Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Tuesday, April 18, 2023

Tuesday, April 18, 2023: Maximum Shelf: The Rediscovery of America

Yale University Press: The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk

Yale University Press: The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk

Yale University Press: The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk

Yale University Press: The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk

The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History

by Ned Blackhawk

Historian Ned Blackhawk (Western Shoshone) offers a comprehensive, epic re-framing of United States history in The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History. "Scholars have long conflated U.S. history with Europeans, maintaining the United States evolved from its British settlements," Blackhawk notes in the introduction--an error he sets out to correct as he examines the important and often-overlooked role of Indigenous peoples in the formation of modern-day America. "[It] is time to reimagine U.S. history outside the tropes of discovery that have bred exclusion and misunderstanding."

As a professor of history at Yale University, a lifelong student of Native American history and law, and author of several previous books on the subject (Indigenous Visions; Violence over the Land), Blackhawk is no stranger to the study of Native American history. The Rediscovery of America, though, marks an impressive addition to an already notable résumé, offering a sweeping "reorientation of U.S. history" from the earliest days of colonialism through to the present. He grounds this work and analysis in decades of research and scholarship, including material from tribal projects that have worked to expose a history often overlooked by other studies of the United States. Dozens upon dozens of examples pepper the text--battles and clashes, treaties and settlements, protests and campaigns, all highlighting the ways Indigenous peoples have influenced the course of U.S. history. Blackhawk credits nearly 200 tribal museums and cultural centers in his research, as well as "oral traditions, ethnographies, Indigenous languages, and the archival records from multiple empires" that contribute to his work. (Detailed endnotes and frequent citations provide additional resources.)

To call the resulting study comprehensive feels like something of an understatement; The Rediscovery of America offers not only a history of Indigenous peoples in the U.S., but a careful examination of the ways this history is woven into--and ultimately, has influenced--the evolution of the U.S. from a collection of colonies to the country it is today. "Rather than seeing U.S. and Native American history as separate or disaggregated, this project envisions them as interrelated," writes Blackhawk, highlighting the contributions of Indigenous peoples in establishing a country, and not merely recounting the subjugations of these populations.

Blackhawk focuses on the "interrelatedness of Native-newcomer relations, collectively asking whether there is potential for building an alternate U.S. story that is not trapped in the framework of European discovery and European 'greatness.' " In the first half of the book, Blackhawk "underscores the centrality of violence to the making of early America," through accounts of early encounters--and conflicts--between Native Americans and European empires seeking to expand their land and resource holdings in the "new" world. This lays the groundwork for an exploration of continued violence in the form of law and policy as the United States consolidated its political power following the Civil War, offering new ways of considering the U.S. Constitution--its drafting and implementation over the decades that followed--within the context of Native American history and influence.

Throughout The Rediscovery of America, Blackhawk notes how interactions with Native American people and tribes "shaped the contours of federal policy." This interweaving moves through decades of termination-minded policies to the "new partnerships" of today, marked by a transfer of power from the federal government back to tribal communities under legislation passed in 1975. Notably, however, today's Native Americans are still plagued by disproportionate rates of poverty, poor health outcomes, limited economic development, and low educational attainment--consequences of intentional policy over centuries of United States history.

At more than 600 pages, the weight of The Rediscovery of America comes in the time required to sit with the violence inherent in the stories told here, and in the challenge Blackhawk presents to readers: "[t]o reimagine U.S. history outside the tropes of discovery that have bred exclusion and misunderstanding." A true historical accounting must recognize the role of violence, genocide, exclusion, and dispossession in the origin story of a country that purports to be a bastion of freedom and democracy--"How can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world's most exemplary democracy?" Simply put, not grappling with this question limits the ability of U.S. citizens to understand their history, present-day politics, and possibilities for the future. Perhaps more importantly, ignoring the richness and gifts of peoples long overlooked, intentionally and not, does an extreme disservice to those who came before, and the power and activism they have wielded to effect change over centuries of history. In that vein, The Rediscovery of America should be considered essential reading for anyone with an interest in history, justice, law, or politics--and especially the intersection of these topics. --Kerry McHugh

Yale University Press, $35, hardcover, 616p., 9780300244052, April 25, 2023

Yale University Press: The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk

Ned Blackhawk: Native American Political Power in the Canon of U.S. History

(photo: Dan Renzetti)

Ned Blackhawk (Western Shoshone) is the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University and the author of Violence over the Land. His book The Rediscovery of America:Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S.History (coming from Yale University Press on April 25, 2023) encourages readers--and citizens--to reimagine U.S. history in a way that values the contributions Indigenous peoples have made to the shaping of modern U.S. society. This interview is excerpted from an episode of the Yale University Press podcast, hosted by John Donatich, director of Yale University Press.

There are really interesting words, "rediscovery" and "unmaking," in this title. Somehow, it's almost as if you have to take something apart to see it right. Could you talk a bit about your choice of these two words?

Thank you for identifying what are two of the central imperatives that the book is trying to do. It's simultaneously trying to say two things. One is that American history has recently been rediscovered by a generation of Native American historians, myself included. I'm deeply indebted to this generation for establishing a lot of the findings that have fundamentally unmade or remade conventional paradigms of American historical analysis. I think we need to keep going and further this scholarly momentum. I'm hopeful that we can continue to remake or perhaps unmake some of the unhelpful categories of analysis that have often marginalized this subject from broader understandings of America.

