book review / memory

The Vanishing Indians of “These Truths”

Jill Lepore's widely-praised history of the U.S. relies on the eventual exit of indigenous actors to make way for other dramas.
Jill Lepore's These Truths: A History of the United States, her sweeping new synthesis of American history, identifies truth-telling as a key for understanding American experiences. But in more than 900 pages, she recognizes individual Native Americans by name a total of seven times.

Readers of this ambitious tome encounter — briefly — the multilingual Guatícabanú, who interacted with Spaniards shortly after Columbus’s arrival; Powhatan, the paramount chief who negotiated with Jamestown colonists; Metacom (also known as King Philip), the Wampanoag leader who resisted New England colonial incursions; Pontiac, the Ottawa leader of an 18th-century multi-tribal uprising; and Sequoyah, the Cherokee inventor of an innovative syllabary. The lone indigenous woman mentioned by name is the Nahua interpreter La Malinche, who bore a son with conquistador Hernán Cortés in what is now Mexico. The final cameo is by Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo at the moment of his surrender to the US Army.

Aside from these appearances, indigenous people — the original inhabitants of the Americas who have lived, labored, and governed on this continent for thousands of years — are largely left faceless and nameless, subsumed within generalizations about “Indians.” Or they are simply ghosts, spectrally off-stage in the American story. You will not find a single named indigenous person from the 20th or 21st centuries. These Truths replicates the same troubling “vanishing” that Lepore critiques in 19th-century novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.

Indigenous absences are not a minor fault with These Truths. They lie at its core and they bear weighty consequences for the story that emerges. In a book that confidently bills itself as “an account of the origins, course, and consequences of the American experiment over more than four centuries,” the marginalization of indigenous people is a fundamental problem. Lepore takes on the undeniably difficult task of comprehending the American saga in a multifaceted spirit, attempting a type of middle path by concentrating, as she puts it, on “a great deal of anguish […] and more hypocrisy” alongside stories of “decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition.”

The book proposes to tell a wide-ranging story, and in many respects, like its consideration of the protracted struggle for racial equality, it poses a timely rejoinder to airport best sellers trafficking in whitewashed tales of Founding Fathers and military generals. But the narrative Lepore constructs relies on the eventual exit of indigenous actors to make way for other dramas.
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