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Bisonflop

Editor's Introduction -- What did Amerindians do before they began to make big money by running casinos and selling tax-free cigarettes? Well, for starters, they devised unique agricultural techniques -- indeed, they were the folks who invented irrigation. (Fortunately for us, they disclosed their amazing innovation to "modern society," which is why we are able to practice irrigation today.) This is the sort of phony-Injun stuff that Addison-Wesley is peddling in a high-school book.
This article ran in The Textbook Letter, November-December 1994.
It accompanied a review of Addison-Wesley Biology, a high-school
book issued by the Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

Chief Thunderbottom,
the Panderer's Friend

William J. Bennetta

You probably haven't seen the name of Chief Thunderbottom until now, but you may well have encountered some of his work. The Chief is the proprietor of Thunderbottom Public Relations, Inc., a company that cranks out press releases telling phony stories about American Indians. The stories are becoming increasingly conspicuous nowadays, because unscrupulous writers are copying them and putting them into textbooks. The writers evidently believe that printing the Chief's ready-made rubbish is an easy way of pandering to the multi-culti mob.

A lot of the stories that the Chief peddles are clever-aborigine tales. These are similar to noble-savage fantasies, but they have imaginary scientific or technical elements. Each clever-aborigine story seeks to convince readers that some group of aborigines made great scientific or technological discoveries, and the story may also claim (implicitly or explicitly) that the aborigines' achievements contributed mightily to the development of modern civilization. Clever-aborigine tales come from various sources and involve various groups of people, but the ones that glorify American Indians seem to be especially popular with textbook-writers.

My account of Chief Thunderbottom is a spoof, of course. There is no such person. Yet there certainly is a person (or maybe a bunch of persons) engaged in concocting phony stories about Indians, and such stories certainly are turning up in schoolbooks. For an example, look at the sidebar on page 365 of Addison-Wesley Biology. It is both nonsensical and deceptive, and it exemplifies the sort of stuff that I associate with my apocryphal Chief. The sidebar is a clever-aborigine tale titled "Native American Agriculture."

Before I describe the tale itself, let me observe that pandering is its only apparent aim. I say this because Addison-Wesley's book gives no general history of agricultural practices, nor does it purport to describe the agricultural practices of any other group of people. In fact, the book's references to agriculture are few, even if we include the writers' silly attempts to mention agricultural applications of genetic engineering. The tale about Indian agriculture is not just phony. It is glaringly incongruous with the rest of the book, and I assert that its very incongruity marks it for what it is -- an attempt to exploit a vulgar fad.

The tale begins with a passage of vague, puffy claims about Indians (or "Native Americans," as Addison-Wesley calls them), and this passage is soon followed by some smarmy stereotyping -- "Native Americans base their farming practices and whole life pattern on a 'oneness' with nature and a great respect for all living things. They take from nature only what is needed and feel it is wrong to offend nature with pollution." (Sorry, Chief. I've heard all that sanctimonious stuff before. I've heard about Indians living in "oneness with nature" or "harmony with nature," but I'm still waiting for you to tell me what those phrases mean. While you're at it, please do explain that line about taking only what is "needed." Just what does that mean? I've learned a little about how some American Indians have treated natural systems and natural resources, and I find your stereotype laughable.)

As the tale continues, the student finds that "Scientists who study the dynamics of life on Earth are beginning to recognize the value of the practices and beliefs of Native Americans." What the student does not find is any support for that claim, any hint of who those "scientists" are, or any hint of what those "practices and beliefs" may be. The claim is nonsense.

Next, and even worse: The student reads that "Early Native American agriculture developed some very effective and sophisticated methods that are used in farming today," and he then reads that the "methods" comprised selective breeding, crop rotation, irrigation, and the use of marine organisms to fertilize fields. The intent here seems clear -- to promote the false notion that those "methods" were originated by Indians alone, and that the use of such processes in modern farming is an Indian legacy. This notion -- which later is reinforced by an explicit claim about Indians' contributing "farming techniques to modern society" -- is pure bisonflop. Putting it into a textbook is unconscionable. The truth is that selective breeding, irrigation and the other enumerated "methods" were conceived independently by many different peoples, in various parts of the world, at various times. (Recall, for example, the selective breeding of pigeons by the ancient Romans, or the selective breeding of fishes by the ancient Chinese. Or recall the ancient irrigation systems of the Middle East. No honest person would lead a student to believe that the people who built those systems got their ideas from Indians. And no honest person would hide the fact that irrigation and all the other enumerated "methods" were well known in Europe before any Europeans came to the New World and encountered any Indian practices.)

Reading on, the student finds a list that seems to muddle Indian "crops" with Indian "foods." (There is a difference, Chief, between crops and foods. Even if some Indians used maple syrup as a food, this does not mean that they cultivated maple trees as crop plants.) Next, a claim about the use of rubber-tree sap in making "waterproofing substances for clothing," and then a predictable item about herbal remedies: "Native Americans also used and still use herbs and other plant products for medicines. These medicines include aspirin, digitalis, and quinine." (That's more bisonflop, Chief, and we both know it. Tell me, Chief: Why haven't you described how, or for what purposes, the Indians used their "aspirin" and their other stuff? And answer me this: Are you aware that your bogus claims can have the effect of making the student vulnerable to herbal quackery?)

The tale ends with another passage of puffery, culminating in this wonderfully empty claim: "As modern society becomes more aware of the need to conserve resources and save the environment, the ways of Native Americans are becoming more valuable." I have no idea of what that is supposed to mean. Maybe it has something to do with the building of casinos.

It's only a matter of time, I guess, until Chief Thunderbottom devises a tale depicting some group of Indians as the inventors of water ("which is still used today"). That will be funny -- until some panderer puts the tale into a schoolbook.


William J. Bennetta is a professional editor, a fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the president of The Textbook League, and the editor of The Textbook Letter. He writes often about the propagation of quackery, false "science" and false "history" in schoolbooks.

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