisher's note

on p. 8 devotes about 300 words to tribal sovereignty (see image below), including a bit about the concept of "domestic dependent nations" and allusion to particular legal rights of Native nations. But readers must wade through frustrating mischaracterization of Indigenous history. "As Europeans took over more territory" leaves out the fact that the US, from the moment it was established by former Europeans, also "took over" Indigenous homelands. More about that later. And in paragraph 2, the phrase "lost their sovereignty" makes it sound like the Nations, oops, dropped it somewhere, when in fact the colonizing US government refused or failed to consistently recognize or honor Indigenous sovereignty.

The Encyclopedia misses other key opportunities to deepen readers' understanding of Indigenous history. It has no glossary/index entries for "Doctrine of Discovery" or "Manifest Destiny."  Here I'll talk about those and some related terms that should be dealt with more effectively in the book. (Debbie and I learned some things about the challenges and benefits of glossaries and indexes when we adapted An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, and we have an appreciation for how they can promote or hinder readers' understanding of a book's content.)

First, the Doctrine of Discovery. This product of collaboration between European rulers and the Roman Catholic Church laid the groundwork for European invasion and colonization of Indigenous homelands in what are currently called the Americas. The Doctrine of Discovery has ongoing influence on policies and attitudes here. (For example, in Brazil, the current elected leader denies Indigenous peoples' right to exist on their homelands, and the current resident of the White House greatly admires Andrew Jackson, proponent of "Indian Removal.") Knowing about the Doctrine of Discovery is essential to understanding the history and present circumstances of every Indigenous nation. But it's not in the glossary or index, and if it's mentioned in the text, I didn't find it.

BTW, the Encyclopedia's glossary definition of Catholicism leaves out that Church's key role in the Doctrine of Discovery. Also, "the mission years" highlighted in the book's California section means the years of Catholic missions, but that's not made clear. The textbox titled Mission Indians (see below) explicitly mentions Spanish brutality toward the Indigenous people, then says that the Spanish "also baptized as many as possible into the Catholic Church." Readers deserve to be shown more clearly how Spanish soldiers and priests together actively sought to destroy multiple Nations in what is currently called California, and how baptism was part of that. And again, here's the notion that Indigenous traditional ways were "lost." Not so. Colonizers intentionally destroyed them.

Manifest Destiny. Awareness of Manifest Destiny is basic to understanding the impact of "Western expansion" on Indigenous nations. But there's no glossary definition for it, nothing in the index, and it isn't mentioned in the definition of Western expansion, below.

Notice how the glossary definition above uses passive voice ("the name given to")?  That glosses over the fact that colonizers have named it that -- not the Indigenous people on whom Western expansion was inflicted. Also, "acquired" doesn't begin to describe the bloodshed and treachery that enabled the US government to take Indigenous lands. "Settled" conjures up images of individuals and families quietly and legally building little homes and communities for themselves (Little House Anywhere Charles Ingalls Wants to Build One) -- and leaves out the central, often coordinated, roles of governments, land speculators, militias/military, missionaries, business owners, and squatters in the takeover. "Violently and intentionally took and colonized Indigenous homelands" would be more accurate.

Some terms the Encyclopedia does include are handled in ways that leave much to be desired. The glossary definition of colonization ("settling and taking control of a place and its indigenous people") is far too mild. And colonization period -- defined here as "the time between 1607 and 1783, during which the Europeans settled in what is now the United States" has two problems. First, the US itself continued to colonize the continent, taking Indigenous homelands, long after its independence from Britain. (That's what "Western expansion" was.) Second, the US is a colonizing nation in present time (e.g., Puerto Rico, Guam). A third problem is that there's no index entry for either of those glossary terms, so you can't easily look up what else the book says about them, if anything.

As Debbie noted in her review, National Geographic has said it wants to stop its long-time racist misrepresentations of Indigenous people. Debbie mentions that several Native scholars are credited as consultants on the Encyclopedia. That's a wise move on National Geographic's part, though we know there's no guarantee that Native people's contributions were actually used. Some content and wording depart from what's typical in colonizer-centered informational/reference books about Indigenous history, which suggests some use of Indigenous input. For example, the introduction, by former US Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell (Northern Cheyenne), uses the term "European invaders". (But if "invaders" appears elsewhere in the book, I didn't find it.)  The Encyclopedia does refer frequently to Native nationhood, Native rights, acts and campaigns of resistance, and present-day existence. It defines words like encroachment, tribal status, federal recognition, and reparation, which Native consultants would likely push to have included.  Unfortunately, that's not enough, because those positives share space with problematic text like this photo caption:

It's better to refrain from commenting if one isn't sure why a Native person dresses
a certain way. Also, "more attractive" than what, and to whom, and why? 
Treating such cultural information as some kind of mystery is a form of Othering.

and this "In the Know" box:
The circled statement places traditional Salish beliefs in the past, when there 
may well be contemporary Salish people who share them. The wording
 also makes Salish beliefs sound "different", though in fact, a number of 
contemporary religions believe in guidance by spiritual guardians. For 
example, some Christians profess belief in guardian angels.

It would be wonderful to have a visually appealing reference book that provides young people with a cohesive, well-grounded, well-sourced, thoroughly Indigenous perspective on Indigenous nations and cultures, and their history with what is currently called the United States. National Geographic's Encyclopedia of American Indian History and Culture is not that book.

Edited on 1/12/2020: It's important to also mention that, although the Encyclopedia refers to Catholicism in the glossary and briefly in some of the text, it makes another glaring omission: there is no glossary entry or indexing for Protestantism and/or Calvinism, both of which played a considerable role in Indigenous-white relations outside of what is currently known as California. The first European colonizers in places like Plymouth and Jamestown were Protestant, as were many of those who came after. They tended to have little regard for Indigenous people's religions, and often considered them to be consorts of the devil. Much more could be said of that, and more should have been said in the NatGeo Encyclopedia.

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