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Sweeping new narratives of Native history are reorienting the American story

With a shift in perspective, you’ll never look the same way at the Revolution, the Constitution, and other aspects of America.

James A. West's "Point Of View" sculpture in Pittsburgh depicts a 1770 meeting between the Seneca leader Guyasuta and George Washington.Raymond Boyd/Getty Images

The first American president to deal unfairly with Natives was the first American president, period. George Washington pursued wars against them, grabbed their land, and failed to control his violent settlers. At least he saw some of his country’s blind spots. Native people, Washington once wrote to a friend, “have no press through which their grievances are related; and it is well known, that when one side only of a story is heard, and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it insensibly.”

In some ways, it seems like Native stories and ideas are finally getting some attention. Sports teams are replacing racist mascots; TV shows like “Reservation Dogs” are electrifying audiences. But there’s a surprising place where Native perspectives are still needed, and it’s the same one Washington identified long ago: in print. While Native studies has become one of academia’s hottest areas of research, very little of that work has filtered into the histories written by popular authors. Consider David McCullough. His final bestseller, “The Pioneers,” featured Native people only briefly and never with the heroism and humanity that made McCullough’s books so beloved. In “The Pioneers,” as Columbia University historian Michael John Witgen has written, Native people exist only “as impediments to the white, American settlement of North America.”


It’s not just McCullough. Where are the big and accessible books that narrate Native history in a new way? It’s a puzzling gap in America’s pop history — so puzzling, in fact, that two acclaimed professors, Yale’s Ned Blackhawk and Oxford’s Pekka Hämäläinen, have decided to fill it themselves. In their ambitious popular histories, readers will find what even Washington knew was missing: the other side of the American story.

Kiowa winter count made with ink on buckskin by an artist known as Anko, 1889-92.Wikimedia/National Archives/Public Domain

For a long time, even academics treated Native history as a sleepy subfield. That changed in the last few decades, as historians, anthropologists, legal scholars, and Native nations themselves produced waves of thrilling scholarship. “When I was in graduate school in the late 1980s, this was just getting started,” says the University of Oregon’s Jeffrey Ostler, whose latest book, “Surviving Genocide,” is itself the start of a two-volume survey of the grisly history of American expansion.


This new work has produced new ideas. One is that it’s crucial to tell Native stories from Native points of view, by emphasizing their distinct cultures and priorities while drawing on sources like oral histories and winter counts, the pictographic chronicles where communities recorded important events. Another new idea is that a two-way dynamic has always shaped American culture — it’s not just that white communities changed Native ones, but that Native communities changed white ones, too.

Perhaps the most important idea in Native studies is that Native people continue to thrive and adapt in 21st-century America. The myth of the vanishing Indian is just that: a myth. “There’s an incredible flourishing of all different kinds of histories,” Ostler says, “microhistories, tribal histories, regional histories.” One book he highlights is Brianna Theobald’s “Reproduction on the Reservation,” which looks at how families have evolved on a modern Crow reservation.

Even significant books like Theobald’s, though, are discrete. Native studies and its many rich findings need synthesis — they need to be combined into a new version of North American history. Which is where those two new books come in.

The newer of the two is Blackhawk’s “The Rediscovery of America: Native People and the Unmaking of US History.” Blackhawk promises to give “a different view of the past, a reorientation of US history.” Instead of a “discovery”-driven narrative — Columbus, Jamestown, and so on — he wants to show how Native people and ideas shaped the development of American democracy itself. As Blackhawk puts it, “Encounter — rather than discovery — must structure America’s origins story.”


“The Rediscovery of America” shows the power of encounter in many places — from the Monroe Doctrine to Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty — but the most surprising one may be its account of the Revolutionary War. Instead of Boston and the Tea Party, Blackhawk argues, this story begins with the country’s interior, where Pennsylvania settlers first rebelled not because of taxation but because they felt the British elites were actually too protective of Natives and their land.

