The link between Americans’ views on slavery and their treatment of Native Americans. The view that Indigenous peoples were at the heart of the American Revolution. The notion that the Monroe Doctrine injured the native population. The argument that the Indian Wars had vast ecological implications.
Ned Blackhawk has written a thoughtful, innovative, and provocative book that puts the first inhabitants of North America at the center of the history of North America. It carries the double-meaning title “The Rediscovery of America” because what the Yale historian really sets out in this deeply researched volume is an illuminating rediscovery of American history.
In these pages we encounter history of a different sort entirely, not history written by the victors but, instead, history as experienced by those — all but wiped from the North American continent — who did not win the struggle for mastery of what is now the United States and, in no small measure, Canada as well.
In conventional American history, the privations and burdens of the European colonists are emphasized while Native Americans are ignored, except as obstacles to America’s westward destiny and broad continental glory. In this volume, Blackhawk shows us how native peoples shaped American history. In conventional American history, waves of immigrants landed on the continent, populating it in a rush to settlement. In this volume, we see that between the landing of Christopher Columbus and the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the total population of the continent fell by nearly half.
He begins with a haunting question (how can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world’s most exemplary democracy?) and argues that “American democracy arose from the dispossession of American Indians.” His goal is “a reorientation of U.S. history” that takes into account the slandered and slaughtered who were the land’s first occupants and who were a major influence not only on the European settlements but on European power politics as well.
Much of this is broadly known — in half measures. It is well known, for example, that epidemics brought death to native peoples, but it is less well known how the destabilized tribal communities that resulted from the uncontrolled spread of disease altered the balance of power in the European colonies. It is well known that wampum — belts composed of seashells, beads, and buckskin — were an early means of exchange, but it is less known how wampum led to tribal indebtedness that in turn prompted land cessions. It is well known that the colonists made constant war against native peoples but it is less well known that colonists also feared peace treaties with them because, as Blackhawk explains, “any forms of diplomacy suggested the continuous autonomy of Indian peoples.”
And while it is well known that moving native peoples from their land made room for white people to move in, it is less well recognized that this removal made way for the expansion of slavery. It also affected the environment because, Blackhawk reminds us, “assaults against Indian peoples included not only violent attacks but also the destruction of grasses, elimination of timber, consumption of water beds, and overhunting of the region’s bison herds.”
The twin sins of this continent — genocide and slavery — had a peculiar connection. Blackhawk tells us that at the end of the 17th century, the African slave trade was exceeded by the Indian slave trade, and that more native peoples were exported from Charleston before 1715 than Africans from West Africa.
When the Civil War began, many native tribes found themselves allied with the Confederacy against the Union that had treated them so shabbily and had moved them so heartlessly and relentlessly into territory not controlled by the rebels; the Choctaw’s General Council formally expired its support for “the destiny of our neighbors and brethren of the Southern States,” and a regiment of Cherokee Mounted Rifles fought with the Confederates.
In later years, the process of removing children from their parents and the repression of Indian religions comprised yet another element of violence against native peoples, though those who perpetrated those actions thought of themselves as reformers who “targeted Indians in order to transform them, believing that they were bringing new opportunities to individuals rather than destroying them.” There was a strain of consistency in this. “As the United States received millions of non-Protestant and non-Anglophone immigrants,” Blackhawk writes, “reformers sought to Americanize both immigrant and Indigenous communities.”
The lesson: beware the reformers.
In the course of the country’s history, two white views of Native Americans — as nobles and as savages —merged. But it was not until 1924 that American Indians were permitted to become American citizens. And it wasn’t until 1970 that an American president — who would have guessed it would be Richard Nixon? — declared the “national policy toward the Indian people [was needed] to strengthen the Indian’s sense of autonomy.”
Legend has it that a British band played the ballad “The World Turned Upside Down” after the colonists won the final, decisive battle of the Revolutionary War. That has never been broadly confirmed. But the legends about the founding and growth of the United States have been promulgated so often and so widely that Blackhawk’s conception of American history is long overdue. It is, more than any other attempt at re-interpreting our national story, US history turned upside down.
The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History
By Ned Blackhawk
Yale University Press, 616 pages, $35
David Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is a nationally syndicated columnist.