This review first appeared in the Tally Sheet (Summer 2017, Volume 63, Number 3)

LA QUESTIONE INDIANA, DA COLOMBO AL TERZO MILLENNIO                                            (The Indian Question, from Columbus to the Third Millennium)

By Massimiliano Galanti, Odoya S.R.L., Bologna, 2016.

I suspect that a great many of us have a secret passion – something else we’d be happily labouring at night and day, had we not conceived a fascination with the American West. I am no exception to this principle and under different circumstances I would probably have devoted myself to a more substantial study of Italian language in both its ancient and modern forms.

I have therefore built up a small collection of books on Native American themes written by Italian authors, thus enabling me to pursue both interests simultaneously. La Questione Indiana is a recent and most welcome addition to this small biblioteca.

Too many books on the subject, in any language, have been hastily thrown together by authors with no proper grounding. Clearly, Signor Galanti does not fall within the scope of this censure; his credentials are certainly impressive by any standard. The cover notes inform us that he has been an active campaigner for the rights of indigenous people for around thirty years and that since 1995 has been a member of the executive committee of Il Cerchio (The Circle), an Italian organisation for the support of Native American causes. He has even participated at the level of a United Nations Working Group.

The substance of the book consists of a comprehensive review of relations between the original inhabitants of North America and their conquerors, from the pre-Columbian era right up until the Obama administration. Galanti’s encyclopaedic grasp of his subject swiftly becomes apparent and this substantial volume of almost 500 pages is packed with insight and original perspectives.

Chapter 2, Malattie e Genecidio (Disease and Genocide) demonstrates that the collapse of native resistance was essentially a medical phenomenon and that the eventual outcome would probably have been very different had the tribes not been repeatedly ravaged by a number of conditions – in advance, in the first instance, of actual contact - to which the great majority had no natural immunity.

He skilfully analyses the precise mechanisms of conquest and unravels the complexities involved in the rivalries between contending European powers, before these were swept away by the inexorable juggernaut emerging from the successful outcome of the War of Independence. There is also a powerful elucidation of Federal Indian Law and the ever-evolving legal status of indigenous peoples, all set within a masterly exposition of United States constitutional history.

The treatment of the ‘Cherokee cases’, heard by the Supreme Court in the early 1830s, is, in my opinion, slightly confused, but, in mitigation, this appears to be due to the non-availability of the legal sources and overreliance upon inaccurate literary sources.

Another of my favourite chapters, Chapter 5, La Perdita della Sovranità (The Loss of Sovereignty), skilfully demonstrates that the concept of the tribes as ‘domestic dependent nations’, devised by the Federal courts, has created a legal concept admitted to be without direct parallel anywhere else in the world, sufficiently flexible and ambiguous to bear almost any interpretation which is placed upon it, as the circumstances of the case and political objectives dictate.

If I might be permitted one further small criticism, Gallanti’s adoption of a thematic rather than a strictly chronological structure is at times a barrier to a proper understanding of the narrative but this is to a very considerable extent offset by the pellucid clarity of his text.

Three consecutive chapters deal separately with the successive phases of conquest, of the East, the Great Plains and the Far West. These are followed by a useful and highly original account of the U.S.A.’s continuing extra-continental expansion following the close of the frontier from the early 1890s onwards.

It is a familiar story which has often been told but very seldom in such a skilful, systematic and comprehensive fashion. Unfortunately, I am most reliably informed that there are currently no plans for an English translation which would place it before the far wider readership that it plainly merits. It is written in such a fresh and engaging fashion as vividly to remind me of how this subject came to captivate me half a century ago.

La Questione Indiana is a masterpiece, a true capolavoro. It is, in itself, a wonderful education and a painful glimpse into the soul of a nation for which the presence of a highly colourful original population, with its own independent traditions has long been perceived as a problem, an obstacle to be overcome. To those who read Italian, it is recommended in the highest possible terms. To those whose accomplishments extend in other directions, it is observed that it might even be worthwhile acquiring Italian if only to be able to read this marvellous meraviglioso book!

Tom F. Cunningham


English Westerners' Society  

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