A Quirky, Personal, Annotated Reading List about Native Americans

Do You Get “Culture Crushes”?

I admit it: I get “culture crushes.”

My earliest and most enduring culture crush has been on Native American culture.  This started very early, perhaps by the time I was five.  By the time I could read on my own, I was on a sharp lookout for any book with an Indian on the cover.  That was all it took to make me pick up the book and devour it. 

Here are some of the books I’ve discovered … as a kid, and then later, as an adult. 

This is an incomplete list on two counts.  First of all, there are obviously many fine books out there, by Native and non-Native people alike, that I have yet to discover and read.  Secondly, this isn’t even a complete list of all the books I’ve read on this topic.  I can think of at least six seven eight twelve other books that I remember vividly, but can’t remember enough about the titles to track them down. 

As A Kid

  • North American Indians, by Marie and Douglas Gorsline, Random House, 1977.  This book was the introduction to Native American tribes and their lifestyles for my siblings and me.  It’s a good overview of the different cultural regions of North America, including a map at the beginning of the book.  For each region, it names one or two of the best-known tribes and gives a few pages of details about their lifestyle, beautifully illustrated.  The last page of the book is about sign language, which it says functioned as a lingua franca for the different Plains tribes.  It includes a number of illustrations of the different signs.  What could be more fun?
  • Runner for the King by Rowena Bastin Bennett, 1962. I must have been seven years old when I read this book.  I have no doubt that I picked it up because it featured my two favorite things: Indians, and the word “king.”  It takes place in the ancient Incan kingdom, but I didn’t know that at the time.  All I knew was that it did not disappoint. The boy on the front cover runs through rugged mountain landscapes.  He encounters a fellow runner who has been beaten and tied up by enemies, so the boy must run the next messenger’s leg of the journey as well as his own.  He has to climb over a rock slide.  At last, he makes it to the king with his message and is personally honored by the king. I now realize, looking at the drawing, that the boy’s face on this cover does not look particularly Incan.  It looks more like Peter Pan colored reddish brown.  But at the time, this boy – particularly this picture on the cover – instantly became my standard for fitness and beauty.  You’d laugh about that if you knew me, because I look less like this lean, fit, dark-haired runner, and more like … well, Shirley Temple.
  • Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Scholastic, Inc., 1935, 1953, 1963.  This is the Little House book in which the Ingalls family go into “Indian country,” homestead there for less than a year, and then are moved out by changing government policy, not too long after the same government has forced the Indians to leave.  This book has been called racist, but that is a foul slander.  It portrays a lot of complexity in the Ingalls family’s experience with the Indians.  Charles Ingalls, Laura’s “Pa,” in particular clearly respects the Indians.  He gently rebukes some other settlers when they speak of the Indians in a dehumanizing way, and he talks with enthusiasm about a buffalo hunt: “Now that’s something I’d like to see!” There is also a scene where Pa has been hunting a wildcat that he knows is hanging around the creek.  He needs to find and kill it so that it doesn’t attack his family.  He meets an Indian man, who gives him to understand with signs that three days ago he found the very cat and shot it out of a tree. 
  • Squanto, Friend of the Pilgrims by Clyde Robert Bulla, illustrated by Peter Buchard, Scholastic. Squanto’s story is truly an incredible one.  The scene I remember best from this book is that of Squanto trying to sleep on his first night in a British room.  The bed is too soft and uncomfortable.  Finally he sleeps on the floor.
  • The Sign of the Beaver by Elizabeth George Speare.  An Indian boy and his father befriend a white boy who has been left on his own to manage the family’s new cabin until the rest of his family can join him.  The Indian boy teaches the white boy wood lore and such things as the signs that the different clans leave on trees.   The white boy teaches the Indian boy to read.  The Indian boy is really offended by the role of Friday in Robinson Crusoe, which rocks his new friend’s world.  
  • Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell.  I don’t remember this one very well, but I know that I read it as a kid. It’s the story of an incredibly tough and resourceful girl surviving on her own on an island.  Catnip to Kid Me.
  • Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink, illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. Trina Schart Hyman is one of my favorite illustrators, which just makes this book all the better.  This book is not primarily about Indians, but they do play an increasingly big role as the book progresses. Caddie befriends them and then ends up sneaking across the river to visit them and head off a conflict.
  • Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks. Omri owns a small metal medicine cupboard that can bring his plastic toys to life.  When it does, he discovers that they are not toys but have actual lives and personalities of their own.  This series is one of the most poignant I’ve ever read.
  • I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven, Dell Publishing, 1973. This one barely makes it into the “childhood” category.  I read it in seventh grade, in a year when we read many books set in other cultures (such as The Good Earth and Things Fall Apart). And I Heard the Owl definitely belongs in that august company.  It rises to the level of literature.  Owl tells the story of Mark, a young priest who goes to serve a small Indian community in remote British Columbia.  My favorite scene is the one in which he suddenly realizes that some of the women are talking about him, in front of him, and protests that they’ve got their facts wrong.  He has acquired a passive knowledge of the language without really trying.  He must have quite a gift for languages indeed, because those coastal Native languages are really complex.

