“How can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world’s most exemplary democracy?” asks Professor Ned Blackhawk (Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone), author of The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History. Today, Dr. Blackhawk discusses what it would look like to build a new theory of American history that can fully grapple with the intertwined histories of the United States and Native America.
- Ned BlackhawkProfessor of History and American Studies at Yale
- Alina ScottPhD Candidate in the History Department at the University of Texas at Austin
[00:00:00] Alina Scott: This is 15 Minute History, a podcast for educators, students, and anyone interested in history, featuring the minds and voices of the University of Texas at Austin.
Welcome to 15 Minute History. I’m your host, Alina Scott, a doctoral candidate in the Department of History at UT Austin. Today, we are joined by Professor Ned Blackhawk. Dr. Blackhawk is the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale, where he is the faculty coordinator for the Yale Group for the Study of Native America.
Dr. Blackhawk is an enrolled member of the Tamoak tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada. Dr. Blackhawk is also the author or co editor of four books on Native American and Indigenous history. And if you are a student of U. S. or Native American history, you have definitely read his award winning book, Violence Over the Land.
Indians and Empires in Early American West, which won seven professional awards, including the Frederick Jackson Turner Prize for the most significant first book in U. S. history, awarded by the Organization of American Historians. His new book, The Rediscovery of America, Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History was published in April of 2023 by Yale University Press and is the subject of our conversation today.
Dr. Blackhawk, thank you so much for being here and congratulations on the publication of your new book.
[00:01:40] Ned Blackhawk: I’m happy to be here, and thank you for your congratulations.
[00:01:44] Alina Scott: So, I want to start out with the first question that you pose at the start of your book, which is, how can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world’s most exemplary democracy?
And I think in the pre and post 1865 surveys that I’m a part of, this is kind of the question that students leave those courses with. How do we kind of have this kind of idea of America that is very different from what we’re learning in these classes? And so, it’s a strong place to start, but I think it’s the only place for you to start.
So you write that Quote, pervasive violence and dispossession are more than sidebars or parentheses in the stories of American history. They call into question its central thesis. And this is what you’re trying to do, reckon with the past so that you can engage with the grittiness that is absent. So in order to rewrite this thesis, this American thesis that you’re talking about, how do you in this book hope to build a new theory of American history?
What is your central
[00:02:43] Ned Blackhawk: goal? Well, the introduction is entitled Toward a New American History. And I’m hopeful that the work that I’m doing and that a generation of scholars has initiated around Native American history can lead us collectively towards establishing a more capacious and ultimately revelatory understanding or argumentation about what constitutes science.
The nature of the American experience. And for too long, as you’ve indicated with my first question in the book, we’ve been told a history or a story of American development that has not sufficiently attended to the, not just violent nature of American historical development vis a vis Native nations, but also narrative of American history that has not really adequately even recognized the presence.
Of the oldest continuously inhabited portions of the American landscape, many Native Nations themselves. So, it has a kind of two fold undertaking to call into question or to unmake many of the kind of central paradigms of American historical development. And also highlight the kind of presence, agency, and influence of Native Nations in that narrative, whatever we may ultimately call it.
[00:04:04] Alina Scott: In a lot of the historiography that I’ve read and in kind of traditional thinking and in more traditional history departments, in terms of periodization, there’s kind of this pre removal and post removal era, and they’re kind of isolated from each other. However, in your book, You kind of set it up in a different sort of periodization and there’s kind of a pre republic and a post republic time period.
So can you speak to this choice of periodization and the different features of the eras that mark this rewriting of American
[00:04:36] Ned Blackhawk: thesis? I’m happy to. The subject of periodization may not seem really intelligible to non academic or non historical practitioners. But ultimately, how we understand the past and organize it reflects a certain set of normative or even kind of ideological orientations.
So, American history, as you know, has been heavily organized around certain temporalities, time periods, eras, epics, phases, and all of those have a kind of periodization to them. And so the book has a very distinct structure and form to reflect It’s ambition, but also to highlight what the field kind of has come to embody.
And so the work is an attempt to provide a single volume interpretive overview, a synthesis of Native American history that highlights and draws upon this generation of scholars who have been engaged in what I call the rediscovery of America. And so the vast preponderance of scholarly activity in this field largely has been in the field of early American history.
