Today I visited the Makah Indian Reservation, at the most northwestern point in the continental United States. I was watching a group of distant cormorants with binoculars, and slowly realized that two of them were actually puffins.

There are several reservations scattered around Olympic National Park, and it’s interesting to see what they are like nowadays. I only get a tiny glimpse, though. It is a bit of an inspiration to read about indigenous culture.

What I most wonder is… could history have gone differently? How else could it have gone, other than this clash of ways of life, this quasi war of civilizations followed by the mistreatment and sidelining of native culture? It’s one of those things where I read looking for the answer to a question, but I just find more questions.

The True History of the Conquest of New Spain

I read this book a while ago, but it has stuck with me. This is a narrative account written by one of the guys who was fighting alongside Cortés as they conquered the Aztec empire. It’s just so alien. Not once does he stop to wonder, hey maybe killing all these people, burning and destroying their religious things, invading and destroying their country, maybe we’re doing a bad thing here. No, all of that is taken for granted. Death and destruction, one thing after another, risking his own life, dozens or hundreds of his companions dying, but obviously it’s all for a good cause.

Not only that, but the author has an extremely strong ethical sense, and is constantly arguing about what’s right and wrong, morally. He is just completely not focused on the natives. He’s upset that other groups of Spaniards either don’t give him enough credit, didn’t give him the cut of the spoils that he deserved, or included wrong facts in their retelling of this story. There’s so much of this that basically all modern editions cut out a couple hundred pages that steps away from the story to argue about some financial dispute that nobody has cared about for hundreds of years.

Was the Spanish victory inevitable? It’s hard to believe it happened at all, honestly. The Spanish were massively outnumbered, their weapons weren’t all that effective, they didn’t speak the language, but a small group basically managed to kidnap Montezuma and in the resulting confusion parlay that into conquering Tenochtitlan. I’m surprised they even tried in the first place.

I feel like the greatest weakness of the Aztecs is that they just did not know what was going on. They didn’t understand how counterproductive it was to give gifts to the Spanish, they didn’t know that the Incan empire had just fallen, and they didn’t understand that they were facing a threat significant enough that they should stop fighting amongst themselves.


This book made me sad for all the memories we have lost. Was there a corn-farming empire in the American Midwest? Are there complex civilizations buried beneath the Brazilian rain forest? Did the Spanish destroy records written in languages we don’t know anything about any more, full of rich stories and histories of forgotten peoples?

I understand that civilization moves on. I don’t lament that I live in a modern city with technology and medicine. I’ve lost touch with the skills that my ancestors of 400 years ago needed to survive, and that’s okay. But at least we have the stories. We have the language, we have the records, we descendants of Western Europeans know where we came from.

I wish the Spanish had simply collected the artifacts of the religions they hated, instead of destroying everything they could.

There’s just so much in this book. It makes me want to travel around Mexico and Peru.

Lakota America

The Lakota are interesting to me because a high school near where I grew up in Cincinnati was named “Lakota”. Our chess team would play against them. But nowadays the Lakota are around South Dakota. I never really thought about that too much until I read this book.

The story of the Lakota is a surprising one. Usually I think of Native American groups in history as a static thing - they lived somewhere, they had a way of life, the United States expanded, ran into them, probably treated them poorly, maybe there were some battles, and they end up forced onto a reservation. The Lakota don’t follow this pattern; they were shifting their way of life and expanding their own empire over time, and the Americans didn’t quite realize what was happening.

The fundamental shift in Lakota culture was when they got a lot of horses. Hunting buffalo on horseback was so profitable, they shifted their entire economy to this one “crop”, and migrated west in search of the best buffalo territory, often conquering other Native American groups as they went.

So from maybe 1730-1870 this was a great strategy and the Lakota grew to be the strongest Native American group. The core problem was that the buffalo were a limited resource. As the United States expanded, more settlers hunted the buffalo, and the Lakota by themselves were probably overhunting buffalo as well. There were some famous battles at the end, like “Custer’s Last Stand”, and some unethical manipulation of people via “treaties” that the Lakota couldn’t read - but the United States didn’t really win in the end either via military prowess or via trickery. The Lakota were dependent on American trade in a single declining industry, so trade restrictions crippled their economy, essentially forcing them to accept terms of surrender, moving onto reservations.

Was this inevitable? I don’t think so. The Mormons at some point were running a theocratic empire in the middle of nowhere, and we ended up figuring out how to compromise into a happy future, where nowadays Utah is a prosperous state, just like the others, and it just happens to have a lot of Mormons. We could be living in a world where the Lakota and the United States came to a peaceful compromise, and nowadays South Dakota just happens to have a lot of Lakota.

What went wrong? I think the Lakota had to get into some variety of high-productivity farming. They controlled a lot of economically valuable farmland, and the Americans had so many other priorities, like establishing the cross-continental railroad lines. It seems like it should have been clear at some point that war would not solve their economic problems.


The overall best of these books is 1491. It’s well-written, interesting, broad, and leaves me hungry for more on the topic. I recommend that to just about anybody. On the other hand, I feel like the other two went deeper and made me think harder. If one of the others piques your interest, those are pretty good too.