Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World

To begin, let’s withhold judgement on the terrible name given to this book by Weatherford, an anthropologist trapped in his desiccated sense of humor. My interest in this book was raised by Gloria Steinem’s latest, wherein she details several interesting things about Native Americans I had not appreciated, namely about the Iroquois Convention lending bones to the U.S. Constitution, and the fact that three-fifths of all crops currently under cultivation globally are from the New World. Tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, corn, beans, you know… the basics of what we eat everyday. But despite high hopes for this book, it falls flat, even with its engaging beginning-of-chapter man-on-the-street dialog that puts you there, makes you feel as if you’re huffing and puffing your way up to 15,680 feet above sea level to check in on the dregs of a mine that, according to Weatherford, basically made capitalism happen. So, Potosi, the Bolivian mountain that started churning out silver in 1545, made capitalism easier since it gave Europeans a convenient coin to do trade with. [Sidenote: he credits Sir Frances Drake with discovering California, naming it Nova Albion in 1579, hence the first New England was on the west coast.]

Along with money, the New World apparently gave the Old the industrial revolution, since we were short on labor over here and had to make lots of efficiency gains with machines. He also points out that Kropoktin believed that crafts would continue only as a source of goods for the aristocracy while factory goods would be for the working-class people, something that it utterly true today. But mostly the Native Americans gave us food and good farming practices, with the milpa allowing corn to provide a stalk for beans to grow upon and shade, squash providing ground cover that prevents unwanted plants from growing and reduces need to weed, and beans fixing nitrogen in the soil to help the other plants grow. Weatherford credits Natives with planting by hand, unlike the old world method of scattering seeds to the wind, although he does have a revelation that cactus growing at uniform distance from Indian’s houses must mean they’ve pooped out the cactus as a reasonable walking distance.

He blesses us with another earth shattering revelation that he believes Machu Picchu was an agricultural experiment center, since he took a walk with his botanist friend one day and realized how much could be controlled there (sun, no sun, partial sun, soil conditions, etc.). I could never shake the feeling that he wasn’t tapping into the most reliable sources, despite heavy notes in the back. I do want to look into Frank MacShane’s Impressions of Latin America to see how much Weatherford stole and/or how reliable it is.