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The Rediscovery Of America: Why It’s Vital To Highlight Native American History

Four centuries after African captives arrived on the shore of Virginia, America’s origin story was recast by the 1619 Project with slavery and the contribution of African Americans at his heart. It was a long overdue corrective to white Eurocentric narratives. But it was the not the last word.

“Scholars have recently come to view African American slavery as central to the making of America, but few have seen Native Americans in a similar light,” writes Ned Blackhawk, a historian at Yale University and member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone. “Binary, rather than multiracial, visions dominate studies of the past where slavery represents America’s original sin or the antithesis of the American idea.

“But can we imagine an American Eden that is not cultivated by its original caretakers? Exiled from the American origin story, Indigenous peoples await the telling of a continental history that includes them. It was their garden homelands, after all, that birthed America.”

In his new book, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History, Blackhawk attempts to tell that continental history over five centuries, from Spanish colonial exploration to the rise of Indian self-determination. Native Americans played a foundational role in shaping America’s constitutional democracy, he contends, even as they were murdered and dispossessed of their land.

Taken with Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project, it is a reminder of the danger of a single story when history is better understood as a multiverse of perspectives.

Journalist Jonathan Capehart, interviewing Blackhawk for a recent Washington Post Live event, observed: “I’m old enough to remember the encyclopedias or biology books where you’ve got the main page and then you have these plastic overlays – you lay one down and you see one set of organs; you lay another one down, you see more, but you see them altogether. And in looking at The Rediscovery of America and having looked at 1619 Project, that’s what it felt like to me.”

Blackhawk, 51, who has been teaching Native American history since 1999, makes the case for a paradigm of “encounter” rather than “discovery” in which Europeans and their settler communities are not the exclusive subjects of inquiry. He points to a generation of scholars who have shown that “American Indians were central to every century of US historical development”, particularly during the era of the American revolution.

Ned Blackhawk Photograph: Dan RenzettiA turning point was the fallout from the Seven Years’ War between Britain and France, which started as a dispute over North American land claims in the region around Pittsburgh and ended in 1763 with France ceding Canada to Britain.

Speaking from a book-lined home office in New Haven, Connecticut, Blackhawk says: “What happens in the summer of 1763? A bunch of Indians are not happy that the French have been expelled and that the new British overlords of the interior portions of North America are imposing unilateral authoritarian regimes essentially.”

Led by Pontiac, an Odawa (Ottawa) chief, Native Americans took up arms against the British in what became known as Pontiac’s Rebellion. A conflict erupted that would enflame tensions between the British crown and its own subjects and seed the fall of the British empire in North America.

Blackhawk explains: “The settlers have moved into the interior following the Seven Years’ War and started building small farms and orchards and raising cattle and pigs. Throughout the late 1750s and early 1760s they’re primed to gain more interior land. Native Americans are resisting this and the British crown decides that another war is too costly in the interior and so they pass a royal proclamation of 1763 to keep their settlers from moving into the interior.

“The settlers defy British authority. One of the ways they do that is by killing Indians whom they believe are fuelling trade to Pontiac’s allies in places like Detroit and across a road between Philadelphia, which is a seaport, and Pittsburgh, which has recently been settled and renamed after the British prime minister William Pitt.

“Along this 300-mile road known as Forbes Road, militia groups essentially start marauding not just Indian communities that they fear are trading with Pontiac but British supply trains because the British are trying to make peace with Pontiac. These are not robbers. They’re rebels. They are insurgents who have a kind of political psychology aimed at dislodging allegiances with interior Indians.”

The author adds: “That’s where the revolution has some of its most formative fuel. The idea of a frontier being attacked by ‘merciless Indian savages’ is written into the United States Declaration of Independence. Where does that idea come from? US historians have been unable sufficiently to explain the origins and genealogy of that language, that ideology, and essentially that history which will pervade the early republic.

“It’s not coincidental that there are no federally recognised tribes in the states of Ohio and Pennsylvania where these conflicts are most pronounced.”

The perceived threat from Native Americans was crucial, Blackhawk asserts, to the formation of a central government able to extend its authority over national concerns. A federal constitution was drawn up to unite the 13 states and manage their territorial expansion.

