John Tierney, NY Times
...These stories all suffer from a warped view of Indians as naïfs that afflicted the first settlers and persisted for centuries among historians. It's the fallacy dubbed "Holmberg's Mistake" by Charles Mann in his new book, "1491," an intriguing revisionist history.
Holmberg's Mistake is named after an anthropologist in the 1940's who concluded that the Bolivian Amazon had long been a primeval wilderness inhabited by a few Stone Age tribes. But as later researchers found, that landscape had been transformed by a large, prosperous society that dug canals, raised earthworks and cleared forests to plant crops and build cities.
The Indians who greeted European colonists may have seemed like barbarians - or, in later mythology, like Noble Savages - but that was only because their societies had been decimated by epidemics brought by earlier Europeans. Before then, the Americas may well have been more populous than Europe, and in some ways more advanced.
The Indians on Cape Cod, who had more productive farm fields and ate more calories per capita than the typical person in Europe, were appalled by their unhealthy, scraggly and dirty visitors. The English guns were frightening at first, but the Indians quickly saw that the weapons were inaccurate and could be defeated by bows and arrows.
The Northeastern Indians did covet some of the European goods, like knives and beads, especially since they could get them by exchanging the cheap furs they used as blankets. As Mann writes, "It was like happening upon a dingy kiosk that would swap fancy electronic goods for customers' used socks - almost anyone would be willing to overlook the shopkeeper's peculiarities."
But that didn't mean inviting these foreigners to stick around. Tisquantum (the full name of Squanto) came from the Wampanoag confederation, which had long traded with the Europeans while forcibly preventing them from settling on Cape Cod. Their leader, Massasoit, welcomed the Pilgrims only because so many Wampanoag Indians had died from European diseases that they were in danger of being conquered by other Indians.
This shrewd politician probably sought the alliance not so much for the Pilgrims' guns, Mann writes, but because his enemies would be reluctant to attack a group of whites for fear that it would complicate their own relationships with white traders. And his emissary, Tisquantum, far from a simple, kindly Indian, had his own plan for using the Pilgrims to become leader himself. Shortly after that first Thanksgiving, he tried unsuccessfully to trick the Pilgrims into attacking Massasoit.
"Tisquantum was to the Pilgrims what Ahmad Chalabi was to the Americans in Iraq," Mann said. "At a time when the Pilgrims were really clueless, he introduced them to his society and provided valuable information, but he definitely had his own agenda." Some Pilgrims remained clueless, attributing their survival to God and their guns, but others were more savvy.
"The Pilgrims figured out within a year they were dealing with a complex, fractured society they had to understand in order to survive abroad," Mann said. Some of their descendants in Washington aren't such quick studies.