James Axtell. The Indians' New South: Cultural Change in the
Colonial Southeast. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1997. 116 pp.
When James Axtell received the invitation from the history
department at Louisiana State University to deliver the Walter Lynwood
Fleming Lectures in Southern History, he was understandably "nonplussed"
(p. xiii). Many other scholars are far more qualified to speak on the
history of Southeastern Indians; Charles Hudson, Peter Wood, Theda Perdue,
Thomas Hatley, Daniel Usner, Helen Rountree and others spring to mind.
Still, it is good that Axtell accepted the invitation and wrote the
lectures. Now published in this small volume, they provide a useful
synthesis of recent scholarship. Although the Indians' New South sheds
little light on religion--the primary concern of this journal--the book
will aid those seeking initial orientation to the study of Southeastern
Indians during the colonial period.
The absence of any detailed treatment of religion derives from three
factors. First, Axtell has too few pages to do too much. Within only
seventy pages of actual text, he must set the stage, introduce major
"The absence of any detailed treatment of religion derives from three
European players, explicate the impact of European diseases, consider
intercolonial rivalries, describe the emergence of the deerskin trade,
enumerate demographic data, touch on cultural transitions, counter
stereotypes, and trace the destructive impacts caused by dependency,
alcohol, and invasion. Not surprisingly, not much copy is left for
religion. We read a few sentences on the Mississippian temple mound cult
(p. 6); a couple of comments regarding native spiritual responses to new
diseases (p. 38) and technologies (p. 18 and p. 73n2); an assertion that
market-influenced native deerhunters "soon omitted their religious
obligations" (p. 69); and a page on how native people modified trade
goods to conform to their own aesthetic and provide their beloved dead
with worthy grave goods (p. 67). These points are too abbreviated to
provide readers with substantive information. Moreover, no distinctions
are drawn among the traditions of various native peoples.
Space constraints aside, Axtell has made a couple of unfortunate choices.
The single religion that receives sustained attention in the Indians' New
World is that of a European invader! Axtell devotes several pages to Spanish Catholic missions (pp. 30-36). But he says nothing concerning African religions or responses to native traditions. Thus, he produces a badly imbalanced picture of religious diversity and transformation in the colonial Southeast. In spite of his poor choices, Axtell does not deserve harsh criticism. The spare treatment of native religion reflects the field as a whole. Southeastern ethnohistorians tend to be materialists, focused on "real" things like politics and economics, somewhat interested in culture, skittish when it comes to religion. Their proclivities have led to them to study the deerskin trade to death, but write very little on traditional Choctaw, Creek, Cherokee, and Catawba religions. This overall imbalance may explain why Axtell, remarkably, mentions the Green Corn Ceremony in connection with consumption, not spiritual renewal. During the ceremony, some native folks destroyed old goods. (Axtell incorrectly seems to think it was the rule for "the whole tribe" [p. 66]). Axtell
concludes that this "native custom" increased the Indians' "demand for
imported merchandise"(p. 66). This is rather like saying the spread of
Methodism did wonders for the grape juice industry. It may be true, but
at some point, we might expect a discussion of the religious meaning of the
relevant rituals and symbols. The Green Corn Ceremony, still practiced
today in Oklahoma, should be interpreted as one of the most profound and
oldest religious ceremonies in the Southeast, not merely as a spur to
consumption. The Indians' New World, like the world it describes, is
of decidedly mixed character. A good, but too brief, synthesis of the
field of southeastern ethnohistory, it will frustrate anyone eager to learn
how Native American religions responded to contact and conquest in the