His explanation of why he uses "Native American” interchangeably with “Indian” in reference to the early peoples of this hemisphere makes great good sense, but he notes that the indigenous persons to whom he has spoken always refer to themselves as “Indian” rather than “Native American.” In one of the Appendices, he quotes Russell Means, the Indian activist and member of American Indian Movement: “We were enslaved as American Indians, we were colonized as American Indians, and we will gain our freedom as American Indians, and then we will call ourselves any damn thing we choose.” Mann also notes that the peoples themselves had no over-arching name, referring to themselves by the name of their specific place and group, such as Pawtuxet in the Wampanoag confederation.
This book jumps all over the Western Hemisphere, touching on everything from the Indians of New England who greeted the Pilgrims, to the Amazonians, to the Mound Builders of the American mid-west, to the Inka of Peru. But the longest and most informative sections involve Meso-America, home to the Olmec, Maya, Mixtec and Toltec peoples, whose great cities bear testimony to their genius, early development, and complex cultures. For instance, along with their contributions to architecture and astronomy, Olmec mathematicians were using zero as a number centuries before their counterparts in the Middle East and many, many centuries before Europeans adopted the practice. In fact, inasmuch as “...the first recorded zero in the Americas occurred in a Maya carving from 357 A.D...,” they probably discovered its use at about the same time as, or possibly before, the Sanskrit mathematicians who were heretofore assumed to be the first.
Along with discussions of agriculture, architecture, and artifacts, Mann debunks our notions of Indians as living “lightly on the land.” They were, he says, makers and managers of change. Irrigation canals, land contouring, and even controlled burning were just a few of their methods. The latter, he says, created our Great Plains. Every spring and fall, the Indians set fire to the fields of dried grass, so that new, fresh grass would spring up easily and grow rapidly, attracting the bison and other large animals the tribes hunted. Such burnings gradually enlarged the plains area, creating what was in effect a huge pasture. The first European settlers on our Atlantic coast noted that the natives also burned off undergrowth in the huge forests each year, opening them up so that one could run a horse through them all day and never have to slow down. By end of the 18th century, however, the practice of controlled fires was abandoned, and the undergrowth grew back. As one who has looked at our local woods, thick with shrubs and vines, and wondered how on earth the pioneers managed to hack their ways through it, the vision of those early, burn-managed forests made sense to me.
Indians were in many ways ahead of their conquerors, one example being their insistence on social equality. They couldn’t understand why Europeans divided themselves into social classes, nor could they understand why Europeans were disdainful of the poor, old, and sick, while the rest lived with ostentatious wealth. Mann quotes the French adventurer Louis Armand de Lom’dArce, Baron of Lahotan, who lived in French Canada from 1683-1694, as explaining that the Huron say:
“....one’s as much Master as another, and since Men are all made of the same Clay, there should be no Distinction or Superiority among them.”