As An Adult

  • The Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee series by Tony Hillerman. Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee both work for the Navajo Tribal Police. Joe is a tough old cynic. Jim is a young visionary. “Tony Hillerman was the former president of Mystery Writers of America and received its Edgar and Grand Master awards.  His other honors include the Center for the American Indian’s Ambassador Award, the Silver Spur Award for best novel set in the West, and the Navajo Tribe’s Special Friend Award. He lived with his wife in Albuquerque, New Mexico.”  — From the jacket of A Thief of Time, Harper, 1988, 1990, 2000, 2009. Update: Tony Hillerman’s daughter, Anne Hillerman, is now continuing the Leaphorn and Chee series. I just finished Cave of Bones (2018) by her. It’s really good. Chee has married a fellow Navajo police officer, and Leaphorn is living with a white woman since his wife died of cancer earlier in the series. Anne Hillerman incorporates even more Navajo terms into the books than her father did, and the greeting (Ya’at’eeh) is now spelled with even more diacritic marks.
  • The Grieving Indian by Arthur H. and George McPeek, 1988.   Arthur H. is a Native pastor, recovering alcoholic, and boarding school survivor.  He has many excellent insights about unresolved grief, which he believes is the root cause of most of the problems facing Native individuals, families, and communities.
  • Bruchko by Bruce Olson, Charisma House, 1978, 2006.  Bruce Olson goes to live among the Motilone Indians of Colombia.  After much fruitless struggle to integrate, he is befriended by a remarkable young man his own age who tells Bruce his “heart name.”   In time, Christ comes to the Motlione in a way that is very organic to their culture.  This book is filled with goosebump-raising moments.
  • Black Elk’s Vision: A Lakota Story by S.D. Nelson, Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2010.  Black Elk grew up in the Lakota tribe.  At the age of nine, he was given a troubling vision that essentially invited his tribe to choose life rather than bitterness.  He did not share this vision with anyone for several years.  He was present at the battle of Little Bighorn, and later traveled to England as a dancer in Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show.  Besides the illustrations done by the author, the book includes a historical drawing done by Red Horse and many authentic black and white photographs. 
  • Windigo Island by William Kent Krueger, 2014. Girls are disappearing from the Ojibwe reservation. Cork O’Connor goes off to find one of them, and ends up in North Dakota.
  • Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston. A team of archaeologists discovers a lost Anasazi city and figures out what wiped the Anasazi out. There are no modern-day Indians among the main characters in this book, but near the end, one does play a key role.