Blackhawk describes a series of brutal attacks in the early 1760s, including a massacre in which white vigilantes killed six Conestoga Natives. British-aligned leaders tried and often failed to protect the remaining Conestoga people, while the settlers continued to murder, to steal British supplies, and even to shoot at British officers.

These violent episodes offer two important insights. First, America’s revolutionary impulses flowed not just from an Enlightenment obsession with liberty but from a ruthless and racialized lust for land. The Conestoga people’s “only crime,” Benjamin Franklin observed, “seems to have been that they had a reddish brown skin.”


Second, those impulses led to action long before the Boston Massacre and other iconic events — and Native people were at the center of it. “The fall of the British empire,” Blackhawk writes, “began on the Pennsylvania frontier.”

Yale professor Ned Blackhawk, author of “The Rediscovery of America: Native People and the Unmaking of US History.”Dan Renzetti

The other new book is Hämäläinen’s “Indigenous Continent: The Epic Conquest for North America.”

Hämäläinen constructs his narrative around one word: power. For most of North American history, he argues, Natives were the ones who wielded it. “Time and again,” he writes, “Indians blocked and destroyed colonial projects, forcing Euro-Americans to accept Native ways, Native sovereignty, and Native dominance.” The colorful map you’ve seen of the Louisiana Purchase, which nearly doubled the size of America in 1803, is misleading: Native nations controlled most of those rivers and plains for decades to come.

While Hämäläinen touches on some high school history highlights, including Lewis and Clark, who were badly outmaneuvered by Lakota leaders, he often writes about less famous events. Take a 17th-century war led by the Pueblo leader Po’pay, who for a while, at least, routed Spanish forces throughout New Mexico. “It was not a revolt of a subjugated nation,” Hämäläinen writes. “It was a carefully orchestrated war launched by the sovereign Pueblo people against Spain’s imperial pretentions.”

“Indigenous Continent” piles up episode after episode like Po’pay’s war, and some scholars have critiqued this approach for focusing too neatly on concepts — nations, empires, independent male leaders — that make sense in Euro-American contexts but distort Native ones. Still, Hämäläinen’s analysis, especially in its chronological and continental scope, will surprise many readers. And it echoes another important new idea from Native studies: By highlighting Native power, Hämäläinen’s book makes American history feel less inevitable, less like a preordained story where Natives are “doomed.”


Both Hämäläinen and Blackhawk reveal the remarkable agency and influence of Native people, though they tend to do so in different areas. Where Hämäläinen concentrates on war and trade, Blackhawk explores political and legal legacies. He shows, for example, that the Constitution’s commerce clause emerged not from an ongoing debate between state and federal factions but from one between those American factions and powerful Native ones, too.

But there’s a more striking difference than their analytical emphases. If Hämäläinen’s narrative returns again and again to the idea of power, then Blackhawk’s makes room for something else: pain.

That’s a word that showed up in Blackhawk’s first book, a Native studies classic called “Violence over the Land.” In its epilogue, Blackhawk wrote searingly about his own family history — about the pain endured by his great-grandmother and grandmother, two Shoshone women who fought to survive brutal, state-sanctioned racism, with one confined to a mental hospital while the other grew up essentially an orphan.

“The Rediscovery of America” is, among other things, Blackhawk’s attempt to tell the story of America with violence and pain. His account of the Pilgrims, for instance, begins years before their arrival, with Dutch and French diseases devastating the region’s Native population. “When the Mayflower anchored at Plymouth,” Blackhawk writes, “fewer than two thousand of Cape Cod’s twenty thousand inhabitants remained.” So many Natives had died that the living could not bury the dead, which meant that when the Pilgrims “explored” their new home, they found skeletons lying on the ground. “Durable English settlements,” Blackhawk writes, “became possible only in the aftermath of such trauma.”

Seeing the Pilgrims from a Native perspective requires an account of power — of how the Wampanoag people aided them for their own political reasons. But it also requires an account of pain, and as Americans relearn our history, we need to look and listen for both.

Craig Fehrman is a journalist and historian. He is finishing up a revisionary history of the Lewis and Clark expedition, for Simon & Schuster.