Title Reviewed:
Mother Earth: An American Story

Author Reviewed:
Sam D. Gill

Richard Aquila


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 85, Issue 2, pp 180-181

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

Mother Earth: An American Story. By Sam D. Gill. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987. Pp. x, 196. Notes, bibliography, index. $24.95.)

In 1810 Tecumseh allegedly told William Henry Harrison, "The Earth is my mother and on her bosom I will repose" (p. 6). Other Indians later expanded on the Mother Earth theme, describing her as an ancient and universal goddess/creator who provides a primordial and spiritual base to the Indian identity.

Scholars and observers familiar with Native American beliefs have documented and acknowledged the Mother Earth story for more than a century. Now Sam D. Gill, professor of religious studies at the University of Colorado, has come along to contend that not only does this emperor have no clothes but that there may be no emperor at all.

Gill argues that there was no Mother Earth goddess common to all Native American tribal cultures. At best, he suggests, one can find numerous female religious figures, whose great diversity makes it "unproductive to collapse [them] into a single goddess …" (p. 151). According to Gill, most of the arguments for Mother Earth rely on a few questionable sources (statements by Tecumseh and Smohalla and specific evidence from Zuni, Luiseño, and other tribal religions), which often reflect white attitudes more than Indian and suggest Mother Earth was the result of Indian-white contact in the New World. Yet scholars basing their studies on those materials or simply citing each other developed and continue to perpetuate Mother Earth's story. By the twentieth century, Native Americans had embraced Mother Earth as their own as the basis for their identity and relationship to the land.

Gill's argument is fascinating. Whether or not Mother Earth has ancient or recent origins is problematic, and Gill's book is more the opening shot rather than the concluding volley in the battle to decide her fate. Some scholars will argue that Gill, who stresses the great diversity in Native American religions rather than any similarities, cannot see the forest for the trees. Others will attack his limited research base, suggesting the need for more detailed analysis of additional Indian religions. Still others will applaud his exposure of the slipshod work done on the subject by established scholars and praise his meticulous unraveling of the Mother Earth story.

This brief but provocative volume should spark a lively debate. While it may not disprove Mother Earth's existence as an ancient and universal goddess, it nevertheless shows that she has not yet been proven to exist.

RICHARD AQUILA is professor of history at Ball State University. His article, "Sights and Sounds: A Total Approach to American Indian Studies," is forthcoming in The History Teacher.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.