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Review

Indigenous Peoples of North America: A Concise Anthropological Overview

By Robert J. Muckle

November 4, 2013

Review By Bruce Miller

Robert Muckle has responded to the market place need for a concise textbook treatment of the lives and circumstances of the Indigenous peoples of North America. Previous works are too long, too detailed, and unreadable by the current generation of university students who want the short version. Muckle has succeeded in this. He’s taken up issues of naming and identity, relations between Indigenous peoples and the anthropologists who write about them, the nature of the archaeology of North America, and the problems of determining the size of the population before contact. Then he turns his attention to the culture area concept (a late nineteenth century anthropological invention) and presents information about a variety of topics such as pre-contact social systems, subsistence strategies, and health and healing, via summaries of the practices in each culture area. Finally, he considers “understanding the colonial experience” and contemporary Indigenous responses to relations with the United States and Canada. He includes several useful appendices, including excerpts from the Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

All of this is good, but this approach brings its own, possibly unavoidable, problems. I am sympathetic with Muckle’s effort to reach students but I am not convinced he has got it right. First, by presenting all of the material about what he calls “lifeways” in the past tense (describing the period before contact), and treating the colonial experience without describing how people now live, the book unavoidably evokes a sense that Indigneous people live in the past and are political in the present. It is hard to avoid this dilemma. Second, the bracketing of Indigenous practices within culture areas leads to some unhelpful generalizations, summarized in a number of tables. We learn, for example, that the political systems of the Northwest Coast were “chiefdom-like,” and in the Great Basin, “band-like.” Similarly, the Northwest Coast people were “semi-sedentary,” and the people of the Plains were “mobile,” living in tipis. These sorts of tables derive from the preliminary efforts to organize data of neo-evolutionary anthropologists of the 1950s and they are misleading in that they imply teleology and overlook variability. The close-cropped summaries are sometimes truly odd: “The myths of many Indigenous groups featured cannibals” (98). True, but horribly decontextualized. What could a student make of this?

Muckle gives considerable space to anthropology but presents a dated version of the discipline, one which foregrounds consensus as the basis of social life and overlooks internal contradiction and dispute. His areas of anthropological examination in describing “lifeways” do not include questions of meaning, and spiritual life is strangely subsumed within “ideology.” Materialist understandings alone, for example, are provided regarding mythology, which, he writes, explains the natural and cultural world and also educates and entertains. Although the book carefully wipes away many stereotypes, it introduces others. For example, we learn that Indigenous stories rarely focus on time, except in vague ways (43). Archaeology, on the other hand, he says, gives precise dates. This conclusion overlooks internal Indigenous forms of dating by the layering of events. And archaeology does give precise dates, but more usually, archaeology understands chronology by the layering of artifacts. These processes are more similar than different. Finally, the text never once mentions law, an omission of some importance given that Indigeneous peoples today must demonstrate that their ancestors lived in organized societies with their own systems of law to proceed in the land claims litigation. 

Indigenous Peoples of North America: A Concise Anthropological Overview
By Robert J. Muckle 
Toronto: University of Toronto Press: 2012. 208pp. $24.95 paper