It's an interesting time to be a historian. Right now, it seems like every week historians are asserting a new kind of relevance and, yet, sometimes getting in trouble for asserting a certain kind of relevance. How do you see the challenges of being a historian today--the opposing tensions of presentism and originalism? And how easy it is to say the wrong thing sometimes. How do you approach that?

It's funny, because in my field of Native American history, there's often an ambiguity in many readers, audience members, or understandings around either the term or nomenclature. In the last generation or so, American Indian has faded from a popular common use and been replaced by a more recent category, such as Native American and/or Indigenous American. I'm actually a product of a generation that is very comfortable with the term American Indian history or American Indian studies. I'm mindful of other people's potential concerns around these subjects, but rely upon what seems to me the clearest kind of forms of inquiry around the subject.

But you're right, it is a complex moment we're in, with seemingly new developments or debates or reconfigurations occurring pretty readily in American historical practice and study. A series of prominent monuments have come down in public in my field. Athletic programs, such as the sports franchises the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians, have changed their names and mascots. It's really a moment of new consciousness in certain ways in America more broadly, and it's not surprising that there's some resistance, reluctance, or misunderstanding about the origins of these kinds of initiatives.

We're entering into a 21st-century world more fully that is much more diverse and multicultural in ways that many may not be familiar with. So part of the introduction and other parts of this book really try to challenge a kind of binary, black/white racial paradigm for understanding American history, which is at the heart of some of the recent movements for public activism and consciousness.

The Rediscovery of America is such an eye opener, and also quite moving. I couldn't even think of the word… it's not agency, it's not resilience, it's just a lastingness, you know, of Indian peoples throughout the centuries of very purposeful termination. How do you understand that, emotionally, when you look at that dynamic?

I do see a lot of surprising moments of hope in a very dark historical subject matter. It could be a slightly optimistic narrative of resurgence and self-expression and political sovereign articulations. One could say that those three themes are pretty evident in the latter stages of this book. There are still very real challenges and pressing asymmetries of health, economics, and politics that characterize much of Native America, particularly within reservation communities. I'm trying to excavate the hidden histories of activism, and/or intellectual formation or political organization that help explain those later things. I potentially do so at the limit of not sufficiently underscoring the deprivation, essentially, that is so common across much of this history. I'm not wanting to get too drawn into a familiar story of victimization, but trying to find histories of strategic organization that yielded unanticipated and profound outcomes.

You talked about plenary power and the activism that is currently at play. Fascinating to see an alternative power politic organize itself. Do you think that's the model going forward? How will the relationship change between Native Americans and the U.S. government?

Part of the reason so many U.S. historians have been unable to successfully recognize this field and incorporate it into the canon of American historical formation is because its political dimensions don't conform to conventional stories of individual rights and/or minority struggles for the expansion of those rights. While mentioned in the Constitution three times, Native Americans are not essentially fighting for, or have not historically been fighting for, the same rights as other Americans: the right to vote, free speech, freedom of press, with the kind of conventional understandings of what constitutes American citizenry and/or subjecthood. We have been unable as a field to bring Native American history sufficiently into the totality of American--particularly political, if not legal--history, because Native American political history sits outside of that normative understanding of citizenry, American subjecthood, and the struggle to obtain it. Which is a struggle of freedom, as Eric Foner and many others would call it.

Native American political history is not a study of unfreedom, even though the federal dominion over Indian Affairs has been unjust; subordinating, perhaps extermination according to some scholars. But the federal dominion over Indian Affairs came out of an initial form of bilateral recognition that treaties helped establish. Those bilateral recognitions fell apart, in part because American citizens and leaders like Andrew Jackson didn't want to follow Supreme Court rulings. If the federal government won't follow its own laws, these things don't resemble their intent.

Over time, it has been Native Americans and their allies who have helped remind the federal government through legal, activist, political, tax, and other kinds of forms of advocacy. It's been Native Americans who've brought the federal government back into a domain of bilateral engagement--not quite symmetrical, but bilateral. It's called the trust doctrine. A bilateral form of political engagement that is at the heart of Native American sovereignty.

You've had a lot of buzz from other historians and people working in the field, including Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who gave you a great blurb. How do you hope the community will accept and celebrate the book?

I think there is a real urgency and need to have interpretive comprehensions of various kinds. One of the themes of the second half of this book is the legal doctrine of federal Indian Affairs and the growing power of what is known as plenary power by the Congress over Indian Affairs, which is not the original vision of the founders, but came in in the aftermath of Reconstruction (when Congress started doing lots of stuff to remake American society). In a way that wouldn't satisfy many lawyers or some legal historians, but could reach into a broader public understanding. Dunbar-Ortiz has written this type of interpretive overview, An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States. She uses more of a kind of settler colonial paradigm than I do; her response was really quite wonderful for me. And someone like Tom Callaway at Dartmouth has written so many books in my field; I think he really recognized, also, the need for this type of comprehensiveness, and a series of other scholars like Brenda Child, at the University of Minnesota, offered some really nice responses. I'm not quite sure what other kind of responses await, but I look forward to seeing what they will be.

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