"Indigenous Continent" Seeks Shakeup of American HistoryHistorians in the News
tags: Native American history, Indigenous history, Settler Colonialism
Sean T. Byrnes is a writer and historian who lives in Middle Tennessee. He’s the author of Disunited Nations: US Foreign Policy, Anti-Americanism, and the Rise of the New Right from LSU Press.
Though it exists today only in photographs and fragments, Horatio Greenough’s 1853 statue group, The Rescue, still retains the power to shock. Looming over the East Front of the U.S. Capitol for more than a century, it depicted a grotesquely large white man in neoclassical garb subduing an equally caricatured Native American, while a cowering white woman snatches her child away in the background. Despite generations of scholarship on Indigenous America, many Americans still imagine the United States as a nation born distant from the wars of powers and principalities, unstained by the carnage of various “bloodlands.” Nineteenth-century Americans and their statues were more honest: For them, the U.S. was a new Rome, self-consciously imperial and violent, the aspiring victor in a brutal and, at that time, undecided 400-year war for control of North America.
It is this ferociously imperial United States that emerges from Pekka Hämäläinen’s valuable new book, Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, and it does so precisely because the U.S. is not his focus. As his title indicates, Hämäläinen instead tells the story of an Indigenous North America, one that emerged tens of thousands of years before Columbus arrived, remained dominant until the nineteenth century, and endures to the present.
Beginning the story of North America with the ancestors of Native Americans crossing the “Beringia” land bridge from Asia into Alaska is, of course, nothing new. Surveys of North American and U.S. history have long abandoned the habit of opening with England’s first colonial outposts for more inclusive considerations of the pre-Columbian Indigenous world. However, in many works, this moment serves as a mere prelude for the “real” event: the arrival of Europeans. By the time the English alight on the Virginian strand, the action has shifted, the story is now a European story, with Native Americans as relatively powerless supporting actors and victims. History flows westward, out from the colonies on the Atlantic coast and into a nominally Native “frontier.” As Hämäläinen puts it, Europeans in such narratives seem “destined to take over,” and history itself becomes a “linear process that moves irreversibly towards Indigenous destruction.”
Indigenous Continent undertakes the monumental task of telling the story the other way around, of “facing East from Indian country,” as Daniel K. Richter suggested in his seminal 2001 book. The results are a starkly different narrative, in which the “maps of modern textbooks that paint much of early North America with neat, color-coded blocks” are revealed to be fictions that overstate Europeans’ actual holdings. More accurate maps might look somewhat like those in old textbooks depicting the Germanic invasions of Rome, with communities of European invaders rendered as arrows pushing up against stubbornly resistant Native American sovereignties. In this telling, the history of North America is firmly anchored around polities such as the Powhatan Empire, the Iroquois Confederacy, and the Lakota and Comanche Empires. These communities emerge not as bit players in a story of European expansion—stepping in and out of a fog hanging just beyond the frontier of settlement—but as part of a continent with its own political history.
Hämäläinen thus looks to reverse the geographical direction of North American history, beginning instead in the northwestern corner of the continent and moving south and east as early Indigenous Americans migrated down from Alaska and across the Rocky Mountains around 11,000 BCE. Spreading across the land over the subsequent millennia, they built a variety of different societies, some relatively egalitarian, others much more hierarchical. Among the most physically impressive of the latter were the various “Mound Builder” cultures that emerged between the Great Lakes to the lower Mississippi Valley in a period running from roughly 1700 BCE to 1400 CE. The Adena-Hopewell people who lived in today’s Ohio, for example, or the Cahokia in southern Illinois, were relatively centralized societies, erecting large earthen mounds as religious and economic centers, many of which can still be seen today.