The Rediscovery of America

(by Ned Blackhawk)

This book (whose subtitle is “Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History”) covers a lot of ground chronologically and geographically, and sometimes jumps around a bit rather than proceeding solely by chronology. It’s written in an academic but readable style (by which I mean: this is not a pop history kind of book/there are a lot of footnotes—but you don’t need to be a historian to follow it). I’m glad that it was the January pick for the nonfiction bookclub I’m in, because I don’t think I would have picked it up on my own, but I definitely enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Blackhawk’s argument is that you can’t understand American history without understanding Native American history, and especially, you can’t understand the early American republic and the nation’s westward expansion without looking at the interactions between different groups of settlers/newcomers and different groups of Indigenous people across the continent. Native Americans were here and are still here, and are/have been active participants in U.S. events, despite, as Blackhawk puts it, past historiographical tendencies that have resulted in works in which “Native Americans remain absent or appear as hostile or passive objects awaiting discovery and domination.” In Blackhawk’s view, “A full telling of American history must account for the dynamics of struggle, survival, and resurgence that frame America’s Indigenous past.”

It’s too daunting for me to try to summarize all the areas that Blackhawk covers but basically, in the first part of the book, he looks at interactions between different Native groups and different groups of newcomers (Spanish, French, Dutch, English) at different places and times. In the second part of the book, he talks more about the changing legal landscape in which Native Americans found themselves, and their many struggles to maintain control over their lands, livelihoods, lives, and cultures as the federal government expanded, and expanded its involvement in Native American affairs (in often shameful and appalling ways). Blackhawk writes about Spanish missions in New Mexico and California, and about the arrival of the English in what is now Massachusetts, and about French interactions with the Iroquois. I learned about the “Native Inland Sea” and the tensions between Natives and newcomers in Pennsylvania and farther west, and about how (and when and why) reservations started being divided into “allotments”, and about how even after the government stopped removing Native children to send them to boarding schools in attempts to get them to assimilate, it continued to target Native children in schemes for foster care and adoption. There were aspects of this book that were a little bit familiar to me, and aspects that were totally new, and I felt like Blackhawk’s arguments were cohesive and convincing. I might personally have preferred reading a book that was shorter and tighter in focus, but at the same time the breadth of this book is important and helps make Blackhawk’s point about the presence of Native Americans across America from before the arrival of Europeans to the present.






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