Which has historically been often synonymous with British North America. Or with English North America, or what we might call the three P’s, the Puritans, the Patriots, and the Presidents. And so that kind of Euro centric or New England centric model has kind of fallen apart over the last generation or so.
And many scholars, including, I guess myself included, have initiated studies of borderlands histories and early American histories that are not Wedded to the Atlantic that highlight the presence of Indians and empires and other kind of non anglophone populations to help construct what some have called a vast new early America.
So part one of the book is six fairly substantive chapters on Indians and empires, which ends at the ratification of the U. S. Constitution. So that’s the first half of the book. And the second half of the book, in terms of periodization, is the history essentially of federal Indian affairs since the formation of the U.
S. Constitution. So 1787 and the kind of fateful, deliberative undertaking of reconstituting the American government in the summer of that fateful summer is the kind of hinge essentially of the, of the work. What I might kind of invite some to kind of think about is we’ve lost a sense of the centrality of the early American experience.
To the subsequent history of the United States. It used to be that colonial history was much more kind of institutionalized and essential for understanding. The subsequent formation of the United States, but because the field has become so heavily specialized and institutionalized in so many ways, we have so many kind of competing subfields or kind of strands within the mosaic of American history that the early American past has faded from its kind of central form.
I’d like to think that we might, in confronting this undertaking of trying to establish a new theory of American history, remind ourselves that the history of the continent is much older than just the history of the Republic or just the history of modern America. And that while much has happened, Particularly, you know, in the aftermath of the Civil War, there is still a vast universe of historical development that still awaits kind of full national attention.
[00:08:05] Alina Scott: I think something that you pointed to just now is that you are writing this really long history, one that existed before the signing of the U. S. Constitution and one that exists after. And so I wonder if you can talk a little bit about some specific examples about how These U. S. and Native histories are intertwined and how that does play into this history that you’re writing.
[00:08:27] Ned Blackhawk: Well, it’s funny because the field of Native American history has historically not been that heavily emphasized within the narrative of America. And recently, as I’m kind of gesturing to or referencing, there have been many scholars kind of challenging that erasure or that omission or that marginalization.
But if we look at the central moments of American historical development. Let’s take the constitution, let’s take the revolution. It’s hard to look at those periods and not see the centrality of indigenous peoples or indigenous affairs within them. And so there are two substantive chapters in the first half of the book on the revolution and on the constitution.
And it’s not incoincidental that But in both the Declaration and in the Constitution, Native peoples are mentioned. And so I try to explain the kind of context, meanings, and legacies, as well as origins of these incredibly important moments of both the U. S. and Native American history, including the last grievance, as you may know, that the Continental Congress initiates against the King of England in July of 1776.
Uh, there are 27 grievances that Thomas Jefferson and some other authors within the Continental Congress have kind of initiated to kind of justify their claims to become an independent republic. And in this justification that we call the Declaration of Independence, the last grievance against the King of England is that he’s incited, quote, merciless Indian savages.
To essentially make war upon our frontier communities or inhabitants. And those terms, Indian savages and frontier, reflect the theme of that chapter or that period of, about the centrality of the interior regions of North America in the ultimate origins of the American Revolution. We have not sufficiently learned that history, nor emphasized it.
And there are prominent, prominent early American historians. Who teach the declaration who’ve written about it who teach this and talk about this period without mentioning to those subjects And so each chapter like the book as a whole tries to intervene into these somewhat paradigmatic fields of US historical inquiry, and tries to reorient them to expose these missing or these elemental subjects.
[00:10:45] Alina Scott: This is a huge undertaking, but it’s also not just an argument about federal Indian policy or the BIA, and Indian affairs more generally. It’s also Like you said, an argument about kind of the centrality of Native peoples in these early histories, but you describe mythological visions of America in your chapters and the so called disappearance of Native peoples.
And I, I kind of want to get at that and kind of how we get to this place of kind of ignoring Native peoples and the centrality of Native peoples in these early histories. So can you talk about what that, the active role that mythology played and national mythology played, um, In the national mission in the 19th and 20th centuries and how your history disrupts
[00:11:32] Ned Blackhawk: that, you know, I’m just kind of routinely astounded when I learn and read and find kind of new examples about U.