Children’s Books Discovered As An Adult

I also love Little Runner’s mom.
  • Little Runner of the Longhouse by Betty Baker, pictures by Arnold Lobel, an I Can Read Book by Harper & Row Publishers, New York & Evanston, 1962.  Little Runner is an extremely relatable Iroquois boy whose main goal in life is to get some maple sugar.
  • Rabbit’s Snow Dance by James & Joseph Bruchac, illustrated by Jeff Newman, 2012.  This legend explains why rabbit, who started out with a long, beautiful tail, now has a short, fuzzy one.  It also explains why cottonwood trees are full of “cotton.”  Like many Native legends, it contains a not-so-subtle warning about being proud, wanting our own way, and not listening to warnings from our elders.  “I will make it snow!  A-zi-ka-na-po!”
  • A Salmon for Simon by Better Waterton, illustrated by Ann Blades, copyright 1978, first Meadow Mouse edition 1990, first revised Meadow Mouse edition 1996, reprinted 1998. A Meadow Mouse Paperback, Groundwood Books/Douglas & McIntyre, Toronto, Ontario.  Simon, who lives in a village on the Pacific coast of Canada, has been trying all day to catch a salmon.  When he sees one drop from an eagle’s talons, he has to decide whether to eat it or save it. 

My Love-Hate Relationship with Genetic Evidence

Genetic evidence about ancient populations is cool. Sometimes it tells you things that are fairly intuitive, like that the early Native Americans peopled the continent very quickly, and that at some point they got a visit from some Pacific populations.

The Extremely Fast Peopling of the Americas

Were There Two Routes into North America?

At other times, genetic evidence (or the way it is interpreted) tells us some things that make sense and others that don’t. Take this article for example:

Traces of Mystery Ancient Humans Found Lurking in Our Genomes

On the one hand, the genetic evidence presented here is said to indicate that there was once a lot more genetic diversity among humans than there is now. That makes a ton of sense, especially if you believe in a bottleneck such as the Flood.

On the other hand, this article also asks us to believe that these distinct human populations stayed away from each other for up to 700,000 years (!) and then met up again and interbred. That is really hard to swallow. How in the world did they manage not to bump into each other for that long? The world isn’t that big, is it?

One of the human (or “vaguely human-like,” as the article so flatteringly puts it) populations mentioned in the article above is the Denisovians, apparently a very hearty Central Asia population that was well adapted to high altitudes. For those who believe historical evidence that giants once walked the earth, the following article might be suggestive:

‘Spectacular’ Jawbone Discovery Sheds Light on Ancient Denisovians

But, back to my ambivalent relationship with genetic evidence. Every once in a while, your world gets rocked by a “fun fact” like this one:

We share 50% of our genes with bananas.”

The “fun fact” has now become a “confusing fact.” Waitaminit! If that is true … then genetic analysis tells us basically nothing about the nature of a thing … then all of this is … worthless?

No, not really. It has helped me to remember that genes are not words or sentences, they are libraries. It is easy to imagine two vast libraries which have a 50% overlap (encyclopedias, dictionaries, and the like) but diverge wildly in the other 50% (one is all philosophy and ancient history; the other is all Dave Barry). That helps. Some. But it’s also a reminder that even the experts have “read” only a few volumes from any given library.

Sometimes genetic evidence tells a different story than that told by archaeology (with its many assumptions) or linguistics.

Divided by DNA: The Uneasy Relationship Between Archaeology and Ancient Genomes

I am not the only one troubled by this.

I guess it’s just one more reminder of just how much we don’t know.

Aaand, This Is Where Graham Hancock and I Finally Part Ways

Photo by Prasanth Inturi on Pexels.com

Here (at Skeptic.com) is a review of Graham Hancock’s latest book, America Before.

It’s a interesting review, touching on some of the themes we’ve been talking about here on OutofBabel, such as the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis and possible lost settlements (even cities?) in Amazonia.

Of course, Hancock, being Hancock, puts those two suggestive ideas (plus a lot of other ones) together into something much bigger. He has apparently fallen off the New Age cliff entirely. According to the review, America Before is full of non sequiters, speculation, noble savage myths, and angry rants against the profession of archaeology as a whole, descending at the end of the book into the liberal use of caps and boldface type.

I have not read America Before, but my impression is that this review represents it accurately. I have two reasons. The first is that it is (believe it or not) a sympathetic review. The reviewer, Jason Colavito, knows and likes Hancock and is clearly familiar with the body of Hancock’s work.

