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‘American Indian Places: A Historical Guidebook’

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Travelers and armchair historians alike will find plenty of food for thought in “American Indian Places: A Historical Guidebook,” edited by Frances H. Kennedy. Ten years in the making, it is the first guide to indigenous historical sites open to the public, according to Kennedy, who will donate her royalties to the National Museum of the American Indian.

The guidebook is a valuable addition to a growing body of work that challenges the lingering, colonial, empty continent mentality. In fact, ‘overwhelming’ is a good word to describe the task of absorbing all the information about civilizations and inter-relationships of 366 places within 3.1 million square miles, and 14,000 years of history told by 279 contributing authorities.

Listings begin in Flint Ridge, Ohio, at a quarry developed 10,000 years ago, followed by Michigan’s Isle Royale National Park where a copper culture flourished five centuries later. There are many listings about important centers of settlement and trade around the Northeast, then places of the post-contact period when forts, battlefields and broken agreements prevailed. The final entry in this section is about Pennsylvania’s Carlisle Indian Industrial School where an eloquent essay by Brenda J. Child (Red Lake Band of Chippewa) introduces the topic. Contributions such as hers, by Native writers, provide a much needed grounding and counterbalance to the plethora of dates, names and data.

There are 139 expert contributors with declared tribal affiliation or descent, the rest are non-Indian. Despite the best intentions of non-Native scholars, works about indigenous people benefit from the services of Native editors. For example, an indigenous editor probably would have struck a statement contrasting Native contributions as emotional and cultural and non-Native submissions as archeological and historical, particularly since all the writers are professionals. A reference to ‘general information about Indians’ would likely not have made the final cut, and statements about migration to the continent would have at least required qualification in the introduction. That said, the guide contains much of value.

“American Indian Places” divides the contiguous 48 states into five sections defined by people’s homelands and their subsequent movements. For some reason, descriptions begin in the Northeast then move south and west. Interpretive centers, museums and other locations from Maine to Alcatraz are listed beginning with the most ancient places of significance in each geographic sphere.

The first entries include quarries, caves and petroglyphs from 10,000 B.C. or before, and move through middens and mounds that have been excavated and studied by archeologists. English and European names still cling to these ancient sites and explanations of the people’s ways are peppered with uncertainties denoted by words like ‘perhaps’ and ‘may have.’ Their enshrinement in visitor centers and parks is a mixed blessing for the descendants, as described by Cecile Elkins Carter, Caddo, in her piece on the sacred Caddoan Mounds State Historic Site in Texas.

“Walking the trail that winds past the three large, grass-covered mounds is a stirring experience,” she says before describing the artifacts housed at the interpretive center. “Members of the Caddo Nation in Oklahoma leave the park with mixed emotions; sadness that sacred ground has been disturbed; hesitant appreciation for scientific investigation and scholarly interpretation that gives everyone an opportunity to learn some of the history of their people; gratitude that the park respects, protects and cares for a place where the Old Ones lived and died.”

From coast to coast, the guide traces stories of thriving ancient places eventually swarming with land-hungry foreigners, alliances that followed and relations that fell apart. It provides a good grounding on what happened here and a bibliography offers suggestions for further reading.

Arranging all this information to serve as both a historical tome and travel guide posed some obvious challenges. Given its scope, the reader would be well served by organizational helps like section headings and cleaner maps.

Those who intend to use the book for traveling would especially appreciate more attention to the maps. Three hundred sixty-six black numbered circles represent the listings, which are difficult to find in consecutive order, and hard to see against some shades of gray that delineate states, which aren’t labeled. Listings name only the place and vague location, so visitors will have to look up directions, hours of operation and contact information.

Even with these inconveniences, sojourners armed with this guide will be enriched with new insights about historical sites and ancient places within reach of where most of us live.

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