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A new history of Indigenous America that replicates old myths

Finishing touches are made on a community-curated exhibition of Native American pottery from the Pueblo Indian region of the U.S. Southwest on July 28, at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe. (Morgan Lee/AP)

Scholars of American history long failed to treat Native peoples as influential actors. In a story whose early chapters were organized around Puritans, patriots and presidents, Indigenous peoples only received mention so that they could be vanquished. These presumptions have remained so ingrained that even as Native American history has flourished over the past generation, few have attempted to synthesize the role that Indigenous people played in the story of North America more generally. Scholars tend instead to focus on the details, narrating the stories of different groups at different times. “Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hamalainen represents an attempt to offer a more sweeping view, boldly claiming to show how much power Native Americans exerted over early colonists and settlers. In a rush to overturn many historical fallacies, the book unfortunately ends up reaffirming several of the very myths it aims to contest, particularly a narrative of Indigenous decline at odds with the book’s emphasis on Native American power.

In his best-known work, “The Comanche Empire (2008), the Finnish-born Hamalainen offered a full-throated rejoinder to the erasure of Native history. It inverted the conventional narrative of early America history, making the case for a process of “reversed colonialism” in which Indigenous peoples dominated the past. The study launched both its subject and author, who became the Rhodes professor of American history at Oxford.

Like all scholarly achievements, this study built upon the work of others, joining a spate of studies of “Indians and empires” that added new regions, empires and Indian nations to the field. Hamalainen followed up with a similarly expansive study, “Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power” in 2019. Many Lakota studies scholars, however, balked at its presumptions of Lakota imperialism, arguing that the term “empire” distorts Indigenous historical realities, misconstrues the cultural motivations of Native communities and discounts the legacies of colonialism.

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“Indigenous Continent” is unlikely to assuage such concerns. Hamalainen once again leans into the language of empire while downplaying the effects of colonization. The book’s opening pages gesture back to the author’s prior work. We are told that Europeans, not Native peoples, “were the supplicants” of early America, “their lives, movements, and ambitions determined by Native nations.” According to Hamalainen, the field of study should no longer be called “colonial America” at all, but rather “Indigenous America.” Colonial history is best understood as Indigenous history.

This emphasis on Indigenous power drives the narrative and inverts traditional emphases on Euro-Americans: “Haughty Europeans assumed that the Indians were weak and uncivilized, only to find themselves forced to agree to humiliating terms,” he argues. Throughout, he aims to present a history of “persisting Indigenous power” that “remains largely unknown.” Such history, he claims, is “the biggest blind spot in common understandings of the American past.”

Such provocative claims fly in the face of long-standing paradigms, many of which continue to privilege Anglophone actors. But where many have critiqued this way of seeing the past, Hamalainen aspires to abandon it altogether. As evidenced by a short introduction with only one citation, he is clearly in a hurry to do so.

Some may view such provocations as overdrawn, particularly given the heavy focus upon Europeans that follows. In Chapter 4’s examination of 16th-century Spanish exploration, for example, Gov. Juan Ponce de León of Puerto Rico appears in around 10 sentences, while chronicler Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca receives whole paragraphs. By contrast, New Mexico’s “more than sixty adobe towns” of Pueblo Indian communities remain undifferentiated, with little attention to their demographic decline following conquest.

Even as Hamalainen dwells on the colonists, he holds that Indigenous peoples were often indifferent to Europeans. “Indians,” we are told, “controlled most of North America, and often they did not know about the exploits of the Europeans beyond their borders. And if they did, they did not care.” This suggestion, like so many, is intended to disrupt conventional understandings, and it is preceded by a qualification on why the “creation of the U.S. Constitution figure[s] only marginally in this history.” In casual fashion, Hamalainen suggests that Indians so dominated the continent that they had little interest in, or potential influence upon, this formative moment in U.S. history.