In his early books on ancient mysteries, such as The Sign and the Seal(1992) and Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), Hancock wove a compelling narrative from sparse facts and heady speculation. These books were written as adventures in which Hancock cast himself in the role of a tweedier Indiana Jones, traveling the world in search of evidence of the impossible. Regardless of the conclusions he drew, the personal narrative of discovery created a compelling through-line that made these books engaging even for those who disagreed with the author’s ideas.
But with each successive book, Hancock seemed to anticipate that his audience is increasingly people who have read his earlier work.  …
Since Hancock is no longer an innocent questing for truth but a self-styled advocate of “alternative archaeology,” his books have taken on the tone of jeremiads, their sense of wonder and discovery replaced with righteous indignation …

“American Atlantis,” by Jason Colavito

And that is the second reason that I find this review believable. The weaknesses that Colavito identifies in America Before are characteristic weaknesses. I recognize them from Fingerprints of the Gods, but apparently in the intervening years they have gotten worse and not better.

In other words, the writer that Colavito describes definitely sounds like the Graham Hancock I know and love … or loved when he wrote Fingerprints. Maybe not so much now. It does not surprise me either that Hancock has gone full New Age in the years since writing Fingerprints. That’s because I read one of his fiction books, called Entangled: Eater of Souls. (It was a “fiction novel.” That’s what we experts in the publishing industry call them.) Entangled had soul guides, telepathic Neanderthals, hallucinogenic drugs, and everything.

I still think (as Hancock thinks, but for different reasons) that complex human civilization is much older than commonly believed. I even have some sympathy for Hancock’s frustration with archaeological assumptions and blind spots. But I don’t think there’s any organized scholarly conspiracy at work and I have no desire to read a book that amounts to an angry rant against those archaeologists working in North and South America. Nor do I think, should we discover (or, should I say, when we discover) ever more advanced civilizations in ancient North and South America, that a New Age type of explanation will be necessary.

So, goodbye, Mr. Hancock. I really enjoyed Fingerprints of the Gods. It presented some intriguing ideas and started me down my own speculative paths. But I don’t think I’ll be reading your latest offering.

Omigosh, a Huge Chunk of Asteroid Struck North America 12,800 Years Ago!!! … Or, Wait, False Alarm

On my shelf is a 2009 book called First Peoples in a New World by archaeologist David J. Meltzer.   I have learned many things from this book, not least of which is that North American archaeology is really, really contentious.  (I may post about this later.) 

On pages 55 – 58, right in the middle of a discussion of the causes of the Younger Dryas, is a long callout box in which Meltzer goes on a delightful rant:

In 2001 the Mammoth Trumpet, a newsletter for a lay audience … carried an unusually long, highly technical article declaring there’d been a Pleistocene doomsday.  A supernova-caused neutron bombardment centered over the Great Lakes had fried the earth 12,500 years ago … heated the atmosphere to over 1,800˚ Fahrenheit, and radiated plants and animals at the equivalent dose of “a 5-megawatt reactor for more than 100 seconds” … and so spiked atmospheric radiocarbon concentrations that ages on Paleoindian sites were thrown off by up to 40,000 years. …  [In 2007] the supposed Pleistocene extraterrestrial catastrophe was hyped as fact from FOX News to The Economist.

Meltzer pp 55 – 56

The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis

This claim is now called the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis.  The supposed comet impact or impacts are alleged to explain a number of phenomena:

  • Just as the last Ice Age was ending, right in the middle of a warming period, the climate unaccountably got cooler again for about 1000 years.  This glacial encore is called the Younger Dryas.  The idea is that a comet impact could have caused a bunch of glacial ice and water suddenly to be dumped into the North Atlantic, cooling temperatures there and interrupting the warming cycle.
  • The approximate date for the impact is around the same time that North America’s megafauna (mammoths, giant sloths) were dying out.  Paleontologists are not sure why they died out, because it’s very difficult to get an accurate sense of numbers or of how quickly the extinctions happened.  But if there was a comet impact, that would obviously be the #1 suspect in their demise.
  • Also around this time (about 10,800 BC) there is a geologic layer called the Black Mat, a carbon-rich layer that might be burned organic material or might be peat, as from the bottom of a pond.  In some places, it contains nanodiamonds and other unique mineral things that are usually only formed with high heat and pressure.
  • This is also the time period in which some archaeologists think the Clovis culture (of humans) was dying out in North America, though this die-off too is controversial.

