Book ‘unmakes’ U.S. history to include long-excluded Native Americans

Yale historian Ned Blackhawk’s new book retells U.S. history to reveal the centrality of Native peoples in the political and cultural life of the country.
Ned Blackhawk with his book “The Rediscovery of America.”

Ned Blackhawk (Portrait by Dan Renzetti)

Many Americans know more about the violence inflicted upon Native American peoples in the United States than they do about Native survival and influence in the nation’s development, says Yale historian Ned Blackhawk.

In his new book, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History,” published by Yale University Press, Blackhawk aims to rectify this exclusion of Native peoples from historical narratives. It’s an omission that goes back to the country’s origins.

Indigenous absence has been a long tradition of American historical analysis,” Blackhawk, the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American studies in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences and a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians in Nevada, writes in the book’s introduction.

While traditional accounts of America’s evolution are often focused on stories of European “discovery,” Blackhawk says, it is instead the encounter of the new settlers with the Indigenous peoples that is central to the story of America’s birth and development.

Covering over 500 years of U.S. history, “The Rediscovery of America” interweaves Native and non-Native histories, from the earliest days of Spanish colonization, through the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the world wars, and the rise of Native American self-determination in the 20th century.

In an interview with Yale News, Blackhawk, who is also co-founder of the NYU-Yale American Indian Sovereignty Project, describes the ways that Native Americans shaped U.S. history and the ways Americans — Native and non-Native alike — are reckoning with the past. The interview is condensed and edited. 

What is the meaning of “rediscovery” in your book’s title?

Ned Blackhawk: Obviously, the “discovery” of America is a familiar theme and paradigm that has long been practiced in historical inquiry, not just in the United States but around the Western Hemisphere. That paradigm of Eurocentrism has limited our capacity to see a whole range of subjects.

It’s been very exciting to see a cadre of scholars in the last generation or so look past, move past, and rehabilitate early American history, with Native American history as a dominant emphasis. What is somewhat frustrating is when academic scholarship produces what should be regarded as commonplace insights, but they don’t reach outside of certain circles.

I had been thinking about this project for quite some time and came to the realization that I’d like to try to bring together a set of field findings, not just in early American history but 19th- and 20th-century U.S. history as well, and expose how thorough this scholarly transformation has been. I term this paradigm shift “the rediscovery of America” and call for its continued acceleration and growth. We still need to extend much further the insights that this scholarship has yielded.

You write that trying to understand the American Revolution without Native Americans is like a “one-handed clap.” Can you elaborate on that simile, and does it also apply to all of American history?

Blackhawk: The stories we tell about the American Revolution matter in a particular way. Excluding Native peoples from the history of the revolution is an oversight of seismic proportions. There are important scholarly works about the place of Native Americans in the revolutionary age, but by and large the field has not recognized this subject. There is still this somewhat myopic understanding of this subject that really should be a concern for all Americans.

In the Declaration of Independence, there is a reference to “the merciless Indian savages.” The Constitution outlines the place of Indians within the federal system. These are central concerns of the revolutionary generation that I examine across several chapters in the book.

Native affairs helped crystallize the political culture that founded this country. How Native peoples have been erased or excised or marginalized within that process is a form of scholarly malfeasance that needs to be named. And it continues.

In the book you note that Indigenous people not only shaped and influenced U.S. history but also had more agency than they’re given credit for. Can you give an example?

Blackhawk: One of the themes of this book is that at the core of our continent’s history is the relationship between peoples of various backgrounds. The homogeneity we think of around Indians isn’t helpful; it hinders our ability to see these communities as distinct, varied, sovereign, rich, and full as they remain and have historically been.

Once we can think past the binaries of our inherited tropes, we can see a rich universe of actions, ideas, behaviors, and practices that are central to America’s historical formation.

So upon European arrival, we can see that their arrival initiates dramatic transformations in pre-existing historical landscapes. European settlers and imperialists, governors, conquistadors, and missionaries subsequently interacted with diverse Native communities in new and unprecedented ways. All of those relationships are forms of interactions in which Native peoples have power and agency.

For example, in the Seven Years War and its aftermath, disgruntled Indians who were former allies with New France exerted tremendous military and political influence upon the newly arriving British commanders at interior forts and essentially insisted that the British fulfill the obligations that the French had maintained. The French had been there for over 125 years, particularly around the eastern and central Great Lakes, where Native peoples to an extent shared a world with them. By insisting that the English continue the trading and political and diplomatic relationships that the French initiated, Native peoples brought the newly successful British imperialists onto their terms.

The irony is that this agency sets in motion parts of the American Revolution, because the British began enforcing bans on their settlers’ trading in the interior, such as the Proclamation of 1763. That imperial decree was issued after the Native alliance under Pontiac had destroyed many British forts. The British realized that peace could be more costly than war itself. The Seven Years War was a global war and by far the most expensive war up to its time. It began with Native agency and ended with Native agency. But it hasn’t been fully incorporated into the American story.

The federal government’s removal of Indian children from their homes, placing them in boarding schools to “assimilate” them, is one of the biggest stains on the American past. How did it happen?

Blackhawk: In Chapter 10, “Taking Children and Treaty Lands,” I examine the growing power of the federal government during the Reconstruction era and its aftermath. One of the principal emphases is how Congress developed new authorities after the Civil War to incorporate Western lands and expand national power over the Union as a whole.

This is a theme with the Civil War and Reconstruction literature that focuses on the legal transformations of the 14th Amendment and the power of Congress to extend its authority over peoples’ lives in new and unprecedented ways. This theme of legal history has never been sufficiently extended into a larger national consciousness about Indian affairs.

After the war, the United States had a powerful national legislature capable of exerting a new dominion over non-Anglophone peoples. And Congress imposed federal laws in ways that it didn't prior to the Civil War. In Indian Country, U.S. officials began intruding into the internal politics across reservations that had been established through treaties. Congress during Reconstruction began giving itself the power to alter those commitments, passing dubious legislation without the consent of Native peoples, such as the Lakota Act of 1877 and other forms of treaty abrogation. That’s a big development. And so Indian affairs became one of the first domains in which this plenary power of Congress was exhibited.

From Native Americans’ perspective, these were forms of hypocrisy and deception, and to enforce compliance with these new forms of authority, reservation and national agents began taking children to faraway boarding schools. Concurrently, once the reservations became disaggregated, they also became opened up for land development — such as for railroads, water exploitations, and other resource extractions.

What do you think of contemporary commemorative efforts to recognize Native Americans, such as land acknowledgements?

Blackhawk: We’re living through a dramatic era of national reckoning and Indigenous intellectual activism. This is an ongoing process that we are witnessing much more clearly in the 2020s than we have at other points in recent memory.

In the book I recount efforts of Native American activists who were doing similar things in the 20th century. We haven't fully appreciated the extent to which 20th-century Native American activists during the Cold War era both reformed various national policies and set in motion the modern American Indian sovereignty movement.

I'd like to think that American history has something to contribute to these contemporary processes. This reckoning is not going to go away, and I believe we should have narratives of American history in which all Native Americans don't disappear or fade away. In order to make sense of these contemporary commemorations and reengagements, we need to look to the past in order to see the origins of our current political, legal, and intellectual moment.

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