S. History and Native Americans within it. And so the last two chapters are essentially, um, roughly a hundred pages of analysis of what we would call 20th century Native American history. And the first of those two chapters starts around the time of the 400th anniversary of the Columbian encounter in 1893 at the Chicago’s World’s Fair.
And the, uh, rise of a whole range of intellectual and scholarly, um, and even academic disciplines that have, uh, often located many of their origins around that moment, including the, uh, famous, uh, historical address offered by Frederick Jackson Turner at the American Historical Association that becomes the basis for his frontier thesis and famous article.
So it’s not incoincidental that in the aftermath of the Civil War and in the aftermath of Reconstruction in particular, you know, in the late, 1870s, throughout the 1880s and into the early 1890s, as the United States has kind of emerged from this epic, incredibly destructive and deadly conflict, it lacks, in many ways, a national academic or intellectual community to kind of work through and kind of think about many of those challenges.
Much of the political turmoil is still unfolding across the American South. The Union Army is kind of withdrawn in 1876. I mean, the famous kind of compromise election of that year, and the nation is still kind of simultaneously struggling to make sense of that experience, but also emerging into its really first kind of era of continental, if not kind of global power, and will very quickly acquire foreign colonies and territories in places like Hawaii and the Philippines and Guam and Puerto Rico.
Simultaneously, look to its past to make sense of this kind of prodigious imperialism of sorts. When it looks to its past, it kind of skips over the trauma and tragedy of the Civil War, and in many ways returns to the colonial era. That’s why the colonial period is so important. To see the kind of genesis of the American subject.
That’s what Turner’s doing in his frontier thesis. That’s what People like Francis Parkman and Bancroft and other kind of famous historians of this era are kind of initiating a kind of intellectual development of what we would call the study of America. And it takes a long time for that development to occur.
And within that development, places like the Mississippi River or colonial New England, ultimately like the first Thanksgiving, the Columbus’s arrival and the celebration of his encounter, all of those have their origins in this period. And within them, Nearly all of these narratives, Native peoples are simply there to disappear, or to fade away, or to kind of confirm the kind of, if not providential, then the kind of ideological superiority of Europeans.
And so Native nations have always kind of stood in kind of the antithetical role of the American subject. The antithesis of the American kind of ideal, and it’s ubiquitous across the kind of formation of U. S. intellectual history from this era. So that chapter tries to kind of both name this kind of mythology of indigenous disappearance, but also try to see how Native peoples and intellectuals and activists and leaders responded to that challenge.
Because as you know, one of the deepest challenges around doing Native American studies is constantly trying to remind an audience or reader. A set of students or whomever. University administrators that there are still present native peoples who are not consigned to some distant era or who simply no longer exist.
And so these are some of the most elemental myths of American history and of American identity that have gone insufficiently interrogated for a very long time. And so this project, in some small way, is trying to both name those mythologies and expose their Problematics.
[00:15:48] Alina Scott: There are a couple themes that I think always come up in kind of conversations about Native history and those are settler colonialism and kind of the struggle for sovereignty.
And so I wonder if you can kind of talk about how those two themes play out in this book. And maybe kind of a new perspective for looking at those things based on kind of how you lay out your argument.
[00:16:14] Ned Blackhawk: I’d be happy to. It’s really quite exciting to have seen the rise of what we would call settler colonial studies.
It’s really become A generative, far reaching, transnational paradigm of cultural analysis throughout much of the early 21st century. And few, I think, sufficiently recognize that it had its origins in Native American and indigenous studies, in which settler colonial studies has become one of its most generative paradigms or kind of arguments.
Settler colonial studies is very helpful in trying to expose some of these problematics that we just discussed around indigenous erasure or certain mythologies and its exposure of the kind of centrality of violence or kind of state designed assimilation policies for absorbing or assimilating or eradicating kind of the forms of indigenous difference and sovereignty that are characteristic of settler nation states more broadly.