Impact, Schmimpact

Meltzer, in his 2009 book, is scathing: “The claim was so far out literally and figuratively … it was met with bemusement, or simply ignored.”  He finds all kinds of evidentiary problems with the Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis.   He doesn’t think an asteroid impact is required to explain the Younger Dryas, for one thing.  (The cooling cycle could have been kicked off by meltwater from the North American glaciers even without a super-hot space rock, since the glaciers were already melting.) Furthermore, Black Mat evidence is inconsistent.  So is Clovis evidence.  So is evidence about the megafauna.  And, the biggest problem of all, in 2009 when his book was published, no one had found an impact crater.

Well, that has changed.  A 31-kilometer-wide impact crater was recently discovered under Hiawatha Glacier in Greenland.  And the proponents of the YDIH have also discovered what they say is additional evidence of impacts as far away as Chile.  (See the links below for more information.)

In Conclusion, We Are Not Sure the World Actually Ended

So, did a huge comet – or multiple pieces of a comet – really hit earth about 12,800 years ago?  Nobody really knows.  But – and this is the only point of this article – how can we not know this? How can we not be sure whether an apocalyptic, species-killing, continent-setting-on-fire event even happened? 

The fact there can be controversy about such a hard-to-miss event just illustrates how difficult it is to figure out anything that happened even a mere 12,000 years ago. Pause for a moment and allow your jaw to drop, as mine did when I first read this, over all … that we don’t … know.


Fernandez, Sonia. “The Day the World Burned: Geologic and paleontological evidence unearthed in southern Chile supports the theory that a major cosmic impact event occurred approximately 12,800 years ago” posted Friday, March 8, 2019 on UC Santa Barbara, https://www.news.ucsb.edu/2019/019375/day-world-burned

Haynes, C. Vance, Jr.“Younger Dryas ‘black mats’ and the Rancholabrean termination in North America”  Proceedings of the National Academcy of Sciences of the United States of America, published online 2008 April 24, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2373324/

Hurst, K. Kris. “Clovis, Black Mats, and Extra-Terrestrials: Do Black Mats Hold the Key to Younger Dryas Climate Change?” ThoughtCo.com, updated January 15, 2018 https://www.thoughtco.com/clovis-black-mats-and-extra-terrestrials-3977231

Kennett, D.J., et al.. Abstract, “Nanodiamonds in the Younger Dryas Boundary Sediment Layer” in Science 02 Jan 2009, Vol. 323, Iss. 5910, p. 94, https://science.sciencemag.org/content/323/5910/94

Meltzer, David J. First Peoples in a New World: Colonizing Ice Age America, University of California Press, 2009

Voosen, Paul. “Massive crater under Greenland’s ice points to climate-altering impact in the time of humans” posted in Science, Nov. 14, 2018, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2018/11/massive-crater-under-greenland-s-ice-points-climate-altering-impact-time-humans

Now, Please Enjoy This Delightful Navajo Legend

“[This episode] is often part of the Navajo emergence stories. It usually takes place in the fourth world, the one immediately below the present world. Domestic strife, adultery, and quarreling between the sexes characterize the relationship between men and women throughout the emergence journey. It is finally decided that men and women must separate and get along without one another. The men cross the river, leaving the women on one side while they go to live on the other.

“At first all goes well. The women live by agriculture, the men by hunting. Eventually the women experience crop failure and begin to starve, while the men realize they are all growing older and that their existence is threatened because they cannot reproduce themselves. … In time, each sex realizes that its existence is interdependent with the other and they are happily reunited.

“Hopi and other tribes have similar stories.”

Source: Dictionary of Native American Mythology, ed. Sam D. Gill & Irene F. Sullivan, Oxford University Press, 1992, pp 265 – 266

I love men. I am married to one. I have also given birth to a few of them. But nevertheless, this story makes me laugh because I can relate. Can you relate? Sometimes dealing with the opposite sex is just difficult.

In this video, Alistair Roberts talks about why women and men need each other and also about why when we get together in same-sex groups, our group cultures are very different.