In the Hands of the Great Spirit: The 20,000-Year History of American Indians

by Jake Page

Hardcover, 2003

Call number

970.04 P



Free Press (2003), 480 pages


The story of the American Indians has, until now, been told as a 500-year tragedy, a story of violent and fatal encounters with Europeans and their diseases, followed by steady retreat, defeat, and diminishment. Yet the true story begins much earlier, and its final recent chapter adds a major twist. Jake Page, one of the Southwest's most distinguished writers and a longtime student of Indian history and culture, tells a radically new story, thanks to an explosion of recent archaeological findings, the latest scholarship, and an exploration of Indian legends. Covering no less than 20,000 years, In the hands of the Great Spirit will forever change how we think about the oldest and earliest Americans. Page explores every controversy, from the question of cannibalism among tribes, to the various theories of when and how humans first arrived on the continent, to what life was actually like for Indians before the Europeans came. Page dispels the popular image of a peaceful and idyllic Eden, and shows that Indian societies were fluid, constantly transformed by intertribal fighting, population growth, and shifting climates. Page uses Indian legends and stories as tools to uncover tribal origins, cultural values, and the meaning of certain rituals and sacred lands. He tells the story of contact with Europeans, and the multipower conflicts of the Seven Years War, the Revolutionary War, and the War of 1812, from the Indians' point of view. He explains the complex and shifting role of the U.S. government as expressed through executive decisions and through the role of the courts. Finally, he tells the fascinating story of the late-twentieth-century upsurge in Indian population and resources, which began as a social movement and exploded once casinos came into fashion.… (more)

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Separating fact from fiction in an unbiased manner when it comes to the history of America’s native populations is a nearly impossible task. In the Hands of the Great Spirit, Jake Page, has tried to give a dispassionate overview of Native American history of the United States from the earliest
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migrations from Asia to the early parts of the 21st century. Page doesn’t’ apology for the more egregious acts of the European settlers or later the American’s pushing American Indians from the lands promised to them through treaties. Nor does demean the American Indians culture to the point of caricature to make a political statement. Page does a very good job of presenting the events of history as the happened without judgment, letting the reader decide for themselves whether or not the outcome was just. Considering how contentious the interactions of the Native American and the people wishing to exploit their resources have been in the past, it is really admirable to attempt to remain in the middle of the road. At the same time Page paints the American Indian culture as being far more complex and less homogenous then is often portrayed. American Indians were not and are not passive inhabitants of the land. They exploited the resources available to them, used and fought with other tribes and communities to their advantage, and modified their ways of life readily to deal with the changing times. Tribal life may have afforded them a different understanding of property and ownership, but they were in no way less sophisticated than their European counterparts. Their struggles and victories are well documented in this single volume work. Certainly there are more detailed accounts available but they would be hard pressed in presenting a fairer overview than In the Hands of the Great Spirit.

My one and only grip about the book is the last chapter, where Page attempts to cover some of the current events and possible political future of the American Indians. This is the worst thing a well written historic account can do. Any predications based on current information of human behavior are bound to be wrong. In this case they weren’t too far off, but only scratched the surface of the issues faced by American Indians. Page even acknowledges the flaws of such a chapter, but goes ahead and throws in his own predictions. These sort of chapters should be left out.
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