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Indian History in the United States

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Submission or confrontation?

Blackhawk doesn’t make it tough: it’s time for a new American historiography that makes room for the original inhabitants. For centuries, Indian tribes were allies, trading partners, or enemies before disappearing onto reservations. Without their help, the English Puritans would not have survived the first years after landing on the East Coast. The role of Indians during the American Revolution or the Civil War has been lost sight of. And finally, the Indians survived pogroms and massacres against them. They are still there. They have also survived assimilation attempts. Today, they control vast territories inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people.

In that new story, concepts such as: discovery (Columbus) and colonization (by Europeans). There are new points of interest meeting in exchange, Blackhawk said. The Indians certainly suffered greatly, but the collapse of the late 19th century was followed by change and recovery.


Blackhawk develops a statement over six hundred pages. Although the European settlers put great pressure on the native population until 1800, they remained an important factor. Even the most devastating epidemics left a fragile balance between the newcomers and them. However, the indigenous peoples decreased by almost half between 1492 and 1776.

The challenges were huge and they came from all sides. The Spanish appeared in the south and southwest, the English and Dutch in the east, and the French in the northeast. There was disturbing violence, but… also trade, proselytism and peaceful coexistence. So were the French trappers and traders who had too few people to rule. There was a mostly peaceful coexistence. This encounter led to intermarriages and cultural influences on both sides.

Members of the Navajo tribe around the 20th century
Members of the Navajo tribe circa 1900 – Photo: Edward S. Curtis

However, the wars between these European countries were very harmful to the indigenous peoples. The Indians lost their most important ally with the defeat of France in the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763). The second blow came from the American Revolution (1765-1783). The English government was ready to curb the country’s hunger on the border. Natives were mainly seen by the settlers as allies of the French. A severe hatred and fear of the Indians arose on the frontier. Militias went hunting for Indians as a sign that they did not accept British policy.

When England gave up the fight against the American rebels in 1783, it gave a free hand to the thirteen states of the new republic. The Indians were now on their own, but they were not yet completely defeated. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 was the next step on the chessboard—Washington warned the Europeans to stop meddling in their hemisphere.

Close to death

George WashingtonGeorge Washington
President Washington

The American Revolution was therefore disastrous for the Indians. The 1776 Declaration of Independence spoke of “ruthless Indian savages.” George Washington, a revered American war hero, described Americans seven years later as “the sole masters and owners of a vast continent” who…

…it seems specially designed by Providence to show the greatness and happiness of man.

As president, Washington was pragmatic enough to promote reconciliation and peaceful expansion. Over the next century, the federal government would create Indian units, make treaties, and make commitments. Unfortunately, he rarely followed this policy. This was due to their own powerlessness, but also to the reluctance of the pioneers on the border. They wanted a free hand and a finger on the trigger.

What had been a precarious balance for centuries after the 16th century turned into near ruin in the 19th century. After the Civil War (1861-1865), which was also bloody for the Indians, stronger federal authority would place many Indian tribes on reservations. Washington made no less than three hundred treaties and thus expropriated hundreds of millions of hectares of land. Indians received land in exchange for moving or moving. However, farmers, railroads or miners demanded reserve areas. They didn’t have much remorse because Indians were a “dying race” according to popular myth. Many were happy to help.

Map of Native American reservations in the United States:

Indian Reservations USAIndian Reservations USA
Bron: wiki

European newcomers crossed the prairies and through reservations in large groups, slaughtering bison in droves. During their gold rush, they sometimes destroyed entire ecosystems. And in ever greater quantities. There was no stopping it.

The low point of Indian impotence came later. By 1928, the government had transferred 40% of Native American children to boarding schools. There, apart from their parents, they received an education that made them decent and, above all, well-adjusted Americans. Another remedy was foster care, where children learned that in good American nuclear families, fathers worked and mothers stayed home to take care of them. Many Indians were persuaded to move to the cities in search of work. They tried to break up the tribes and turn the Indians into Americans.

Chiricahua Apaches pose at a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1887Chiricahua Apaches pose at a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1887
Chiricahua Apaches pose at a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, 1887


According to Nedhawk, government policy only changed during the 20th century. In 1924, indigenous peoples finally received civil rights. Indigenous activists lobbied for legal restitution and waved old treaties. The judiciary now recognized their demands more often. Education, attention to one’s own history and culture, and a generation of strong leaders restored self-confidence. Presidents like Roosevelt and Johnson provided funding. There was new flexibility, new leaders emerged.

Laura Cornelius KelloggLaura Cornelius Kellogg
Laura Cornelius Kellogg

One of these leaders at the turn of the last century was Laura Cornelius Kellogg. She founded Society of American Indians, which demanded land and self-government. He was a proud Iroquois who, in addition to being an activist and speaker, was also a writer and poet. She was an Indian Joan of Arc, the media wrote.

Kellogg and many others use different methods of influence: in addition to lobbying and lawsuits, they also use direct political action. For example, a little later in the century, in 1973, the occupation of Wounded Knee and the declaration of a free state received worldwide attention. There had been an actual massacre of Indians in 1890. The Indians have come a long way with their political and cultural efforts, according to Blackhawk. Their lobby also shows how far their transformation has come.

No more Columbus

The position of this book naturally fits the trend towards a more comprehensive and emancipatory historiography. Columbus from the canon and Wounded Knee in it. Necessary and useful. A few comments though. This claim is not as new as the author suggests. As early as 50 years ago, historians proposed to portray the Indians as an active party and not just a target of white settlers.1 The question is whether the concept of “encounter” better reflects Native American and American history than “confrontation and submission.” I think that’s too weak a euphemism for centuries of deprivation, deportation, expropriation and murder.

The Rediscovery of America - Ned BlackhawkThe Rediscovery of America - Ned Blackhawk

A few more finishing touches. Sometimes Blackhawk offers beautiful glimpses into indigenous cultures, but overall there is little attention paid to it. Anthropological insights are discussed only in passing. Many sentences are a bit vague, you have to read them two or three times. The maps are of poor quality, often you wonder where we are in the US. The registry is extensive, but sometimes you make a mistake. An important concept like division is missing. I think “allotment of land or lot” would have been a better translation for allotment of land by the government.

All this does not change the fact that this book is a brave and fascinating attempt to make this tragic history more complete and less one-sided.

Book: The Rediscovery of America

Notes ▼

1 – Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood points this out in his article “Race, Class, Gender as the Writing of History,” included in The purpose of the past – reflections on the uses of history2008, p. 277 ev

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