Memory  /  Q&A

Ned Blackhawk Wants to Unmake the U.S. Origin Story

Professor Blackhawk’s new volume attempts to put Native peoples’ stories at the center of the history of the United States.

The theory of settler colonialism emphasizes, among other things, that violence is not a series of discrete events but rather a mode of state formation. The theory has been increasingly invoked of late in discussions of racism, sovereignty, and land access.

To what extent is settler colonialism a useful framework for thinking about American history, and what are some of the limitations?

It’s been quite exciting to see this paradigm come into formation and then explode over the past two decades. Many may not know that the theory of settler colonialism originated with Indigenous Studies who critiqued prior models of global colonialism that focused more on “post-colonial” than “settler colonial” societies.

The paradigm is process based. It recognizes the ongoing dialectic of colonialism as a feature of contemporary “settler” societies. While indebted to the settler colonial turn, many historians—myself included—worry about some of its totalizing features. As an idea that emphasizes “Indigenous elimination” as one of its central features, it often minimizes the agency, adaptation, and resurgence of Native American communities.

Can you briefly explain the doctrine of “plenary power”?

The Founding Fathers of the United States inhabited a multipolar world where Indigenous peoples and nations remained recognized powers. While often vilified—as in “merciless Indian savages” found in the Declaration of Independence—early U.S. leaders nonetheless understood Indian nations and sovereignty to be critical aspects of U.S. statecraft. The Senate’s first treaties are all with Indians, and Indian affairs informed the first bilateral treaties with European nations—starting with Jay’s Treaty of 1794.

This recognition of Indigenous authority became codified in the U.S. Constitution, most notably in the Commerce Clause’s granting of federal authority over “Indian tribes” and in recognition of “treaties made, or which shall be made… (as) the supreme Law of the Land.” I write at some length about the early contests around these powers, in particular Jefferson’s ironic reluctance to concede to the Executive and Senate’s exclusive, joint authority over the treaty power—after he became President, Jefferson used the same powers to get approval of the Louisiana Purchase Treaty.

This type of treaty-making often riled the Republic. Southerners—like Jefferson and later Andrew Jackson—bristled at the suggestion that Indians could potentially retain through treaties territorial jurisdiction and sovereignty within the U.S. legal system. Their followers did even more, especially in Jacksonian America when Indian Removal dominated national politics and prompted constitutional crises.

Plenary Power—as a doctrine—began largely in the 1850s after the formal portions of eastern Indian removal had concluded. It holds that Congress (including the House of Representatives) has authority to override U.S. treaty commitments with Native nations. Indians challenged these principles throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but a series of rulings established precedents that Congressional laws have “plenary power” and can thus override Senate treaty commitments—despite their standing as the “supreme Law of the Land.” So, Indian lands, resources, and even children grew threatened by new congressional laws, leaving Native nations with very limited protections. This doctrine has more recently been used to authorize other congressional actions and often seizures.