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The 20,000-Year History of American Indians

by Jake Page

Pub Date: April 2nd, 2003
ISBN: 0-684-85576-3
Publisher: Free Press

Single-volume compendium covering the histories of some 500 Native American groups from misty prehistory to the present, by nature writer and Indian historian Page (Songs to Birds, 1993, etc.).

Native Americans do not easily lend themselves to such sweeping treatment, any more than a few odd millennia of European history can be crammed into a single volume, and the timing of its publication is quixotic, given that chronology of the Native American past is very much under revision. (Good evidence now suggests that humans were in the Americas long before the Bering land bridge existed.) All that said, it should be noted that Page does a credible job. He sidesteps a few of the thornier controversies with the pungent reminder that “it is always useful to remember that science is not designed to produce absolute knowledge, eternally true once found; for the most part it simply pushes back the frontier of that vast realm called ignorance.” But he’s not afraid of controversy either, arguing, for example, that “the first two administrations of Franklin D. Roosevelt saved the culture of American Indians from sliding into oblivion,” although “American Indians tend not to like hearing that argument.” Page rounds up the usual suspects—Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Powhatan—but also examines historical figures too often overlooked, among them Popé, the 17th-century Pueblo Indian leader who exercised “a fierce determination to rid his homelands of the embodiment of evil, the Spanish yoke,” and Joseph Medicine Crow, a Crow leader who discovered that by killing Germans in WWI he could attain the power gained in earlier times. Also the author of several crime novels set in the Southwest (The Lethal Partner, 1996, etc.), Page executes his daunting task with a storyteller’s flair and a historian’s regard for demonstrable facts, but this is unlikely to displace such standards as Alvin Josephy’s 500 Nations or to satisfy specialists.

Not quite special enough to stand out in a very crowded field.