Indigenous Continent: The Big Picture and small mistakes

I just finished reading Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, by Pekka Hämäläinen. I’d previously read Lakota America, and have his book on the Comanche Empire on my shelf. In Lakota America, he argues that in 1776 there were two emerging nations in North America: The Lakota were moving out of the Great Lakes region and advancing towards the Plains, where they would become dominant. The new American nation was scrambling to secure the eastern seaboard, fight off British, French, Spanish, and Native contenders, and move at its own pace across the continent.

In the new book, he continues to document the historical roles of Native tribes and peoples as the United States grows across the continent. The Lakota story is joined by the story of the The Iroquois Confederacy—or Haudenosaunee—in the Northeast, and the Comanche Empire on the Southwestern plains. In all cases, the Native players are seen as co-equals with the forces of French, British, Spanish, and US players.

There is a small caveat to this great endeavor: in his bringing Tribes into the American history picture, Hämäläinen has sometimes been criticized by Tribal historians. When I turned to the brief description of the Nez Perce story in the new book, I understood their concern. Recapping Nez Perce history, he writes that after threats from the US, “the Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph, went to war.” He continues his mistaken history by siting the battle at Clearwater Creek: “The fight was inconclusive, and soon after the Nez Perce decided to leave their homelands.” And finally, this: “In mid-September, 800 Nez Perce, led by Chief Joseph, broke for Canada.”

Although earlier accounts of the Nez Perce War portrayed Joseph as a “war chief,” we now know that this was not true, that Joseph was in fact a domestic chief and a super diplomat who, after the war chiefs Looking Glass and Ollokot were killed and White Bird had fled to Canada, guided the people through the long journey to Indian Territory, eight years of misery in “the hot country,” and a return to the West. And, of course, we know that the Nez Perce were forced from their homelands; it was not a decision to leave. And Canada was a later thought, when refuge with other tribes became untenable.

There is room to distrust Hämäläinen on the particulars, but his broad understanding of the growth of the United States across the North American continent is, I believe, a contribution to a richer and truer history of the country. Some of his broad themes:

The horse utterly transformed Native America. Tribes that mastered the horse became powerful. Hämäläinen has stories of Lakota, Blackfoot, and Comanche use of the horse in expanding their power and the lands they controlled. (The Nez Perce and other Plateau Tribes used and mastered the horse, but did not apparently use it for territorial expansion.)

Diseases did not wipe out Native populations all at once, but critically injured them at important historical junctures, and thus changed Indian tactics and altered history. The Iroquois, for instance, made up for huge losses in population with “mourning wars,” conquering other tribes and replacing lost populations. The powerful Lakota received smallpox vaccinations, courtesy the US government, to help stabilize and Americanize the world trade in buffalo hides. Infectious diseases, in Hämäläinen’s book and in what I understand from other written sources and Indians themselves, visited and revisited Tribal peoples from first contact through the Influenza epidemic of 1917-18 to the Covid Pandemic of today.

And, most importantly, the interplay among Tribes, the British, French, Spanish, and US traders, diplomats, and military forces was complicated and more co-equal than we have been taught. To use a word my mentor, Alvin Josephy, often used when describing this mistake in the work of American historians, Indians were “actors” and not pacifist victims, in the struggle for ownership and power on the continent.

They acted economically. Academic historians have often neglected the entire northern economy of the fur trade, in which tribal peoples were necessary partners.

They fought heroically, from the Eastern efforts to unify and make alliances with other nations to forestall United States expansion, to the final Indian Wars, including the Nez Perce War, of the late 1800s.

They concluded treaties, made deals. The US readily and continuously broke those treaties, or made new treaties under duress, but the legacy of the treaties is that they still are part of US law, and their provisions are argued in court today. It can be argued that the very survival of salmon in the Columbia River system today is due to the provisions of the 1855 treaties conduced with the Plateau tribes in 1855.

Reviews of this new history of America and Indians as actors in the large drama are mixed. Some accuse Hämäläinen of oversimplifying and ignoring settler populations, power, and violence. This from Ned Blackhawk, Yale historian and enrolled member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada, in the Washington Post:

“With its crude celebrations of Indigenous agency, ‘Indigenous Continent’ offers a limited entryway into a historical landscape marred by violence. In the great recalibration of American history now underway, more textured methods are needed, not overviews that often replicate the things many already believe, even as they claim to overturn them.”

But Blackhawk does acknowledge a new crop of historians and their attempts to give “agency” and power to Native peoples, as he faults their arguments. I look forward to his take on the subject in his book, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History,” to be released in April.

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