Memory  /  Book Review

The Promise and Perils of Synthetic Native History

Over the past year, two prominent historians have invited readers to rethink the master narrative of US history.

Foundational to Blackhawk's nuance is a new theory of US history. That new theory is based on a very old methodology: dialectic history (p. 6). Dialecticism is a Eurocentric approach to understanding the past. With Hegel and Marx among its most prominent intellectual forebears, dialectic history typically emphasizes the importance of conflict in driving historical change. This approach has proven foundational to the emergence of settler-colonial studies. Blackhawk nods to settler studies, referring particularly to leading voices in the field as Commonwealth scholars (an oddly imprecise label given his precision in identifying Hämäläinen's country of birth). He is particularly indebted to the British-born Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe, whose argument about settler colonialism being premised on the elimination of Indigenous populations still looms large in histories of settler societies. Blackhawk wants to build on the insights of settler studies by focusing our attention on the experiences of Native people.

Despite promises of historical nuance and the centering of Native people, we really do not get to know them in this book. We rarely hear Indigenous voices and read only superficial descriptions of their kinship networks. In fact, Native people are more often than not acted upon (usually violently). In this sense, the book is more at home in settler studies, not in Native-centered historiography.

Blackhawk, a historian at Yale University and a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, makes his settler-leaning focus clear in the first line of the book, asking, How can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world's most exemplary democracy (p. 1)? This is not a new question. Historians have busily deconstructed American exceptionalism since at least the 1960s. Still, Blackhawk uses it to reframe how readers understand topics such as property rights, enslavement, suffrage, and economics in US history. It's also a question that introduces readers to a strawman: historians. Blackhawk cites only two historians (one of whom is dead) for their inadequacies, so it remains unclear which historians he is taking issue with.

The Rediscovery of America is divided into twelve chapters. From the book's clumsy title to the awkwardness of its prose, Blackhawk's synthesis lacks the narrative fluidity of Hämäläinen's Indigenous Continent. Cliched metaphors‚ beacons on the sea‚ (p. 289)‚ and typographical errors‚ for example, General Winfield Scott appears as General Winfried Scott (p. 211)‚ alight the narrative. And Blackhawk cannot resist pausing at regular intervals to upbraid historians as he takes us from the Spanish borderlands to the Red Power Movement and a few short remarks about the challenges facing Native communities in the twenty-first century.