The First Americans: A Study of the Native Peoples of the Eastern United States

Letters to the Editor: Karen Bass’ scholarship problem looks bad. Don’t ignore it.

When Karen Bass decided that the study of the historical and prehistoric inhabitants of the eastern United States was going to be part of the program for her forthcoming book, The First Americans, she was told that it would be a major work. (1) Bass was a professor of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Utah, and she is a member on the National Humanities Center Advisory Board. The NHC is part of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bass has a distinguished academic career as a researcher, but her research career does not stop there. She has served as director of the Molloy Museum in Queens, New York. In the 1990s, she was a member of the commission appointed to examine the cultural heritage of the New World. And she is a consultant for the World War II research effort in North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean.

To be fair, it is possible to find in these writings about ethnology and archaeology a rather shallow focus on the study of the First Americans as a general subject. It is true that there is a need to take a closer look at the peoples of the New World, Bass suggests, but the need is limited to a consideration of the native people as they were known to the early colonists, namely, the Nahuas, the Aztecs and their contemporaries.

But Bass’ scholarship is not limited to this point. Not only does she suggest that we read the archaeological and ethnological texts of the early period of contact between the Western Hemisphere and Europe–that early period roughly, from 1200 to 400–but she goes further in her examination of the archaeological and ethnological texts in the period from 400 to 1100. She suggests that the study of the early history of the Americas is too limited. Instead, Bass proposes that the study of the “First Americans” should begin with the study of the tribes of the northern plains, south of the Mississippi, that she terms, the Pueblo Indians. She is not wrong when she says, in her introductory remarks:

The region of the northern Rocky Mountains on which this book is based…is the earliest one in which civilization developed, and it is this very civilization which we are trying to understand, the first civilization in Western history…. To study the very development of this civilization itself it is necessary to

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