Memory  /  Book Excerpt

Without Indigenous History, There Is No U.S. History

It is impossible to understand the U.S. without understanding its Indigenous history, writes Ned Blackhawk.

It is time to build a new foundation for American history. Its old paradigms have grown thin and worn. For so long, the field’s exclusive focus on Europeans and their descendants has left us with more problems than answers. Generations of other imperialists, for example, preceded the Puritans, who we have been told governed a commonwealth in the “wilderness.” Similarly, histories that celebrated pioneers upon western “frontiers” have remained incomplete without attention to broader tales of expansion and empire. If history provides the common soil for a nation’s growth and a window into its future, it is time to reimagine U.S. history and to do so outside the tropes of discovery that have often bred exclusion and misunderstanding. To find answers to the challenges of our time—racial strife, climate crisis, and domestic and global inequities, among others—will require new concepts, approaches, and commitments. It is time to put down the interpretive tools of the previous century and take up new ones.

Even the word “America” refers to Europeans and discovery. In 1507, cartographers Matthias Ringmann and Martin Waldseemüller renamed the recently encountered “fourth part” of the world after Americus Vesputius (Vespucci), its supposed discoverer. Unlike Columbus in the 1490s, in 1503, Vespucci claimed to have found—not passage to Asia—but something more. He claimed to have discovered “a new world.”

For centuries, America and the New World have become ideas and synonyms that convey a sense of wonder and possibility made manifest by discovery, a historical act in which explorers are the protagonists. They are its actors and subjects. They think and name, conquer and settle, govern and own. They have formed the historic center of our national story and have done so at the expense of the first Americas—Native peoples—who have remained consistently excluded from the continent’s history. Either as hostile impediments or romanticized peoples awaiting discovery, American Indians appear as passive subjects in a larger drama, understudies in the very dramas remaking their homelands.

Indigenous absence has been a long tradition of American historical analysis. Many scholars are building a different view of the past. I am a part of a generation of historians whose collective works have reframed critical elements of the nation’s past, particularly its earliest chapters. My new work thus draws upon an outpouring of scholarship that has made Indigenous history a growing field. The argument is simple: a full telling of American history must account for the dynamics of struggle, survival, and resurgence that frame America’s Indigenous past. Focus upon Native American history must remain an essential practice of American historical inquiry. Existing paradigms of U.S. history remain incomplete without engaging with this history. It is now time to rediscover the American past.