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Old Knowledge From the New World : INDIAN GIVERS : How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World <i> by Jack Weatherford (Crown: $17.95; 288 pp.) </i>

<i> Hillerman's most recent book is "A Thief of Time" (Harper & Row)</i>

Fourteen essays form this unusual little book. A single theme links them, and each reinforces the same thesis--that the native cultures of the Americas revolutionized world civilization and would have transformed it even more had American Indian knowledge not been ignored and then destroyed. While Weatherford may sometimes follow the writer’s prerogative of selecting exactly the information that supports his position (an argumentative tactic I love to use myself), he makes a remarkable case.

Weatherford is a professor of anthropology at Macalester College, St. Paul, Minn., and he acknowledges financial assistance from the Kellogg, Joyce and Bush foundations. As scholarly-scientific as all that sounds, there’s none of the musty clumsiness here that one expects from academic writing. Weatherford is trying to persuade the public, not to impress historians. He usually relies on a technique perfected by the Wall Street Journal in that paper’s “leader” articles--pulling readers into complex subjects by making them personal. It also makes this a lively and interesting book.

In “Silver and Money Capitalism,” for example, Weatherford gives us a day in the life of Rodrigo Cespedes, a Quechua Indian who works a seven-day week at one of the silver mines that honeycomb Cerro Rico. The quick look at this exploited Indian, who gives an exhausting 12 hours for about a dollar, is dramatic. So are the economic statistics that follow. This peak produced 85% of the Andean silver that flooded Spain in the 16th Century, and it made Potosi a city rivaling London and Paris in size. But Weatherford’s ultimate point is that the huge supply of silver and gold produced by Indian miners increased the supply of precious metals available for coinage in Europe eightfold by 1600. That made possible the development of capitalism and the beginnings of a sophisticated urban trading economy. He documents his arguments (and provides a 10-page listing of references at the end of the book). While I’m no economist, it sounds plausible.

Weatherford moves from mining to an illustration of how efforts to exploit fur trapped by Canadian Indians led to development of the corporate structures that grew into a world trading system. He covers the contributions of New World Indians to the world’s food supply--effective farming methods as well as plant species that, beyond doubt, revolutionized world agriculture and provided more than half of what the world eats today. He explores what Indian knowledge added to the world’s ability to cure its illnesses. He deals with what Indian America added to architecture and urban planning, to navigation and even to world political philosophy. Weatherford notes that political thinkers from Montaigne to Thoreau were influenced by the high values they saw placed on personal liberty and individualism that they observed in Indian cultures.

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My own observations, based on growing up with Potawatomi and Seminoles in Oklahoma and more than 30 years of nosing around Hopi, Zuni and Navajo country doing the modest sort of research that my mystery novels require, convince me that Weatherford is right. I watch Hopis grow corn in drift sand in a climate where I, a product of the Future Farmers of America, wouldn’t dream of trying to grow it. I see an Acoma man jogging along a reservation road and learn from his great-granddaughter that he is 97. I hear a Navajo relate one’s wealth to the songs one knows.

Perhaps such personal anecdotes prove little. But now harder evidence has surfaced from archeological research in the Andes, indicating that a native American culture can make another significant contribution to humanity. Reconstructed pre-Columbian “platform farming” fields in the marshy flats around Lake Titicaca have been producing bumper crops in the face of drought, frost and flood. The ancient Indian system of digging out canals, using the earth to form raised planting fields, watering the crops from the canals and fertilizing them with the canal sediment has been outproducing modern agricultural techniques. David Bathrick, director of the Agricultural Office of the United States Agency for International Development, has said this ancient Indian technology may be the key to a “green revolution” in parts of Africa, Asia and South America where drought, cold and flood inhibit production.

Weatherford is certainly right in his central thesis: that we have underrated and ignored the contributions of American Indians to the world’s economy and culture. He is also right in his final argument: that we are losing our opportunity to benefit even more because we are allowing surviving Indian cultures to die away without learning what they still have to teach us.

In “Indian Givers,” Weatherford has given us a warning we shouldn’t ignore.

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