Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mark Twain and Holmberg's Mistake

In his fascinating and eye-opening book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, Charles C. Mann discusses what he calls "Holmberg's Mistake." The name comes from Allan R. Holmberg, a researcher who lived among the Sirionó Indians of the Bolivian province Beni from 1940 to 1942. His subsequent book Nomads of the Longbow remains an iconic and highly influential work of anthropology that has also shaped the way South American Indians are viewed by the outside world. According to Holmberg, the Sirionó are "among the most culturally backward peoples of the world." He described them as a singularly wretched lot who live in constant hunger; have no clothes, domestic animals, art, or musical instruments; cannot count beyond the number three or make fire; and have nothing resembling religious belief or a coherent perception of the universe and their place in it. In short, the Sironió are essentially holdovers from the distant Stone Age, having never, in thousands of years of existence, progressed beyond cultural infancy.

Although Holmberg was a compassionate observer who persisted in his work with the Sirionó through physical hardship and ill health, his conclusions were simply and utterly wrong. In 1982, Allyn Stearman of the University of Central Florida became the first anthropologist to study the Sirionó since Holmberg and what he found was very surprising. First of all, it seemed that a wave of epidemics in the 1920s had wiped out 95% of the Sirionó population, forcing the remaining few through a "genetic bottleneck," meaning the survivors had no choice but to mate with relatives which led predictably to hereditary problems. Even before the outbreaks, the tribe had already been in conflict with impinging white cattle ranchers who, with the aid of the Bolivian military, had been throwing Sirionós into prison camps and enslaving them. In other words, the group that Holmberg had lived among was the persecuted remnant of a recently devastated culture, now in hiding and on the run. Holmberg's Mistake is actually comparable, says Charles Mann, to someone encountering a bunch of Nazi concentration camp survivors and deciding that European Jews have always been ragged and malnourished.

Not only that, but archaeological and linguistic evidence also reveals that the Sirionó are actually newcomers to the Beni area. Indeed, the previous inhabitants seem to have been quite culturally sophisticated, judging from the extensive garbage mounds (large enough for a city the size of ancient Rome), canals, causeways, and fishing weirs they left behind. Most intriguing are the islands of forest, linked by razor-straight berms in the midst of Beni's expansive plains. All these signs clearly point to the prior existence of an unknown civilization, which acts as the springboard for Mann's thesis: that the indigenous peoples of the Americas were more populous, more culturally advanced, and controlled and shaped the natural landscape to a greater extent than previously thought by both academia and general society.

So far from being "a whole continent of patsies" who existed suspended in time until their discovery by the West, Native Americans have a rich and varied story that is only just now coming to light after decades of being viewed as ahistorical "noble savages." It is said that Europeans like to dismiss the United States as a country with no history. But whose history?

Mann, however, acknowledges that it is not entirely fair to lay too much blame on Holmberg. It has been said that humans view history as a narrative, and, being only human, that narrative is inherently biased or even ideological. Postmodernist critics like to claim that narrative and critical thinking are incompatible (although it is unclear what they would have historians do instead) and looking at the traditional historiographical mode through which Native Americans have been dealt with – as a people with no history outside of their interactions with Europeans – it is easy to see where these detractors are coming from. Holmberg was writing as a member of a culture that had traditionally oppressed the culture he was writing about, and so it was perhaps unavoidable that he came into his project with a set of prejudices already in place. I have previously discussed how it is that culture is actually a cognitive practice that defines reality itself. Simply put: we cannot help but to view the world through the lens of our views, beliefs, and biases.

