Victors’ History Reconsidered

Yesterday, in a post about one type of spoils of victory, we shared some reading about responsibilities. Today, in a discussion of the book Indigenous Continent, we consider a different type of spoil of victory.

The accepted wisdom that history is written by the victors is contestable, and David Treuer seems the perfect person to walk us through this book’s attempt at doing so with regard to the indigenous peoples of what is now called North America:

Do We Have the History of Native Americans Backward?

They dominated far longer than they were dominated, and, a new book contends, shaped the United States in profound ways.

A portrait of Thayendanegea, painted in London, in 1785, by Gilbert Stuart. Art work by Gilbert Charles Stuart / British Museum

I remember when I first encountered what must be the best-selling book of Native American history ever published, “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee,” by Dee Brown. I was twenty years old, and had made my way from the Leech Lake Reservation, in northern Minnesota, where I grew up, to Princeton, in a part of New Jersey that seemed to have no Indians at all. Since “Bury My Heart” appeared, in 1970, it has been translated into seventeen languages, and sold millions of copies. In the opening pages, Brown wrote, “The greatest concentration of recorded experience and observation came out of the thirty-year span between 1860 and 1890—the period covered by this book. It was an incredible era of violence, greed, audacity, sentimentality, undirected exuberance, and an almost reverential attitude toward the ideal of personal freedom for those who already had it. During that time the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.”

I read this on the hundredth anniversary of the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee Creek, in South Dakota. It was the last major armed conflict between an Indian tribe and the U.S. government, and more than two hundred and fifty Lakota men, women, and children were murdered there. Far from my Ojibwe homeland—marooned, I sometimes felt, on the distant shore of a self-satisfied republic—I readily accepted the version of history promoted by Brown’s book: that Native American history was a litany of abuses (disease, slavery, warfare, dispossession, forced removal, the near-extermination of the American bison, land grabs, forced assimilation) that had erased our way of life. And yet my culture and civilization didn’t feel gone. When I looked westward and back in time, I couldn’t help think that Brown’s historical record was incomplete—that the announcement of our collective death was rather premature.

Pekka Hämäläinen’s “Indigenous Continent” (Liveright) boldly sets out a counternarrative. In its opening pages, Hämäläinen—a Helsinki-born scholar at Oxford who specializes in early and Indigenous American history—maintains that the America we know was, in its borders, shape, and culture, far from inevitable. Even after the so-called colonial era, tribal nations often played a determining role in American history. In his view, we should speak not of “colonial America” but of “an Indigenous America that was only slowly and unevenly becoming colonial,” and recognize that the central reality of the period was ongoing Indigenous resistance. By 1776, he notes, European powers had claimed most of the continent, but Indigenous people continued to control it. Instead of a foreordained story of decline and victimization, Hämäläinen wants us to see a parade of contingencies, with Native nations regularly giving as good as they got, or even better. The result, he promises, will be a North American history recentered on Native people and their own “overwhelming and persisting” power. Like treaties, though, scholarly promises have often been broken. Is Hämäläinen true to his word?

Read the whole discussion here.

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