Power  /  Book Review

Retelling U.S. History With Native Americans at the Center

A new account by the Yale historian Ned Blackhawk argues that Native peoples shaped the development of American democracy while being dispossessed of their land.

“The Rediscovery of America” gains momentum as the narrative moves beyond the colonial period and into the American Revolution. Blackhawk finds Native peoples shaping both the origins of the Revolution and its primary consequence: a federal constitution to unite 13 states and manage their territorial expansion. Shifting attention away from Eastern seaports, where mobs protested British Parliament’s taxes, Blackhawk highlights rural settlers seeking a freer hand to smite and kill Indians. “The start of the fall of the British Empire in North America began on the Pennsylvania frontier” in 1765, he argues.

After winning independence, the new country began to unravel in squabbles over western land during the 1780s. To control squatters and prevent wars among states, Americans had to cooperate in western expansion at Native expense. In 1787, the country’s leaders crafted a new constitution that empowered a federal government to coordinate foreign policy, manage Indian affairs and raise an army. “The Constitution now legitimated the process of American colonialism unleashed by the Revolution,” Blackhawk writes. “It became, in short, a constitution for colonialism” by Americans, now without British overlords.

During the early 1800s, the more robust federal government helped settlers dispossess most of the Indians living east of the Mississippi River, relocating survivors to reservations in the more arid west, on lands not yet coveted by pioneers. When Native Americans fled across borders into either Spanish Florida or British Canada, the United States sought to snuff out those foreign havens through territorial expansion. But that expansion ignited tensions within the United States, as Northerners and Southerners clashed over what labor system — free or slave — should prevail in the new territories. When the clash led to civil war, western volunteers sought out and destroyed many Native communities, killing thousands of their residents. A transcontinental railroad, combined with increased gold, silver and copper mining, put intense stress on Native peoples, who lost most of their remaining homelands by 1880.

Confined to reservations, dependent on government rations and bullied by federal officials, Natives faced relentless pressure to forsake their cultures and tribal leaders. By assimilating fully into white American life, they would become individuals competing for wages in a market economy. Earlier in the century, treaties had helped settlers shrink Indian domains, but those treaties eventually became an embarrassment, as they had recognized some Native sovereignty and homelands. In 1871, Congress unilaterally abrogated treaty rights and excluded Indians from citizenship.