Ned Blackhawk: a New History of America

I’m only 107 pages into Ned Blackhawks new book, The Rediscovery of America, and am already taken with an entirely new approach to American history. I’ve read Jill Lepore’s These Truths, and found it fact-filled, well written, and engaging, but, in the end, I found it limited, a kind of “Jeffersonian history.” In large part, Lepore takes the opening words of the Declaration, “We the people,” and sees the march of American history as the gradual expansion of “we.” It starts with male property owners, then embraces all (white) males, and gradually adds freed slaves, women, and, finally, in 1924, American Indians.

Blackhawk doesn’t start with the Declaration, or even the pilgrims. He does start with Columbus, but instead of a hasty intro and on to Squanto and the first thanksgiving, he dwells on “New Spain.” He takes us through the decimation of Native populations in the Caribbean, and chronicles the thirst for gold as the Spanish—with Indian and African slaves—move into the interior of the continent in search of riches.

He reminds us that diseases and intertribal politics, more even than arms and horses, were important factors in the conquest and settling of New Spain. He shows how dispossession and conversion—by force and out of survivalist instincts—fractured tribes and created a new group of Indians without affiliation. And tells us that Santa Fe was founded in 1610, that there was a huge and successful Native uprising in 1680 that dislodged the Spanish for a short period and freed livestock that helped create the Native American horse culture of the plains. Santa Fe is still here, and some of the people of the greater South and Far West, the products of several Native populations, conquistadors and settlers, can trace roots further back than the Mayflower.

The next chapter explores “New France,” briefly dipping into the politics on the other side of the Atlantic that include France and England in addition to the Dutch and Spanish. Blackhawk then details tribal responses to disease and aggression, the building and fracturing of Native-Native and Native-European alliances, and the importance of the fur trade. What also stands out, in addition to the ubiquitous death by disease, is the Church. And what is the same in New Spain and New France is the Church and its dismissal of Native religion.

The story of Old World arguments about New World Natives—whether they have souls, and who owns the land—and resulting papal decrees and the Doctrine of Discovery, are now in the news. Pope Frances has rescinded the Doctrine of Discovery! The Indians did have souls; were ripe for conversion; and land occupied by heathens belonged to the Christian nation that claimed it. (The Pope refereed Spanish and Portuguese claims with a geographic boundary.)

Nevertheless, there were missionaries who wrote what was happening, and some who empathized with indigenous people, objected to inhumane treatment, and tried to ease their plights. Bartolomé de las Casas, the most famous chronicler of European atrocities against indigenous people in the New Spain, arrived as a settler, freed his Indian slaves, and returned to Spain to become a friar and write A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies, and Historia de Las Indias, chronicling the first decades of Spanish colonization and describing the atrocities committed by the colonizers. In Spain, he lobbied against enslaving Indians and for better treatment.

New France had its own cohort of priests and missionaries. They shared Catholicism with the Spanish, and, although wars and pestilence often seemed God’s gifts, were not quite as brutal in their treatment of the Natives. Maybe because they needed Natives in their primary economic quest, furs? They courted and treatied, made alliances and went to war with as well as against tribes.

Blackhawk’s purpose in this history is to show the dynamism in the nation’s past, and the “agency” of indigenous peoples. At every step along the way, from the Spanish alliances and Pueblo rebellion, the Iroquois expansion and the wars and treaties of New France, tribal people were active participants in shaping the course of the American story.

And the facts that he finds to support that indigenous agency were often written down by Catholic missionaries, French militarists, and trappers and traders who had some empathy for the people they were always invading, sometimes subduing and replacing.

These facts have been here forever; Blackhawk and other indigenous historians and their supporters, going back to my mentor, Alvin Josephy, are excavating them now for a fuller history of the country.

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