January 13, 2005

Book Review for EAS

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Dispossessing the American Indian by Wilbur R. Jacobs is a passionate and broad attempt to right the wrongs of American history that all too often has painted the Native American as savage and uncivilised and the colonial explorers frequently as fearless pioneers to whom the world is indebted. The book sets out its agenda early on, Jacobs painting himself as amongst a select few trying to stem the tide of pro-white chronicling. The tub thumping nature of his introduction is regularly tempered by encouraging the reader to read his collection of essays and draw their own conclusions, whether enough material is genuinely offered to make a balanced assessment is debatable.

With all historical texts, the intention of the writer should always be considered against their work. One of the things most discredited historians are accused of is using their own point of view and fitting the evidence around that, good historical practice is to do the opposite. Jacobs appears to be setting himself up for such accusations with his early rhetoric but in truth this is a much more layered piece of work than to be simply labelled biased. There is little argument that Jacobs is setting out with an agenda, but in admitting this so early on he allows the reader to read everything with a critical eye rather than pass off what he is writing as a stand alone work, unaffected by what others have written before. Unsurprisingly, when Jacobs comes to recommend the work of others, it is by those who seem to uphold his perspective such as Roy Harvey Pearce and Winthrop Jordan. Without reading the work of all those suggested it is difficult to separate what a historian genuinely believes to be a work of virtue from one used just because it buttresses their own argument.

Jacobs can also be criticised for falling into the trap of generalisations. Indian culture was notoriously diverse from tribe to tribe, Jacobs’ accusation that the white man simply had a “them and us” mentality
Appears hypocritical when he uses statements such as “history is punctuated with hundreds of treaty conferences in which the Indians attempted to finding a reasonable way of solving…disputes“, “Indians” is too general a term, specific tribes and instances are required. Jacobs may argue that detail is being sacrificed in order to enhance readability, but no matter how readable a historical text is, it is worthless without proper analysis.

On this front Jacobs also appears inconsistent in his style, ranging from the narrative to the analytical from chapter to chapter. At the start of chapter 5 entitled ‘British Indian-White Relations’ it is largely a sprawling narrative of British legislative and administrative action regarding the Indian front. Admittedly context is always important but this approach seems inconsistent with the intention laid out early on to challenge widespread perceptions. Jacobs appears to try and make up for this style by becoming extremely analytical later on, such as in chapter 8 while attempting to deconstruct the “conspiracy” theory surrounding Pontiac’s war. It does not make for cohesive reading.

This is an accusation that could be levelled at the book for reasons other than just style. The content of the book is given fairly broad parameters. In one chapter Jacobs gets understandably animated over that rarest of things, a primary source from the era. However, in devoting an entire chapter to this the book is slowed down as an undivided piece. The book would probably best be approached as a collection of essays on a general theme rather than read from cover to cover. The narrative aspects are sufficiently counterweighted by analysis to make the book fairly heavy going.

Much of this may seem like a hatchet job on the title but it is far from being without redeeming elements. Generally the book is fairly easy to read, the chapters are succinct if occasionally depending on fairly generalised language. Both the narrative and analytical aspects, although failing to compliment each other as was probably intended are successful in their own right, perhaps Jacobs has two books in him and this was an attempt to fuse together both account and examination. Occasionally chapters do lapse into shopping list like prose such as when describing the uses of Wampum beads in an early chapter but in fairness this is due to him using the kind of detail that I previously criticised him for lacking, it seems churlish to be overly judicious.

The scope of this book is also a point on which it deserves scrutiny. In the final chapter, Jacobs tries to incorporate Whites’ treatment of natives in other countries such as Papua New Guinea and Australia. Such subjects require more investigation than can be afforded in one chapter of a 200 page book. Within this chapter, the issue of Religion and the use of biblical passages to justify subjugation of natives is pithily discussed. Similarly, the theory that Papua New Guineans were able to resist conquest by whites due to sharing some western values seems like a very interesting premise but is not afforded much space for debate.

The Dispossessing of the American Indian is a very interesting if flawed book. It suffers partly from over ambition and partly due to a lack of focus. That Jacobs is one sided is not in doubt but it is testament to his ability that I was never tempted to discard it entirely as historically useless. In setting out his agenda so clearly early on, Jacobs does fall victim of his own passion, all chapters that follow are read with a critical eye for fear he is acting on his bias. However, the book has undoubtedly succeeded in convincing me to read critically any historian’s account of colonial relations with Native Americans. I feel that Jacobs has stated his case well enough to persuade that subtle promotion of white values may have previously passed me by and that it is necessary to be more critical in the future. There can have been little other result that he sought to achieve.

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