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The Rediscovery of America: A Conversation with Ned Blackhawk

Ned Blackhawk, author of The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History, talks with us about the challenges of being a historian today, the resiliency of Native peoples throughout five centuries of U.S. history, and the legacy of bilateral treaty agreements.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity, transcribed from a special episode of the Yale University Press Podcast hosted by John Donatich, Director of Yale University Press. Some questions have been omitted—listen to the full conversation here.

There are really interesting words, rediscovery and unmaking in this title. And somehow, it’s almost as if you have to take something apart to see it right. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about your choice of these two words?

NB: Well, thank you, for identifying what are two of the central initial claims or imperatives that the book is trying to do is. It’s simultaneously trying to say two things. One is that American history has recently been rediscovered by a generation of Native American historians, myself included.

I’m deeply indebted to this generation for establishing a lot of the findings that have fundamentally unmade or remade conventional paradigms of American historical analysis. I think we need to keep going and further this scholarly momentum. I’m hopeful that we can continue to remake or perhaps unmake some of the unhelpful kind of categories of analysis that have often alighted or marginalized this subject from broader understandings of America.

It’s an interesting time to be a historian. Right now, it seems like every week historians are asserting a new kind of relevance and yet, sometimes getting in trouble for asserting a certain kind of relevance. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about how you see the challenges of being a historian today—the opposing tensions of presentism and originalism? And how easy it is to say the wrong thing sometimes. How do you approach that?

NB: It’s funny, because in my field of Native American history, there’s often an ambiguity in many readers, audience members, or understandings around either the term or nomenclature. In the last generation or so, American Indian has faded from a popular common use, at least in a public discourse and replaced by a more recent category, such as Native American and/or Indigenous American. I’m actually a product of a generation that is very comfortable with the term American Indian history or American Indian Studies. I’m mindful of other people’s potential concerns around these subjects, but rely upon what seems to me the clearest kind of forms of inquiry around the subject. But you’re right, it is a complex moment we’re in with seemingly, new either developments or debates or reconfigurations, occurring pretty readily in American historical practice and study.

A series of prominent monuments have come down in public in my field. Athletic programs, such as the sports franchises the Washington Redskins or the Cleveland Indians have changed their names and mascots. It’s really a moment of new consciousness in certain ways in America more broadly, and it’s not surprising that there’s some resistance, reluctance, or misunderstanding about the origins of these kinds of initiatives. But generally speaking, in this book is really kind of concerned about this. We’re entering into a twenty-first century world more fully, that is much more diverse and multicultural in ways that many may not be familiar with. So part of the introduction and other parts of this book really try to challenge a kind of binary, black/white racial paradigm for understanding American history, which is at the heart of some of the recent movements for public activism and consciousness.

The Rediscovery of America is such an eye opener, and also quite moving. I couldn’t even think of the word. It’s not agency, it’s not resilience, it’s just a lastingness, you know, of Indian peoples throughout the centuries of very purposeful termination. How do you understand that, emotionally, when you look at that dynamic?

NB: I do see a lot of surprising moments of hope in a very dark historical subject matter. It could be a slightly overly, maybe at times optimistic narrative of resurgence and self-expression and political sovereign articulations. One could say that those three themes are pretty evident in the latter stages of this book. Those come perhaps at the expense of continued reservation under employment, various forms of social and even of housing, or health care limitations. There are still very real challenges and pressing asymmetries of health, economics, and politics that characterize much of Native America, particularly within reservation communities.

I’m trying to excavate the hidden histories of activism, and/or intellectual formation, or political organization that help explain those later things. I potentially do so at the limit of not sufficiently underscoring the deprivation, essentially, that is so common across much of this history. That’s kind of the answer to it. Is that I’m not wanting to get to drawn into a familiar story of victimization and/or despondency but trying to find histories of strategic organization that yielded unanticipated and profound outcomes.

You talked about plenary power and the activism that is currently at play. Fascinating to see an alternative power politic organize itself. Do you think that’s the model going forward? How will the relationship change between Native Americans and the U.S. government?

NB: You know, it’s a really interesting subject. Part of the reason so many U.S. historians have been unable to successfully recognize this field and incorporate it into the canon of American historical formation, is because its political dimensions don’t conform to conventional stories of individual rights and/or minority struggles for the expansion of those rights. Native Americans are not, well mentioned in the Constitution three times, actually included the fourteenth amendment. While mentioned the Constitution three times, Native Americans are not essentially fighting for, or have not historically been fighting for, the same rights as other Americans. The right to vote, free speech, freedom of press, or you know, with the kind of conventional understandings of what constitutes American citizenry and/or subjecthood. So why we have been unable as a field to bring Native American history sufficiently into the totality of American particularly political, if not legal history, is because Native American political history sits outside of that normative understanding of citizenry, American subjecthood, and the struggle to obtain it. Which is a struggle of freedom, as Eric Foner many others would call it.

Native American political history is not a study of unfreedom. Even though the federal dominion over Indian Affairs has been unjust, subordinating, perhaps extermination according to some scholars. But the federal dominion over Indian Affairs came out of, and as we were discussing, an initial form of bilateral recognition that treaties helped establish. Those bilateral recognitions fell apart, in part because American citizens and leaders like Andrew Jackson didn’t want to follow Supreme Court rulings, like Georgia in 1832, which is in the book. So, if the federal government won’t follow its own laws, these things don’t resemble their intent. But over time, it has been Native Americans and their allies, who have helped remind the federal government through legal advocacy, activism, political, tax, and other kinds of forms of advocacy. It’s been Native Americans who’ve essentially, not just reminded, but helped re-articulate but have brought the federal government back into a domain of bilateral, not quite symmetrical, but bilateral. It’s called the trust doctrine. A bilateral form of political engagement that is at the heart of Native American sovereignty.

You’ve had a lot of buzz from other historians and people working in the field, including Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who gave you a great blurb. How do you hope the community will accept and celebrate the book?

NB: I’ve been really appreciative of the reviews and recognitions that have started to come in. I’m particularly appreciative from those who have written works, and particularly synthetic works, that have these types of difficult challenges too. So despite its limitations, I think there is a real urgency and need to have interpretive comprehensions of various kinds. One of the themes of the second half of this book is the legal doctrine of federal Indian Affairs and the growing power of, what is known as plenary power by the Congress over Indian Affairs, which is not the original vision of the founders, but came in in the aftermath of reconstruction, when Congress started doing lots of stuff to remake American society. It does that as part of one of its efforts. In a way that wouldn’t satisfy many, perhaps lawyers or some legal historians, but could reach into a broader either undergraduate or even potential high school, or broader public understanding.

So, Dunbar-Ortiz, has written this type of interpretive overview, An Indigenous Peoples History the United States. She uses more of a kind of settler colonial paradigm than I do. But her response was really quite wonderful for me. And someone like Tom Callaway at Dartmouth has written you know, so many books in my field on it. I think he really recognized, also, the need for this type of comprehensiveness, and a series of other scholars like Brenda Child, at the University of Minnesota, offered some really nice responses. I’m extremely pleased at the moment. I’m not quite sure what other kind of responses await, but I look forward to seeing what they will be.

Ned Blackhawk (Western Shoshone) is the Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies at Yale University, where he is the faculty coordinator for the Yale Group for the Study of Native America. He is the author of Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. He lives in New Haven, CT.

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