Our Endless Folly

The revised 'Arizona: A History' tells the definitive story of our state

There's an adage that those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. Well, we sure as hell don't read history in this state, and we'll be studying even less in the future now that we've gutted our education system.

But before it's too late, read Thomas E. Sheridan's newly revised (and by turns utterly riveting, sometimes horrifying and completely satisfying) Arizona: A History. You'll learn that the real back story of our state is one of savagery, gore, chicanery and criminality in the extreme. In the end, there are no heroes to this tale.

This narrative about Arizona's dark and bloody ground begins with a killing. A giant elephant-like creature called a mammoth is taken down 10,000 years ago near Naco, just this side of the future border. This slaughter represents the work of new animals on the landscape: humans outfitted with spears and stone tools. We know little of them. Archaeologists dug up the whole mess in the early '50s. It is telling that the first evidence of really ancient humans in Arizona involved the death of something big.

It would be a few millennia before the dudes who nailed the mammoth found themselves to be the hunted ones. The Spanish showed up in the 16th century bearing deadly gifts: guns, germs and steel. What would someday become Arizona would never be the same. A few centuries later, the white guys showed up, and that's when things really got ugly.

Sheridan is Arizona's pre-eminent historian, and no one grasps the complexities and nuances of Arizona's big picture better than he does. Growing up in Phoenix, he hungered for the Mazatzals, which later became his querencia, the place he returns to again and again to reconnect with the heart of our wild and woolly ground. His love for this place sprang from those early days and that craggy mountain range that represented for him the mystery and grandeur of the West. As he notes in his introduction, Arizona may only be a set of arbitrary lines on a map, but the Mazatzals were real.

Sheridan is a research anthropologist/professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona's Southwest Center and School of Anthropology. He has written a small shelf's worth of brilliant books and monographs that fill major gaps in our knowledge of this place we live. Since 1971, he has prowled the back country of northwest Mexico and the American Southwest, conducting ethnographic and ethno-historical research, trying to answer the question: Who are we?

His specialty, and the approach taken in this book, is viewing the world through the lens of "political ecology." He describes this as "the ongoing political interplay between global political and economic forces and local, cultural, demographic and ecological factors." For example, in Arizona, water is life, but curiously, it flows uphill to money.

If you had to pull out a single major lesson from this book, aside from the fact that we've spent a very long time killing and bilking each other, it might be this: Without the federal government, there literally would be no Arizona. (Damn, now the Tea Partiers are gonna come burn down my house.)

Sheridan has updated the well-received first edition of his book with discussions of contemporary issues like the Sonoran Desert Conservation Plan, SB 1070, the destruction of TUSD's Mexican-American studies program, and the Safeway tragedy. It turns out that everything happening around us right now has solid roots in our past. Knowing our history provides us with the proper context to understand who we are today and where we might be going.

The book ends with a gift—an enlightening 46-page bibliographic essay. Should you decide to actually read all of the sources Sheridan lists here (something I recommend), you would emerge with the equivalent of a graduate degree in Arizona history. It's something our politicians should seriously consider doing.

If you read only one book in honor of Arizona's centennial, make it this one. Years from now, when we ask ourselves, "My God! What have we done?" I hope Tom Sheridan will be there with another revised and updated version of this fine, thoughtful and important book so he can continue bearing witness to our endless folly.

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