Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Two Lines of Thought Converge in a Muddled Head

Welcome to 2011, History Fans!

I realize that I have been away for some time. Well, sometimes things get hairy. And then you finally get around to shaving those hairy things. And even when you do, you can get rashes or cut yourself and not want to shave again for some time.
What I mean to say is that I was busy, then not busy and lazy, then not lazy and distracted.

But here I am, in February 2011, with two lines of thoughts ready to bore you to death. I'll start with something more familiar, then go down a treacherous road.

Some may remember that last summer I read Jared Diamond's book Guns, Germs, and Steel. That book had a profound impact on how I looked a societies and cultures in history. Geography plays such an important role, one that I hadn't realized until reading Diamond's book. When I first began thinking about studying vikings academically and narrowing down exactly how I'd approach it, the subject of geography was forefront in my mind. Climate and landscape really affected the lives of Icelanders and how they interacted with each other. Those elements can be found in the literature and in the history, mythical or factual. How important geography was! Add Diamond's lessons, and you've got quite an impressive subject: how geography affects society and culture.

I ran across something in my reading today that really put some pieces together. My fascination with geography in the Viking Age focused on the end of the era, the transfer of ideas to Iceland and how the sagas and stories survived. But in Gwyn Jones' A History of the Vikings, she presented an idea that I hadn't really thought of. She is discussing what led up to the Viking Age, which, if you've read this blog before, is a long and intricate story. In her book, she lays out the three prominent areas in pre-unified Norway. The first was Ostland, which included the soon to be the wealthy and blooming Vestfold. This area included the richest land in the country, so they were ahead of the pack in agriculture. The second was the Trondelag, which also had some extensive farm land, but more importantly, it was home to upper grasslands that soon became summer seters, communal grazing areas. The third was the coastal, mountainous region to the west. There is very little farmland, hardly any grasses for grazing. But there was the coast!

It's natural to see the progression in hindsight. But even then, the conditions were ripe. The first two regions were growing in wealth and power, especially in the Ostland. With western coast suffering and falling behind in the race to connect the kingdoms under one Norway, their options were limited. So they turned their longboats to their neighbors and took what they could. Now, are these the first vikings? I'm not sure. But the geography once again provides a situation in which history can be decided. Because of the poor terrain, the western Norsemen plundered their neighbors' wealth, which became a steady occupation for the next few centuries.

Geography, how you continue to amaze me!

Now, the next section is completely separate. I couldn't even think of a cool reason to connect them. It's just a couple things I've been thinking about so, you know the old saying. Two birds with one blog post.

I've been listening to a book at work called Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier. SHEW! Timothy Shannon discusses how they grew from the Iroquois league to a confederacy, and he explains the process of diplomacy through Iroquois and colonist eyes. Aside from being terribly interesting, the book has shed light on something that I know I learned about in college but didn't take much stock in: worldview.

Worldview is another heavyweight, like geography, which shapes the world around you. If you are born into an American Christian home, you are going to have a completely different world view from a Chinese Buddhist. We all know this. It isn't a new lesson. But it's a new one for me, and I've been fortunate to have Shannon illuminate the Iroquois story of origin so that I might better understand them as a people.

The Iroquois story of creation is something I've read before and still, after hearing it a second time, will not remember it that well. But it's something like this:

There was a pregnant woman who lived in the sky. Her husband would go find things for her to eat. He also dug a hole for some reason and one day she slipped through the hole. She landed in the sea and was rescued by some birds and was hoisted onto the back of a turtle. She gave birth to a girl, who in turn gave birth to twins. There was a good twin and a bad twin. They started creating things to outdo one another. Naturally the good twin would create good things like rivers and fishies and doggies and the bad twin would volley back with squalls and sharks and wolves. I forget how the story finishes. Somebody dies.

But the twins is the important part of the story. You see, with the twins there was a balance. For everything good there was something bad. This sort of thinking is crucial to understanding the Iroquois, and perhaps many native peoples. Dave will have to correct me on that one. The Indians were intent upon keeping that balance. So in their diplomacy, they would induce peace meetings with certain folks, then attack them. It is hard to wrap our heads around, but it was part of maintaining the balance.

When Europeans arrived, they could see no sense in the attacks. For them, wars were caused by economics or land disputes. Something tangible and evident. They saw the natives warring as savage and uncouth. But it actually goes much deeper. And the deeper you go, the more you find that balancing the good and the bad is at the heart of what they do. For instance, if a woman lost a member of her family and was not consoled, she would get a group of warriors to attack a neighboring community and take prisoners. These prisoners would often be adopted into families to take the place of the deceased relative. People raiding increased dramatically when 75% of the Iroquois nation was wiped out by diseases after the colonists arrived.

We have for the most part gotten over the horrific warrior and noble savage stereotypes. But Native American culture is still something I know little about. The fact that there are so many different cultures makes it even more difficult to understand. Little by little, though, it becomes clear that Native Americans are misrepresented throughout history because they are so poorly understood. For instance, it is a fact that many of the Iroquois traded sides more than once with the English and the French in their battle for domination of America. To us, they seem like treacherous fiends, but to them, it meant little more than maintaining a balance and surviving in a world where the scales were tipping out of their favor.

I hope that Dave can help shed some light on these thoughts. Before long I'd like to discuss the Iroquois League itself and how misunderstood that entity was.

Well, sorry to switch gears so dramatically, History Fans. But here's to a new year. And guess what! It's black history month! Time to do some research!