James Axtell and Alice Kehoe, two different kinds of American Indian scholars

Since they say that academics should not make value judgments, that is one of the main reasons I never went into academia. Two books have just come to my attention that I will now make value judgments on. One is a work of an evil man; the other is a book by somebody fighting evil within academia.

James Axtell is the author of the recently published "The Pleasures of Academe: A Celebration and Defense of Higher Education." According the online reviews at www.barnesandnobel.com:

"He discusses, with imagination and wit, the many pleasures of academic life, including intercollegiate sports, the 'benign pathology' of loving and collecting books, teaching and service outside the classroom, life in college towns, and working vacations."

"While he does mention genuine problems such as rising tuition costs, deficiencies in student writing, and excessive vocationalism, Axtell is nothing if not an optimist. He can spot the silver lining in most any dark cloud. The tone here is that of an avuncular club man who informs us (repeatedly) that he has been part of the professoriat at several elite institutions and knows that all is well with the academic world. Pangloss is expected momentarily."

This hale-fellow-well-met Axtell who spends an entire chapter writing about his own athletic exploits as an undergraduate is just the kind of person I have always loathed. He is the sort of ex-jock who chose academia the way that others chose law, medicine or some other profession: for the material benefits it can bring. You might make less money as part of the "professoriat," but you get those summers off and you can enjoy pleasant campus settings.

But the reason I hate these sentiments coming from Axtell more than I would from the ordinary mandarin is that it so happens that Axtell is the reigning "dean" of American Indian history. He, by the way, calls it ethnohistory. Ward Chuchill observed that there is Italian history and French history, but when it comes to indigenous peoples, there is something called "ethnohistory." Why is that? Obviously, because the savages have to be pigeon-holed.

Axtell debated Ward Churchill at a conference of American Historians. He said that the term genocide did not apply to what happened in the US because nobody wanted to exterminate the Indians in the way that Germans wanted to exterminate Jews. He said that despite smallpox blankets, the main cause of Indian deaths were "accidents" caused by wayward germs. Churchill replied that it was odd that when the Europeans noticed that when they went among the Indians, the Indians mysteriously dropped dead from disease. One would expect that people who wanted to avoid killing other people would refrain from contact until an explanation was found. Axtell also argues that to charge the US with genocide and slavery was unfair, because all this was in the past. Shades of Rush Limbaugh.

Now to turn to honest scholarship, I recommend Alice Beck Kehoe's newly published "The Land of Prehistory, A Critical History of American Archaeology." The back cover quotes Sarah Nelson, "The Land of Prehistory is an uncommon history of American archaeology which analyzes how class and the doctrine of Manifest Destiny have not only colored archaeological writings but also affected the way histories of past archaeologies have been written."

The book takes aim at the origins of archaeology in 19th century Social Darwinism. Lewis Henry Morgan, who turned out to be influential not only on Marx and Engels, but on the men who started American Indian residential schools in the United States, posited a "stages" theory of human civilization. People like the Iroquois were of a lower stage, while capitalist America of the Victorian era represented the highest stage. Marx and Engels argued that socialism would supersede capitalism, but accepted Morgan's schema on its merits.

The only problem is that much of Morgan's findings were highly questionable, as were those of most archaeologists who followed this schema. Kehoe, citing another progressive scholar Joan Vincent (Archaeology and Politics) makes puts Morgan into context:

"His first work, The League of the Iroquois (1851) preceded...not only Darwin's Origin but Herbert Spencer's books. Over the next quarter-century, Morgan reframed his enterprise, from a description of a foreign nation to a universalizing science that can explain how contemporary America came into existence--and in explaining, counsel how American and her institutions might continue. We needn't look far to figure out Morgan's interests: he was a lawyer and prominent citizen among the bourgeoisie of a provincial city, an investor in railroad and mining ventures on the Old Northwest frontier, and a candidate for the New York legislature from the new Republican Party in the 1860s. Equally important, Morgan's closest friend was Josian McIlvanine, a Presbyterian leader steeped in Scottish Common-Sense Realism and the conjectural histories of Adam Smith, Ferguson, Kames, Monboddo, and their compatriots in Edinburgh and Glasgow. This school of philosophes sat in the very archetype of the Industrial Revolution, where capital-intensive industry replaced mercantile and agricultural wealth. Their engagement to understand that radical shift in political economy spoke directly to Morgan's sensibility, a century later, that American's post-Civil War industrialization cried out for a social charter."

That social charter, needless to say, took concrete form in the wars of extermination against the American Indian which culminated in the Massacre at Wounded Knee.