Memory  /  Book Review

The Rediscovery of America: Why Native History is American History

Historian Ned Blackhawk’s new book stresses the importance of telling US history with a wider and more inclusive lens.

The perceived threat from Native Americans was crucial, Blackhawk asserts, to the formation of a central government able to extend its authority over national concerns. A federal constitution was drawn up to unite the 13 states and manage their territorial expansion.

“Indian affairs are one of the few areas in which the drafters of the constitution have general agreement that a federalist system, a centralised, more powerful political structure, is needed to manage the new republic’s relationships with Native Americans. The articles of confederation failed to do that.

“One of those new authorities is to make treaties the supreme law of the land as they’re not in the constitution. The federal government signs treaties with Native Americans right away and continues a practice that dates back to the late British period of bilateral relationships with recognised Indigenous nations. Those are the first treaties the US Senate ratifies.”

Blackhawk himself was able to go to college in Canada as a consequence of the 1794 Jay Treaty, which provided that Native Americans may travel freely across the international boundary. “These histories aren’t confined to the past. They have ongoing legacies, realities and meanings that we as historians of the United States have been remiss to identify.”

Blackhawk also analyses the neglected role of Native Americans in the 1861-65 civil war. In Oklahoma the Confederacy essentially forced them to renounce their loyalty to the Union, sign treaties as allies and form battalions that fought for the south. In California the federal government was unable to meet its treaty obligations, prompting Native Americans to take up arms; this brought them into conflict with white settlers who, funded by the government, killed thousands of Indigenous people.

“There is this incredible under-told story of the civil war in Indian country involving the Confederacy. You really can’t understand the ultimate legacies of the civil war outside of an understanding of not just the Native conflicts that happened during the war but the growing power of the federal government thereafter.”

This was on the watch of President Abraham Lincoln, whose speeches are endlessly quoted, whose monument sits on the National Mall in Washington and whose legacy is still revered. Blackhawk reflects: “It’s hard not to see him in the ways we currently do but he is president of the United States at a time when its armies, military leaders and politicians are instituting policies and practices that are extraordinarily harmful against Native Americans.