Pekka Hamalainen's Ambitious Book Reinforces Some Old Myths (Review)Historians in the News
tags: book reviews, Native American history
Ned Blackhawk is an enrolled member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada and the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University. His most recent work, The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History, will be released in April.
The Epic Contest for North America
By Pekka Hamalainen.
Liveright. 592 pp. $40
Scholars of American history long failed to treat Native peoples as influential actors. In a story whose early chapters were organized around Puritans, patriots and presidents, Indigenous peoples only received mention so that they could be vanquished. These presumptions have remained so ingrained that even as Native American history has flourished over the past generation, few have attempted to synthesize the role that Indigenous people played in the story of North America more generally. Scholars tend instead to focus on the details, narrating the stories of different groups at different times. “Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America” by Pekka Hamalainen represents an attempt to offer a more sweeping view, boldly claiming to show how much power Native Americans exerted over early colonists and settlers. In a rush to overturn many historical fallacies, the book unfortunately ends up reaffirming several of the very myths it aims to contest, particularly a narrative of Indigenous decline at odds with the book’s emphasis on Native American power.
In his best-known work, “The Comanche Empire” (2008), the Finnish-born Hamalainen offered a full-throated rejoinder to the erasure of Native history. It inverted the conventional narrative of early America history, making the case for a process of “reversed colonialism” in which Indigenous peoples dominated the past. The study launched both its subject and author, who became the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford.
Like all scholarly achievements, this study built upon the work of others, joining a spate of studies of “Indians and empires” that added new regions, empires and Indian nations to the field. Hamalainen followed up with a similarly expansive study, “Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power” in 2019. Many Lakota Studies scholars, however, balked at its presumptions of Lakota imperialism, arguing that the term “empire” distorts Indigenous historical realities, misconstrues the cultural motivations of Native communities and discounts the legacies of colonialism.
“Indigenous Continent” is unlikely to assuage such concerns. Hamalainen once again leans into the language of empire while downplaying the effects of colonization. The book’s opening pages gesture back to the author’s prior work. We are told that Europeans, not Native peoples, “were the supplicants” of early America, “their lives, movements, and ambitions determined by Native nations.” According to Hamalainen, the field of study should no longer be called “colonial America” at all, but rather “Indigenous America.” Colonial history is best understood as Indigenous history.