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As it does elsewhere, “Indigenous Continent” here sidesteps canonical subjects. Many Native nations closely followed the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention, as legal historian Mary Sarah Bilder has written. Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw communities all sent leaders, doing so in part to ensure that their bilateral treaties with the United States were maintained. Moreover, the Constitution specifically mentions “Indians,” three times (including in the 14th Amendment). Hamalainen thus misses the actual place of Indian peoples in the formation of constitutional law and policy, unpersuasively asserting that the early Republic remained “overwhelmed by Indigenous power.”

Sometimes in “Indigenous Continent,” such “power” implies distance and autonomy — the capacity to maintain a world separate from the one European colonists were creating. Hamalainen identifies, for example, a provocative moment about the relative retreat of Europeans from the continent’s interior circa 1700: “North America had become divided in two: there was the narrow and patchy colonial belt on the coastal plains, where Europeans dominated, and there was the immense Indigenous interior.”

But Hamalainen also equates “power” and the ability to project violence without properly interrogating the relationship between the two. “When war did come,” Native peoples reportedly “won as often as not.” While learning that Native peoples won battles against Europeans may surprise some readers, the struggle for North America was a violent, costly and transformative process for all involved. Native military victories were often followed by defeats as well as campaigns of forced removal, ethnic cleansing, reservation confinement and child abductions.

In the stories it does tell, “Indigenous Continent” does not fully deliver upon its early promises of Indigenous power and European submission. For example, we learn that the Puritan Great Migration of the 1630s brought thousands of settlers as well as waves of pathogens to New England. Starting in 1633, “more than eighty percent of the Native Americans in the region died.” As epidemics stalked the lives of Native peoples, the region’s Wabanaki and Pequot communities nonetheless still “surrounded the New Englanders,” exacerbating tensions within Puritan society: “The Massachusetts project was fraught with ambiguity from the start. The English claimed land for a colony without Indigenous consent.” The subsequent “apocalyptic violence” of the Pequot War (1636-1637) featured “genocidal violence,” as Puritan leaders now believed that Indians remained “lesser people who needed to be destroyed to make room for a better world.” None of this suggests any degree of English supplication to Indigenous power. On the contrary, European diseases, demography and desires advanced Puritan settlement.

Moreover, for a work that aspires to deliver an inversion of U.S. history, “Indigenous Continent” has only limited historical sweep. It ends in 1890 with the Wounded Knee Massacre, which the author states, “was a sign of American weakness and fear.” Only a few, concluding sentences are offered to explain the “endurance” of Native nations throughout the 20th and now 21st centuries. The centrality of treaties, court rulings affirming the sovereignty of tribal nations and Native activism remain outside the scope of its account of “Indigenous power.”

Ultimately, binary conceptions of “power” and “weakness” remain too unwieldy to capture the harrowing challenges confronting Native people. Rather than seeing federal Indian policy as a constitutive feature of the emerging administrative state, “Indigenous Continent” discounts it, strangely suggesting that “reservations were a sign of American weakness, not strength.” Little else is offered about these new chapters of state violence and Indigenous resistance, in which Indian children became principal casualties. In fact, the removal of Indian children to U.S. boarding schools, which expanded after the 1870s, fueled the growth of federal authority across western communities. Many of these practices lasted nearly a century and provided both the infrastructure and ideology for subsequent initiatives to assimilate Native communities, including Cold War-era adoption programs that fueled decades of reservation advocacy that culminated in the passage of the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. This congressional statute recognized tribal authority in such areas; however, its statutory provisions to protect “Indian families” remains challenged. The Supreme Court hears Brackeen v. Haaland next month, a challenge to the 44-year-old law’s constitutionality.

So while there is much to gain in rethinking U.S. history, doing so demands more nuanced analysis. With its crude celebrations of Indigenous agency, “Indigenous Continent” offers a limited entryway into a historical landscape marred by violence. In the great recalibration of American history now underway, more textured methods are needed, not overviews that often replicate the things many already believe, even as they claim to overturn them.

Ned Blackhawk is an enrolled member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada and the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. His most recent work, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History,” will be released in April.

Indigenous Continent

The Epic Contest for North America

By Pekka Hamalainen.

Liveright. 592 pp. $40

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