I liked the argument in Sebastian Junger’s new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, but cringed throughout the first chapters as he lumped all American Indians together and made them stone-age hunter-gatherers, “a native population that had barely changed, technologically, in 15,000 years,” ignoring the diversity of economies and cultures, the growth and spread of agriculture, and the rise and fall of civilizations over millennia.
Alvin Josephy would say that this is yet another gross misunderstanding of American Indian history and its intertwined relationship with all American history, that the “standard narrative” once again sees all Indians as hunter gatherers with headdresses.
Sebastian Junger gained fame with a book about the sea, The Perfect Storm, and, after being embedded for five months with troops in Afghanistan, produced a well-regarded documentary film, “Restrepo,” and book, War, based on that experience.
In the new book, he argues that “humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern Society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.” His experiences with soldiers and vets, and his own brief encounter with PTSD—which he at first did not recognize as such—sent him on and exploration of PTSD that led him to the concept of “tribe.”
He’d quickly learned that most of the military veterans claiming PTSD now have not been involved in combat—only 10 percent of troops in Afghanistan and Iraq have experienced combat, while almost 50 percent claim PTSD. He thinks that most of what is diagnosed as PTSD is really a readjustment problem. Humans have evolved over eons in small interdependent groups—tribes—and need to be needed and need community in order to thrive. Soldiers leaving a situation that mimics ancient tribal culture and reentering a highly competitive, individualistic America have trouble. In the Peace Corps, which Junger gives a nod, it is called “reverse culture shock.”
Tribe is the book’s title and the answer to PTSD. His historical exploration begins with America’s founders and first relations with Indians. There are stories from Benjamin Franklin and other Founders about white men donning leggings and living like and with Indians on the frontier, and about women and children captured by Indians who did not want to be rescued. A Frenchman, Hector de Crevecoueur, lamented that “Thousands of Europeans are Indians, and we have no examples of even one of those Aborigines having from choice become European.”
For women, Indian life might have been hard, but the dominance of husbands was not so absolute. For Junger, the important notion is that tribal life offered the mutual support, egalitarianism, and community values that contemporary European society did not. And today in America, vastness and radical individualism are at odds with our tribal natures.
It’s no accident that Josephy’s book and the Kevin Costner TV series were named “500 Nations of North America,” an upfront declaration that there was great diversity in the Americas before the Europeans came. And in the National Book Award nominated Indian Heritage of America Josephy uses linguists’ work to show two continents evolving into groups or tribes that spoke some 2500 mutually unintelligible languages.
There were, among these “nations,” vast differences in economies, cultures, life-styles, wealth, governance, etc. etc. There were the imperial peoples of South and Central America—Incas and Mayans and Aztecs; the wealthy, class-bound, matriarchal, and extremely artistic cultures of the northern Pacific Coast; and the treaty and governance pioneering Haudenosaunee Confederacy of northeastern North America.
Nations—no civilizations—had risen and fallen: Inca, Mayan, Aztec, Cahokian. The Mayans’ intricate irrigation-based society might have fallen to global warming. Incans’ penchant for revering dead leaders might have sapped their economies. The mound-builders that summited at Cahokia near present-day St. Louis might have fallen to overcrowding, or drought, or disease. And the agriculture! Who tamed and developed corn, potatoes, tomatoes, chocolate, rubber, manioc, squash and all the rest? And how did they do it?
No, Mr. Junger, none of this touches your basic argument about humans evolving over hundreds of thousands of years to best function in small groups—groups of about 50, he estimates—and to value and practice mutual support and co
operative working and living. And the history of early North American interactions among “the English” and tribal peoples is enlightening and important.
But painting all American Indians with the same brush (caveat—later in the book there is some minimal admission of tribal differences) is robbing two continents of histories that are as rich, complex and tragic as anything Europe and Asia have to offer.
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