Cahokia: North America’s Great Song On The Mississippi, by Timothy R. Pauketat, narrated by George K. Wilson
I feel torn about this book. On the one hand, I am likely one of the few people outside of the St. Louis metroplex who has pondered the fate of Cahokia . On the one hand, I find that this book exposes a great deal of the double standard that exists when it comes to defending the culture of Native Americans. Native Americans are projected into this anti-colonial or anti-imperial picture where it is claimed that they respected the environment, that they behaved with decency and civility and that they were egalitarian and believed and practiced according to just and fair standards that were the moral superiors of Europeans, and this book conclusively proves all of that is a lie. Yet at the same time this book promotes the interests in the esoteric that the people of Cahokia had, and therefore this book managed both to be anti-mythic and also mythic at the same time, seeking to legitimize a culture that, if it had been made by white people, would be totally abhorrent to just about anyone who would celebrate a city made by native North Americans seemingly inspired at least in part by classical Toltec culture. This book will likely leave many people conflicted for a variety of reasons.
As far as its contents go, this book seeks to describe the great mound city of Cahokia in as much detail as possible. I will attempt to convey how detailed this book is, in ways that are deeply unpleasant but also strangely fascinating. Do you enjoy hearing about obscure and ancient mound building societies in the American South that you have likely never heard of? Have you ever wanted to hear about the details of human sacrifice on a nearly industrial scale? Do you want to know the diets of oppressed farming populations at the periphery of Cahokian life and how they were chosen to be sacrificial victims because they had clear skin? Do you want to know how people gambled away their property and even their wives and children over a game with sexual undertones involving a pole and stones? Do you care about the political worldview of archaeologists? Do you want to hear about the deep religious symbolism of man with human head earrings or corn mother or lodge boy and its possible reinterpretation of Mesoamerican myths? Do you want to hear about how the Cahokian adoption of brutal warfare may have changed the history of Native America, making it a far more savage place? Do you want to hear about the relationship between Cahokian imperiogenesis and the supernova of 1054AD, and also about how the collapse of the city state due to political instability and environmental degradation left an area of demographic collapse around the ruins of Cahokia but also influenced societies as far away as the Rocky mountains and the Cherokee of Appalachia? Do you care about the rushed sort of rescue digs that are done when areas are paved into interstate highways or turned into residential or commercial developments? If the answers to any of these questions are yes, there will be something to enjoy about this book. There will likely be a lot that will disturb you, but there will be a lot to enjoy as well, given that it is very difficult to tell where this is going next until the author gives a clue as to what he will discuss in the next chapter, keeping the suspense building until the very end.
In the end, there was too much to appreciate about this book to hold the political worldview of the author, who appears way too interested on leftist social ideologies, too much against the book. The society of Cahokia sounds like it was horribly oppressive, and that if I had been unfortunate enough to have been around at the time that I would have reacted either by trying to get away from the city or fighting against it, despite my own oft-expressed enjoyment of the cultural fruits of urbanity. This book shows beyond reasonable doubt that native Americans are no more noble about the environment than any other people, and that their cities are just as corrupt and exploitative and environmentally damaging as the cities of every other urban civilization. It is not only Western Civilization that has corrupted and damaged the earth, after all . Another thing to praise about this book is the excellent narration, from someone who appears to have made a good living as a narrator of books . All in all, despite the fact that a great deal of what this book discusses is unpleasant, even abhorrent, it is the sort of unpleasant that reminds us of our common humanity, even in our inhumanity. While it might be painful to see Native American claims at cultural and moral superiority to be so completely undercut, it is done in a way that reminds us all of the fact that there were great evils outside of our own historical stream, and that the struggle against evil and oppression is a universal human problem, and that it is not identity but rather behavior that makes someone good or evil. That is something we could all stand to remember.
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