Retelling US history with native Americans at the centre
A historian at Yale and a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, Blackhawk rejects the myth that Native Americans fell quick and easy victims to European invaders.
“How can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world’s most exemplary democracy?” This is the provocative question with which Ned Blackhawk opens his important new book, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History.” A historian at Yale and a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, Blackhawk rejects the myth that Native Americans fell quick and easy victims to European invaders. Instead, he asserts that “American Indians were central to every century of U.S. historical development.”
More boldly still, he insists that “Indigenous dispossession facilitated the growth of white male democracy and African American slavery” to constitute America’s historical trifecta of flaws. Built to serve and expand a settler society, the United States limited full citizenship to white men; helped them start new farms on lands taken from Indians; and protected their property rights, including their possession of enslaved people.
Despite this promising premise, “The Rediscovery of America” gets off to a slow start by belabouring a straw man: “historians” who have neglected the American Indian past because they have been in thrall to “tropes of discovery” and notions of “the superiority of Europeans” that “have bred exclusion and misunderstanding.” Who are these bad historians? Blackhawk’s introduction identifies only two, one of them dead.
In fact, this book benefits from Blackhawk’s wide and savvy reading of the many scholars who, during the last 50 years, have restored Native peoples to their prominent place within a fuller, richer American history. Yes, we still have a triumphalist story of white settlers overcoming a wilderness filled with Indians to make democracy, but that tale persists almost entirely in popular culture and among right-wing corners of politics and the internet, far from academic historians.
In the early chapters Blackhawk’s book lacks cohesion and flow, looping back and forth in time with much repetition as he considers the first three centuries after Columbus. Here he tells a now familiar story: Claiming religious and cultural superiority, European invaders slaughtered many Native peoples and dispossessed them of their land. The conquerors had help from devastating epidemics, which during the colonial era reduced Native populations by nearly 90 percent.
Some invaders cultivated Native Americans as trading partners, exchanging European manufactured goods (including firearms) for furs and hides offered by Indian hunters. That trade ignited widespread wars among Native nations over hunting territories, for, without furs to trade, a nation risked succumbing to better-armed neighbors. These conflicts generated thousands of captives, some adopted into Native tribes, others bartered to Europeans who enslaved them. Blackhawk vividly recounts the waves of violence that shook North America during the age of colonization.
Alan Taylor is the author of American Republics: A Continental History, 1750-1804
The New York Times