Tejonihokarawa (baptized Hendrick). Named Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row, Emperor of the Six Nations, 1710. Photograph: Library and Archives Canada /John Petre collection“Indian affairs are one of the few areas in which the drafters of the constitution have general agreement that a federalist system, a centralised, more powerful political structure, is needed to manage the new republic’s relationships with Native Americans. The articles of confederation failed to do that.

“One of those new authorities is to make treaties the supreme law of the land as they’re not in the constitution. The federal government signs treaties with Native Americans right away and continues a practice that dates back to the late British period of bilateral relationships with recognised Indigenous nations. Those are the first treaties the US Senate ratifies.”

Blackhawk himself was able to go to college in Canada as a consequence of the 1794 Jay Treaty, which provided that Native Americans may travel freely across the international boundary. “These histories aren’t confined to the past. They have ongoing legacies, realities and meanings that we as historians of the United States have been remiss to identify.”

Blackhawk also analyses the neglected role of Native Americans in the 1861-65 civil war. In Oklahoma the Confederacy essentially forced them to renounce their loyalty to the union, sign treaties as allies and form battalions that fought for the south. In California the federal government was unable to meet its treaty obligations, prompting Native Americans to take up arms; this brought them into conflict with white settlers who, funded by the government, killed thousands of Indigenous people.

“There is this incredible under-told story of the civil war in Indian country involving the Confederacy. You really can’t understand the ultimate legacies of the civil war outside of an understanding of not just the Native conflicts that happened during the war but the growing power of the federal government thereafter.”

This was on the watch of President Abraham Lincoln, whose speeches are endlessly quoted, whose monument sits on the National Mall in Washington and whose legacy is still revered. Blackhawk reflects: “It’s hard not to see him in the ways we currently do but he is president of the United States at a time when its armies, military leaders and politicians are instituting policies and practices that are extraordinarily harmful against Native Americans.

“Some call these genocide – either stateless genocide in California or even state driven initiatives in places like Sand Creek, Colorado, the Dakota War in Minnesota, the Bear River Massacre of the Idaho-Utah frontier, and indiscriminate killings of innocent women, children and the elderly that are famous within the study of Indian massacres and warfare. Lincoln was aware of this; had no space, time or energy to potentially remedy it, and just simply would offer platitudes of guidance that had very limited actual traction to them.”

Map issued by General Thomas Gage in 1767, showing distribution of British forces in North America in 1766. The map designates lands west of the Appalachian Mountains as ‘Lands Reserved for the Indians’, aligning with the political boundaries established by the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Photograph: William L. Clements Library, University of MichiganBlackhawk writes about the uncomfortable juxtaposition of Lincoln’s efforts to end slavery in late 1862 and early 1863 – at the same time the territory of Minnesota was essentially ethnic cleansing the Dakota people along the Minnesota River. Thirty-eight Dakota men were hanged in Mankato, Minnesota, in the wake of a six-week uprising of Dakota people against white settlers after the government broke its promise to deliver food and supplies in exchange for the surrender of tribal land. It was the biggest mass execution in American history.

But this is also a story of fortitude, resilience and creativity. Chapter 12 of the book is called “From Termination to Self-Determination”. It tells how, in the 20th century, there was another attempt to assimilate Native Americans into the body politic and “terminate” tribal governments. But an ideology known as Red Power formed in the 1960s and 1970s, improving autonomy and infrastructure on reservations.

“We are living still in an era known as self-determination that has seen dramatically resurgent expressions of Native American politics, economic development, interesting social and cultural movements.”

Blackhawk cites the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian on the National Mall, the passage of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and Joe Biden’s appointment of Deb Haaland as interior secretary, making her the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary.

“This has happened in recent years and it’s not coming out of a vacuum. To understand the contemporary moment requires this kind of historical understanding, Most urgently, to understand the threats that are being marshalled against Native American sovereignty also requires this kind of historical perspective.

“Questions about race and distinctiveness and sovereignty are daily questions in the practice of federal Indian law. If we can’t educate our citizens and our children and our judges and political leaders on these issues, we will likely face threats that we can’t yet fully identify.”

The Rediscovery of America is out now

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