Facing East from Indian Country by Daniel Richter is not the first book written about the Native Americans. A number of other researchers spent their lives trying to identify what the Indian’s New World was like. As far as Richter’s book is concerned, it can be definitely stated that his work is one of the greatest books ever written about the Native Americans. This is not the first book that Richter devoted to the exploration of this subject. His The Ordeal of the Longhouse written in 1992 has a number of similarities with Facing East from Indian Country that the author finished in 2001. Both the books are a skilful grasp of that part of the American history that remembers the steps of the first people on the American land.
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The Native Americans were the first people to settle the Americas until the Europeans reached the continent and the colonies started emerging on the American land. This part of the American history is known to a great number of people, but there are not so many who know about the lives of the Native Americans and that America where the communities were independent from each other and where “villages composed of 500 to 2,000 people were the norm” (Richter 6). Therefore, for some people, such questions as who the Native Americans were, what kind of activities they have been involved into, how they got to the continent, and what their New World was like in general, still remain without an answer. Facing East from Indian Country by Daniel Richter gives an idea of the Indians’ New World better than other books written on the similar topic because it accounts for a number of aspects of this New World, such as religion, social and cultural order, economics, material goods, and Native Americans’ relationships with the outside world.
Religion and Cultural Order in the Indians’ New World
One of the greatest things about the book under consideration is that it tells much about the religion of the Native Americans. The information about the religion of the Indians in the New World is scattered throughout the book. One thing that is clear is that every generation of the Native Americans had its own attitude towards religion. Besides, shamanism was what united all the generations because, even at present, the Indians rely on non-traditional methods of treatment and believe in higher powers that can help them. Rituals were an integral part of the Indian people’s religion. They used them as an expression of faith to their Gods and other higher instances that, as believed by the Indians, helped them in every sphere of their activities. Healing rituals were, perhaps, the most common. The shaman was regarded as a medium between the ordinary powers and divinities. However, it was not always that the healing rituals were helpful. On the contrary, this aspect of the Native Americans’ religion was destructive for the society, especially in those periods when infectious diseases spread among the population: “Communal healing rituals in which villagers crowded around the victim provided opportunities for viruses to spread further” (Richter 61). It is also remarkable that Native Americans prayed to multiple Gods, which signifies that the religions, among those known to the modern world, could not be practiced in the Indian society back then.
When the New World was discovered by the Europeans, the religious aspect of the Indians’ life underwent certain modifications. In general, the first indigenous people, as mentioned by Richter, were open to new religions: “Native religions were inclusivist, ready to incorporate new ideas and ceremonies, and generally tolerant of differences of opinions” (84). None of the Native Americans, however, knew how much their original religion would have to be changed. The Europeans wished to make the Indians more civilized; this concerned the Native religions first of all. Rituals were regarded as inconsistent with civilized society, which is why they had to be removed from it: “…nothing could have been more alien that the insistence of … priests that Indians abandon the multitude of ritual practices by which they negotiated the web of relationships that determined the course of everyday life” (Richter 85). Though European and Indian religions seemed unlikely to merge, the merging still took place. Quite soon, the majority of the Indians started speaking English (for some of them it was the only language) and was Christian in religion. Thus, the religion of the Native Americans experienced the development from mere ritualism to merging with European religions and practicing the Christianity.
Economics and as an Aspect of the Indians’ New World
Economics of the Native Indian society is one of the issues that are described in Facing East from Indian Country in the most interesting way. Economically, the Indians’ New World was quite prosperous; this concerns the period before the continent was discovered and the one after. In general, the economics of the Indians’ New World was built on trade. Despite the fact that the country that the Indians inhabited was decentralized, it has never been disconnected: “Routes of trade and communication, most of the millennia old and following the great river systems, crisscrossed the continent. The goods that moved along them were, for the most part, few and rare” (Richter 6). It is worth mentioning that the Indians exchanged goods that the Europeans have been searching for throughout the world. Among them, there were gold and rare species that were hardly available anywhere in Europe. Sometimes, crops were used as material for exchange, but that was only in those cases when people badly needed other goods: “Some closely neighboring peoples might exchange crucial resources – corn, for instance, for meat and fish – and some at slightly greater distance may have controlled access to particularly valuable quarries that provided the raw material for stone tools and weapons” (Richter 6). So, trade has always been the foundation for the Indians’ economics.
With the arrival of the Europeans to the continent, the economics started to experience certain changes. However, those changes were mostly beneficial for the Indians’ New World economics because it prospered due to the increased trade. This, in its turn, had further influence on the Indian society and its culture: “Whenever Europeans settled, intercultural commerce flourished, and even in areas far from colonial centers, expanded trade not only reordered Native economies but dramatically reshaped Native cultures” (Richter 6). For instance, from the ancient times Native Americans exchanged beavers’ pelts for manufactured goods. This material for exchange has been used over the years and even acquired certain economic importance for the society. When the Europeans settled on the continent, the trade was subjected to certain changes. The import of good has increased significantly and more beaver pelts were needed to acquire these goods. This led not only to the economic transformation of the Native Americans’ life, but to overhunting because the economic demand for beaver pelts became very high (Richter 53). Thus, the economics of the Indians’ New World was largely affected by the arrival of the Europeans to the continent.
Material Goods in the Indians’ New World
Though some of the material goods used by the Native Americans have been discussed above, it is still worth mentioning other objects that were valuable in the society under consideration. Among the material objects that the Native Americans used for exchange in trade there were beavers’ pelts. However, the greatest value was attributed to exotic substances “such as marine shells and beads made from them , chunks of rare minerals such as mica, and pieces of copper cold-worked into various forms” (Richter 6). The value of all these material goods was mostly spiritual because, as a rule, archeologists find them in burial mounds and cemeteries. Perhaps, these objects had such a great value because they were regarded as gifts from “underwater fathers” (Richter 6) or the like spirit beings; this is why they were so rare. Though these material goods were used in reciprocal exchanges, they also pointed at the inequality among the population. Rare goods have been mostly owned by the leaders who wore shells or pieces of copper that were believed to be spiritually charged. In this way, material objects have been used not only for trade in the Indians’ New World.
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Culture and Relationships with the Outside World
This is one of the most important aspects of the Native American society that, like nothing else, is able to characterize the Indians’ New World. In his Facing East from Indian Country Richter perfectly describes the attitude of Native Americans towards the outside world. Everything that surrounded people was regarded as either potentially friendly or potentially hostile; in any way, all the beings were believed to possess spiritual forces. Quite important was the unity of the population, especially within one family: “Human persons needed to band together in families, clans, and villages … they hoped that more powerful beings such as the sun and the wind could be convinced to work on their behalf instead of against them” (Richter 14). This is where the necessity of ceremonial obligations emerged. The matter is that every time a person had to deal with something or somebody that was considered as more powerful, ritual ceremonies that were a sign of respect and reciprocity were carried out. Thus, Indians’ relationships with the outside world and their attitude towards everything that surrounded them explain certain aspects of their culture.
Facing East from Indian Country can indeed be regarded as one of the best books about people who were first to inhabit the American land. In this book, Daniel Richter has presented numerous aspects of the Indians’ New World. Among the most remarkable ones were religion, economics, material goods, and relationships in the society and with the outside world. Each of these aspects reflects social and cultural order of the Native Americans and the society that once used to live on the lands that obeyed only to the laws of nature.
Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: a Native History of Early America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.