Book Review: “Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America”

Spencer Wright, Herald Reporter

Daniel Richter’s book, “Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America,” aims to reorient readers’ perspectives from looking at the American Indians as Europeans would have, to looking at Europeans and American Indians themselves, as the American Indians would have; facing east instead of facing west.

Copyrighted in 2001, the book includes some maps showing territorial divisions instituted by the European powers, as well as drawings of some of the prominent American Indian leaders or preachers. The book retails for $28. Richter is a historian and director of the McNeil Center for Early American Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a leading authority on the history of indigenous people and builds on work that he has already written, such as his earlier book, “The Ordeal of the Longhouse” (1992) or his more recent book, “Before the Revolution” (2013).

The theme and thesis of the book are to orient readers’ perspectives away from looking west, as Europeans would have done, and instead to look east, as American Indians would have done. As Richter writes, “Facing east on our past, seeing early America as Indian country, tracing histories truly native to the continent, we might find ways to focus more productively on our future.” Although the book looks at the same historical stories and themes of America, it does so in a way that is ‘facing east’ instead of ‘facing west’ as the dominant European stories do.

Looking from an eastern perspective casts a new light on old ideas and shatters preconceived notions of how American Indians came to regard the Europeans.

Richter also shatters the stereotype of American Indians being a disorganized rabble, the common theme of many early European accounts. Richter, however, describes how “Cahokia and such other major centers as those now known as Coosa and Etowah in Georgia, Moundville in Alabama and Natchez in Mississippi were home to highly stratified societies, organized as chiefdoms…” This is not something described by the early Europeans, who saw themselves as civilizers of an uncivilized land.

Richter goes on to describe how these societies were “characterized by a sharp divide between elites and commoners, a specialized artisanry, widespread trading networks and elaborate mortuary rituals…” This description is similar to many European societies at the time and provides an equalizing view from the perspective of facing east.

In writing this book, Richter is attempting to dispel any myths and present a true history of native peoples from their view of facing east. Writing indigenous history is a tricky undertaking for someone who is not Native American, as ethically it raises questions about who has the right to tell the history: Should it be a white historian or a person from one of the indigenous tribes, whose history is being told? Richter works through this ethical dilemma by writing a history focused on how American Indians saw themselves and others, disengaging from the European viewpoint which is so prevalent in history written by white historians.

The chapters are structured along a loose timeline of events in colonial New England. Chapter one is titled “Imagining a Distant New World” and describes North America before the arrival of Europeans. The book then follows a pattern of European settlement through the final chapter titled “Epilogue: Eulogy from Indian Country,” which describes the changes American Indians felt and saw after Europeans came and colonized North America.

This structure of the chapters works very well, as it provides a timeline that can guide readers through the major events of the early days of European colonization and American Indian pushback. The chapters do have a slightly narrow viewpoint, due to the fact that there are very few written sources by American Indians and not Europeans. Richter uses these sources the best he can, while also attempting to include any non-biased elements of European sources in order to form a full picture for the reader.

What I like best about the book is the large amount of research that went into writing it, which becomes evident at the very beginning. At 253 pages, it is a shorter history book but is full of information that will make readers rethink what they know or what they think they know about indigenous history in North America.

This book is a must-read for anyone interested in social-cultural or bottom-up history, or anyone interested in challenging established historical viewpoints. It is very factual in nature and would likely appeal mainly to undergraduates, graduate students and those who are working in or interested in the field of indigenous history.