Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Advocate for Indians

JACK WEATHERFORD is not an American Indian. He doesn't even consider himself to be a scholar of Indians.But this Macalester College anthropology professor has become a sort of intellectual cult hero for those who feel that native Americans have been ignored by people in the United States and other countries. What Dr. Weatherford is saying - and what he has said for the past three years - is that American Indians played an important role in creating the world's economic, political, and agricultural systems. His 1988 book, "Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World," sold more than 100,000 copies. And with the publication last month of his latest book, "Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America," Weatherford continues to promote the achievements of Indians. In a recent interview in his college office in St. Paul, Weatherford recalled that he first became interested in Indian culture in 1976 while working on his PhD in Germany, where he was studying the technological history and social organization of the village of Kahl, near Frankfurt. "I was surprised at the impact of Indian crops on this village - of potatoes, corn, and cotton. Even though I was born in South Carolina on a very small farm where we grew cotton and tobacco as cash crops, I had specialized in European culture and civilization. And suddenly, when I was in Germany, I realized I knew nothing of my own world," he says, glancing at one of the three large world maps on his office walls. "I didn't even know that cotton was an Indian crop. "When I got back to the States I wanted to read a book about the influence of Indians on the world. But the book wasn't in the library," Weatherford says. "When I couldn't find the book, I wrote the book." Weatherford says that despite the many contributions Indians have made to US and world cultures, relatively little literature has been produced by native Americans. But he maintains that the reason for this apparent lack of creativity is easy to understand. "By living in isolated areas, Indians are the least urban of all Americans. They thus have little access to the media," Weatherford says. "This rural concentration makes it impossible for them to have the access they need to be productive writers," he adds. Weatherford sees a "renaissance" of interest in Indians. This rebirth has occurred in just the past few years, and is unlike the previous interest in Indians throughout the 1970s and early '80s, where much of the writing about native Americans was politically oriented, often stressing only "the horrible damage being inflicted" on Indians. Now Weatherford sees a greater emphasis on native American history, music, art, and spiritual beliefs. Two years ago, Weatherford wrote a controversial opinion piece that was widely printed throughout the US. In it, he said Columbus Day should be abolished, saying that Columbus "opened the Atlantic slave trade and launched one of the greatest waves of genocide known in history." Weatherford says that of the 250,000 words he has written in his career, the Columbus article is the one piece of writing for which most people seem to remember him. "It became a lightning rod for all sorts of issues. Columbus became a symbolic thing for people who are pro- and anti-European," Weatherford says. "The New York Times and Newsweek called me an anti-Columbus expert. But I'm just a person with an opinion. I'm not a Columbus scholar - or an Indian scholar." There will be no sequel to "Native Roots," Weatherford says. But he adds that he will stay involved to some extent with his interest in Indians through an all- Indian-produced, seven-part PBS documentary based on his books to be aired in 1994. In "Native Roots," he explains that Indians are deeply rooted in North American culture and have shaped Americans in ways that they did not shape the rest of the world. Anthropology, linguistics, history, folklore, mythology, and literature have borrowed from native Americans, he points out. He offers examples of how Americans have consciously modeled modern social institutions - such as the Boy Scouts - after those of Indians. Words such as tobacco, potato, tomato, shark, toboggan, dory, bootleg, and ho nk all have Indian roots. Weatherford says his two books are "an exploration, not the last word from an authority. If they generate a debate, then I'm happy with that. If people have moved on from my books in the next 10 years, no one could be happier than I would be. I'm not trying to pontificate to the world. I'm trying to bring attention to the issues." He pauses, then adds, "There are no villains or heroes in my books. 'Native Roots' is a positive story - and people like that. I'm not trying to tear down the Europeans - I'm trying to build up the Indians. I see it as a way that can unite us - that we have these common Indian roots."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.