The stereotype of Native Americans as impoverished and downtrodden did not begin with Holmberg: it was already in place and merely influenced how he approached his study of the Sirionó. It is encountered in Mark Twain's fictionalized 1872 memoir Roughing It, which recalls his journey to California, Nevada, and Hawaii during the Civil War years. Though never as popular as his other travelogue Innocents Abroad, Roughing It is nevertheless a very funny book and a genuine treasure trove of frontier history. As always, Twain comes across as a likeable man whose good humor persists even through disillusionment and disappointment as, one-by-one, each romantic notion of the Wild West turns out to be bunk. Which makes the instances of virulent racism all the more surprising. In chapter XIX, Twain has this to say:
It was along in this wild country somewhere, and far from any habitation of white men, except the stage stations, that we came across the wretchedest type of mankind I have ever seen, up to this writing. I refer to the Goshoot Indians. From what we could see and all we could learn, they are very considerably inferior to even the despised Digger Indians of California; inferior to all races of savages on our continent; inferior to even the Terra del Fuegans; inferior to the Hottentots, and actually inferior in some respects to the Kytches of Africa. Indeed, I have been obliged to look the bulky volumes of Wood's "Uncivilized Races of Men" clear through in order to find a savage tribe degraded enough to take rank with the Goshoots. I find but one people fairly open to that shameful verdict. It is the Bosjesmans (Bushmen) of South Africa. Such of the Goshoots as we saw, along the road and hanging about the stations, were small, lean, "scrawny" creatures; in complexion a dull black like the ordinary American negro; their faces and hands bearing dirt which they had been hoarding and accumulating for months, years, and even generations, according to the age of the proprietor; a silent, sneaking, treacherous looking race; taking note of everything, covertly, like all the other "Noble Red Men" that we (do not) read about, and betraying no sign in their countenances; indolent, everlastingly patient and tireless, like all other Indians; prideless beggars—for if the beggar instinct were left out of an Indian he would not "go," any more than a clock without a pendulum; hungry, always hungry, and yet never refusing anything that a hog would eat, though often eating what a hog would decline; hunters, but having no higher ambition than to kill and eat jack-ass rabbits, crickets and grasshoppers, and embezzle carrion from the buzzards and cayotes; savages who, when asked if they have the common Indian belief in a Great Spirit show a something which almost amounts to emotion, thinking whiskey is referred to; a thin, scattering race of almost naked black children, these Goshoots are, who produce nothing at all, and have no villages, and no gatherings together into strictly defined tribal communities—a people whose only shelter is a rag cast on a bush to keep off a portion of the snow, and yet who inhabit one of the most rocky, wintry, repulsive wastes that our country or any other can exhibit.

The Bushmen and our Goshoots are manifestly descended from the self-same gorilla, or kangaroo, or Norway rat, which-ever animal—Adam the Darwinians trace them to.

Later he expresses his grave regret to inform the reader that no "noble" Indians seem to exist:
The disgust which the Goshoots gave me, a disciple of Cooper and a worshipper of the Red Man—even of the scholarly savages in the "Last of the Mohicans" . . . I say that the nausea which the Goshoots gave me, an Indian worshipper, set me to examining authorities, to see if perchance I had been over-estimating the Red Man while viewing him through the mellow moonshine of romance. The revelations that came were disenchanting. It was curious to see how quickly the paint and tinsel fell away from him and left him treacherous, filthy and repulsive—and how quickly the evidences accumulated that wherever one finds an Indian tribe he has only found Goshoots more or less modified by circumstances and surroundings—but Goshoots, after all. They deserve pity, poor creatures; and they can have mine—at this distance. Nearer by, they never get anybody's.

Holmberg's Mistake, Mr. Clemens, remember Holmberg.

Obviously, you cannot expect a white guy from the nineteenth century to be "politically correct." I think it's basically common knowledge that people of that era held views mainstream America now considers wholly objectionable and, for that reason, I don't think anybody is going to take Twain's depiction of the Goshoot Indians as gospel truth. But it's still interesting to read that particular chapter in light of what Mann later wrote about Holmberg and the Sirionó. As 1491 makes quite clear, the way we approach Native American history needs some serious revision. It's been an odd juxtaposition: that of the "noble savage" who exists in a state of nature and purity and that of the degraded savage doomed to poverty and ignorance. The former conception is not unlike the Victorian "Angel of the House" that placed women on a cold, lonely pedestal or the contemporary notion of the mentally disabled as unfailingly sweet innocents who exist on a higher emotional plane than us "smart people." All three of these stereotypes – the noble savage, Angel of the House, and lovable cherub with Down Syndrome – are ultimately dehumanizing and deny that Native Americans, women, and the mentally disabled are full human beings with individual personalities. But just as women were once thought of as either Eve or the Virgin Mary (virgin/whore), so too have Native Americans been either pitied as downtrodden or admired as superior and possessing of some quality lost by "civilized man." Such uncomfortable dichotomies have never done anyone any good. Are there no shades of gray?

But, as I've said, Roughing It is still a great book. Few people have captured America, in all its highs and lows, quite like Samuel Clemens.

1491 also comes strongly recommended. Because everything you thought you knew about Native American history is wrong.


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