But within a historical universe or landscape, it’s been a little too Kind of rudimentary to capture some of the textures and vagaries of indigenous power and agency that we were talking about earlier. So I’m very kind of appreciative of its use, but have some concerns about its flattening of historical contingencies and indigenous people’s determinations and agencies.
And it’s kind of often propensity to re inscribe this, the nation state as the center of historical analysis.
[00:17:47] Alina Scott: I think one thing that I really appreciated about this book is that, as you mentioned, there, there have been a lot more books recently. There are kind of these, like, multicultural histories and kind of reclaiming spaces that people who had been erased from certain elements of history are now being reinserted into.
And I think your book does a little bit more than that. And I, I really kind of want to talk about that, but also kind of the future of, histories and kind of how we talk about these types of moments and these types of erasures. So where do you see the field going in the future, given this kind of turn towards multicultural histories or histories that are kind of recentering those who had been erased
[00:18:29] Ned Blackhawk: from history?
Well, I think the field is in a good space at the moment because it’s being, you know, increasingly recognized, institutionalized, and developed. And so we now have the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, which is now about 15 years old, which has an accompanying journal. There are a lot more kind of graduate programs and or kind of prominent institutional appointments that have been made in the field.
It’s becoming more and more common to see this field represented at the highest levels of the American Academy. And to see works studied and cited and circulating in ways that really was a kind of inconceivable 30 years ago or so when I started graduate school. So that’s all been great, but I think we are getting at the point where we’re kind of increasingly sometimes learning more and more about less and less.
And it’s the kind of synthetic or unifying or kind of the larger national or kind of continental narratives that I think. Still need to be fashioned because while this field has grown and while the kind of mosaic of America has become much more multicultural, the central strands of. The field’s infrastructure remain.
And like I said earlier, you can still find, as many of your listeners will know, textbooks and classrooms and studies that really still can’t make sense of the subject. And I offered a pretty pointed critical perspective of, in the American Historical Review a few years ago, of Jill Lepore’s book, These Truths, and its complete erasure or omission of American Indian history, particularly American Indian sovereignty and kind of political history.
And I direct any of your interested readers towards that piece entitled the iron cages of erasure because we’re going to reach a point where the fields have become so specialized that we all kind of operate in these kind of somewhat siloed areas. But the still central core of American history, the legal history, of its political history, of its constitutional history, will all kind of revolve around certain subjects that have yet to really still make sense of this subject.
And if you looked at an academic field like American political science, you’d see like hardly any presence. of around the kind of distinct nature of American Indian sovereignty within it. So we still have a long, long ways to go. And I’m very excited that we’ve kind of reached this point where we can have these types of conversations, but there’s still a lot of inherited wisdom or knowledges or, uh, that have kind of.
Formed in ways that make it very hard to incorporate these subjects.
[00:21:07] Alina Scott: Well, my final question is simply about takeaways from your book. So, what is something that you hope readers, scholars, students, and those invested in learning history will take away from your book and your argument
[00:21:21] Ned Blackhawk: here? Well, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you and I’m happy to offer If I can, just one small takeaway, I actually think the maps in the front and in pages of the book, which took a lot of time to construct, provide kind of a central emphasis that the work as a whole does.
The first map is the kind of estimated locations of pre contact or pre removal Native nations and identifications of them within their own kind of tribal. Languages and or names and the last map in the book, as you may know, is of the contiguous United States and the place of federally recognized and state recognized tribes within it.
And so you get a sense just visually and kind of cartographically of the central themes of the book, the diversity, the heterogeneity, the ongoing presence, survival, changing adaptations, and also the central importance of the federal government’s role in relationships with native nations.
[00:22:18] Alina Scott: Well, thank you so much, Dr.
Blackhawk, for coming on the show. Dr. Blackhawk’s new book, The Rediscovery of America, Native Peoples, and the Unmaking of U. S. History, was published in April of 2023, and you can get the book wherever you buy your books. As always, make sure to rate and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, follow us on social media at 15 Minute History, and listen to more episodes of 15 Minute History wherever you get your podcasts.
See you next time.
[00:22:46] Alina Scott: 15 Minute History is produced at the University of Texas at Austin in partnership with with not even passing hemispheres in the College of Liberal Arts.