It is time to build a new foundation for American history. Its old paradigms have grown thin and worn. For so long, the field’s exclusive focus on Europeans and their descendants has left us with more problems than answers. Generations of other imperialists, for example, preceded the Puritans, who we have been told governed a commonwealth in the “wilderness.” Similarly, histories that celebrated pioneers upon western “frontiers” have remained incomplete without attention to broader tales of expansion and empire. If history provides the common soil for a nation’s growth and a window into its future, it is time to reimagine U.S. history and to do so outside the tropes of discovery that have often bred exclusion and misunderstanding. To find answers to the challenges of our time—racial strife, climate crisis, and domestic and global inequities, among others—will require new concepts, approaches, and commitments. It is time to put down the interpretive tools of the previous century and take up new ones.
Even the word “America” refers to Europeans and discovery. In 1507, cartographers Matthias Ringmann and Martin Waldseemüller renamed the recently encountered “fourth part” of the world after Americus Vesputius (Vespucci), its supposed discoverer. Unlike Columbus in the 1490s, in 1503, Vespucci claimed to have found—not passage to Asia—but something more. He claimed to have discovered “a new world.”
For centuries, America and the New World have become ideas and synonyms that convey a sense of wonder and possibility made manifest by discovery, a historical act in which explorers are the protagonists. They are its actors and subjects. They think and name, conquer and settle, govern and own. They have formed the historic center of our national story and have done so at the expense of the first Americas—Native peoples—who have remained consistently excluded from the continent’s history. Either as hostile impediments or romanticized peoples awaiting discovery, American Indians appear as passive subjects in a larger drama, understudies in the very dramas remaking their homelands.
Indigenous absence has been a long tradition of American historical analysis. Many scholars are building a different view of the past. I am a part of a generation of historians whose collective works have reframed critical elements of the nation’s past, particularly its earliest chapters. My new work thus draws upon an outpouring of scholarship that has made Indigenous history a growing field. The argument is simple: a full telling of American history must account for the dynamics of struggle, survival, and resurgence that frame America’s Indigenous past. Focus upon Native American history must remain an essential practice of American historical inquiry. Existing paradigms of U.S. history remain incomplete without engaging with this history. It is now time to rediscover the American past.
A reorientation of U.S. history is required for many reasons. It cannot be accomplished simply by adding new cast-members to existing dramas. Our history must reckon with the fact that Indigenous peoples, African Americans, and millions of other non-white citizens have not enjoyed the self-evident truths of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness proclaimed at the Founding as being inalienable rights belonging to all. Native peoples were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, by which time the federal government had seized hundreds of millions of acres of land from Native nations in over 300 treaties. Tens of thousands of Native peoples were killed by settler militias and U.S. armed forces during the Civil War era while government-sponsored campaigns of child removal thereafter resulted in forty percent of Indian children forcibly separated from their families and taken to boarding schools by 1928.
Pervasive violence and dispossession are more than sidebars or parentheses in the story of American history. They call into question its central thesis. The exclusion of Native Americans was codified in the Constitution, maintained throughout the Antebellum era, and legislated into the twentieth century. Far from being incidental, such exclusion and dispossession enabled the development of the United States. U.S. history as we currently know it does not account for the centrality of Native Americans.
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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. 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.
Building a new theory of American history will take years. It will require the labor of generations of contributors, and it will need new themes, new geographies, new chronologies, and new ideas that better explain the course of American history. It is a challenge open to all, one that falls particularly hard on tribal members who continue to bear the burdens of explaining Indigenous experiences, history, and policies to non-Native peoples.
To understand the formation of the earliest American colonies requires seeing Indigenous societies in motion, not stasis. Like the oceans upon which newcomers traveled, North America’s earliest colonies experienced waves of turbulence within pre-existing Indigenous geographies. From the foods they ate to the economies that sustained them, colonists depended on Indigenous peoples. To conceive of their composition, survival, and growth otherwise is fallacy. Indigenous-imperial relations explain the distinctions among Europe’s American colonies, several of which, including colonial New Mexico, were a part of European empires longer than they have been a part of the United States.
European contact sent shockwaves across Indigenous homelands, reverberating in many forms, some of them undocumented. Scholars have spent over fifty years attempting to measure the impacts of these intrusions. They suggest that the worlds of Native peoples became irrevocably disrupted by the most traumatic development in American history: the loss of Indigenous life due to European diseases. Epidemics tore apart numerous communities and set in motion unprecedented migrations and transformations. North America’s total population nearly halved from 1492 to 1776: from approximately 8 million to under 4 million.
The almost unimaginable scale of death and depopulation calls into question celebratory portraits of the Founding, and also helps to explain the motivations for American Indian trade, diplomacy, and warfare, all of which shaped the evolution of European settlements. From the rise of New France in 1609 to the colonization of California in 1769, the economic, diplomatic, and military influence of American Indians were key factors in imperial decision-making. The treaties with Indigenous nations ratified by the U.S. Senate constitute the largest number of diplomatic commitments made by the federal government throughout its first century. These truths show that it is impossible to understand the United States without understanding its Indigenous history.
Native Americans have emerged in the last few decades from the shadows of historical neglect in their full complexity, living in varied societies, speaking centuries-old Indigenous languages, and governing often vast territories. Many continue to live in the homes of their ancestors and tend gardens that pre-date European arrival, such as the 21 Pueblo Indian nations of Arizona and New Mexico who maintain North America’s oldest continuously inhabited communities.
The rediscovery of American history that is under way continues to swell. Each year, new courses, publications, and partnerships between tribal communities and non-tribal institutions continue to shape the practices of researchers, teachers, tribal members, and students of all ages who yearn for more accurate, multi-racial histories. Tribal governments have grown in their size and capacities, providing the clearest examples in American politics of the retained, inherent sovereignty of Native nations. Some, like the Navajo Nation, govern hundreds of thousands of tribal citizens across millions of acres. Others employ thousands of Native and non-Native workers in their industries and economies. These nations reside within the borders of the United States where they maintain autonomy, sovereignty, and power and do so in concert with the federal government.
If the schools or university classrooms are to remain vital civic institutions, we must create richer and more truthful accounts of the American Republic’s origins, expansion, and current form. Studying and teaching America’s Indigenous truths reveals anew the varied meanings of America.
My aim is to reorient U.S. history by redressing the absence of American Indians within it. During the past 500 years, American history developed out of the epic encounter between Indians and European empires and out of the struggles for sovereignty between Native peoples and the U.S. American Indians were central to every century of U.S. historical development. Rather than seeing U.S. history and Native American history as separated or disaggregated, this project envisions them as inter-related. It underscores the mutually constitutive nature of each. The two remain interwoven.
Notwithstanding its growth, Native American history remains encumbered by challenges. The habits of previous generations remain calcified. College campuses, textbooks, and public memorials continue to exclude Native peoples. As Pawnee Scholar Walter Echo-Hawk maintains, “the widespread lack of reliable information about Native issues is the most pressing problem confronting Native Americans in the United States today.”
From The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of American History, by Ned Blackhawk. Published by Yale University Press on April 25, 2023. Copyright © 2023 by Ned Blackhawk. Reprinted by permission of Yale University Press.
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