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BOOK REVIEW: Noble Savage Redux By: Bruce S. Thornton
FrontPageMagazine.com | Thursday, August 05, 1999

Contested Eden: California Before the Gold
edited by Ramón A. Gutiérrez & Richard J. Orsi
University of California Press, 396 pp., $22.00

EVER SINCE MEN STARTED LIVING in cities they have needed Noble Savages to soothe the pain of urban complexity. The Sumerians had the wild-man Enkidu, the Greeks idealized the "mare-milking" Scythians, the Romans contrasted their effete civilization with the hardy Teutons, and Europeans elevated the New World Indians into children of nature, "guiltless men, that danced away their time / Fresh as their groves and happy as their climes," as John Dryden put it.

This image of the Indian dominates the imagination of modern Americans as well, not just in popular fluff like Dances with Wolves or Pocahontas, but in scholarship as well, as the volume under review demonstrates. Contested Eden is comprised of twelve essays from a variety of perspectives, ranging from traditional overviews of California’s geography, climate, and Indian tribes, to postmodern disquisitions into European colonial oppression and environmental degradation, with the obligatory identity-politics idealizations of California’s "people of color." The tone of the whole, however, is one of regret that Europeans ever arrived in this Eden.

The imagery of a lost paradise, obvious in the collection’s title, evokes not just the Noble Savage myth, but also the Biblical account in order to attribute the loss of the New World paradise not to the universal tragic consequences of migration and conquest, but rather to a bad choice on the part of human villains. In the multiculturalist academy, the Noble Savage takes his place in the anti-Western melodrama of innocent "peoples of color" whose paradise was destroyed by the willful wickedness of Europeans.

Another dimension of the modern Noble Savage myth is his elevation to ecologist living in balanced harmony with nature. In the current volume we are told, in the essay with the question-begging title "A World of Balance and Plenty," that California Indians "were an integral and essential agent in the creation of a balance of land, vegetation, and animal life." Their interventions were subtle and improving and always conserving— they were "stewards" who used nature "sustainably." The Indians, in the words of "Serpent in the Garden," were "indelibly fused culturally and spiritually to the land."

The problem, of course, is that any evidence for pre-contact Indian behavior is scarce and third-hand, vulnerable to present concerns not just of contemporary scholars but of the original travelers and settlers who too often filtered their experience through myth. A more important weakness concerns the issue of population densities. All human communities everywhere can "live lightly" on the land as long as populations remain steady and low. Once populations increase, however, so does the pressure to maintain caloric living standards. This means among other things a more intensified exploitation of resources, sometimes leading to the total collapse of the society, as happened with the Maya in Mexico.

The authors of these essays, however, never confront this key point about population size. Sometimes they fudge: California was "more densely populated than any area of equal size in North America," which doesn’t tell us anything. When a number is given—an estimate of 300,000 made in the Forties—we are not told how it was arrived at. But even if we accept that figure, that gives each and every Indian in pre-contact California about half a square mile of resources. Obviously, in that case, the Indians would have been able to interact with their environment in ways that left little permanent impact. The real miracle is that California today supports 30 million human beings, and provides the food for countless millions more.

Throughout these essays we find academic myth, fad, and fashion interspersed with useful, old-fashioned scholarship. The introduction rounds up the usual postmodern suspects such as the traditionalist straw-man who suppresses the "voice" of the oppressed, and the self-canceling fiction that history is a mere fable justifying power and privilege. "Historians and the histories they write have always been the imaginative products of the period in which they were produced," we are told, a statement that, if true, would give us no reason to believe anything we are about to read, since all the following essays depend on documentary evidence, most of which was produced by the wicked European conquerors, and thus presumably is tainted by their various imperialist, colonialist, racist, ethnocentric, and sexist biases. These empty, postmodern rhetorical flourishes are so common these days that they have become the equivalent of the dedications to aristocratic patrons we find in Elizabethan poetry—conventional hyperbole that no one is expected to take seriously, but that helps pay the bills.

Likewise with another shaky idea uncritically endorsed in a few of the essays, the social construction of gender and identity, a theory blithely presented as fact without the slightest shred of awareness that it has been subject to intense critical analysis. In "Engendering the History of Alta California" we are told that Indian and mestiza women had their femininity and "subjectivity"—that is, "forms of personhood, power, and social positioning"—constructed by an all-pervasive, totalizing colonial ideology and its "imperial power matrix." But then the essay goes on to document and celebrate these women’s resistance to that "matrix." The question begged is where, if their identities are mere epiphenomena of totalizing power structures, does their will and psychic resources to resist come from? Surely we are not to consider these women as integrated, autonomous "subjects" independent of their environment’s power-structures—an idea that is arch-heresy to the Foucauldian social constructionist.

In contrast to such nonsense, many of the essays exemplify old-fashioned scholarship content to provide information supported by evidence. In its combination of empirical research and postmodern puffery this collection typifies a trend in academic publishing: most of the essays reflect traditional historical practice, and actually are quite useful, but the whole is packaged in the gaudy received wisdom of current academic fashion, complete with obligatory nods to postmodern quackery such as the social construction of identity or history as fable of power, and multi-cult victim-melodrama like the Noble Savage ecologist of "color." I’m not sure if this reflexive duplicity is a cause for concern, or whether it reassures us that despite the occasional forays into intellectual wackiness, the ideal of empirical research as a search for historical truth still dominates.


Bruce Thornton is the author of Greek Ways and Decline and Fall: Europe’s Slow-Motion Suicide (Encounter Book}. He is 2009-2010 National Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

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