The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History has been named the winner of the 2023 National Book Award in Nonfiction. Finalists celebrated at the 74th National Book Awards Ceremony & Benefit Dinner on November 15th, 2023. We celebrate this occasion with an excerpt from the introduction of The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History, inspired by Ned Blackhawk’s National Book Award Finalist Reading.
How can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world’s most exemplary democracy? This question haunts America, as it does other settler nations.1 Among historians, silence, rather than engagement, has been the most common response, together with a con- tinued unwillingness to see America’s diversity from the vantage point of those most impacted by the expansion of the United States.2
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For centuries America and the New World have been ideas that convey a sense of wonder and possibility made manifest by discovery, a historical act in which explorers are the protagonists. They are the drama’s actors and subjects. They think and name, conquer and settle, govern and own. They are at the center of Washington’s “most conspicuous theater,” just as Native Americans remain absent or appear as hostile or passive objects awaiting discovery and domination.9
Indigenous absence has been a long tradition of American historical analysis. Building upon a generation of recent scholarship in Indigenous history, this book joins the many scholars who are creating a different view of the past, a reorientation of U.S. history. 10 A full telling of American history must account for the dynamics of struggle, survival, and resurgence that frame America’s Indigenous past. 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 be an essential practice of American historical inquiry. Existing paradigms of U.S. history remain incomplete when they fail to engage the field. We need to build a more inclusive narrative, and this cannot be accomplished simply by adding new cast members to the dramas of the past. Our history must reckon with the fact that Indigenous peoples, African Americans, and millions of other non-white citizens have not enjoyed the self-evident truths of equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness proclaimed at the nation’s founding as inalienable rights belonging to all. Many people have remained historically excluded from the nation and exploited by its citizens. Native peoples were not granted U.S. citizenship until 1924, by which time the federal government had seized hundreds of millions of acres of land from Native nations in more than three hundred treaties.11 Tens of thousands of Native peoples were killed by settler militias and U.S. armed forces during the Civil War era, and government-sponsored campaigns of child removal from reservation communities resulted in 40 percent of Indian children being forcibly separated from their families and taken to boarding schools by 1928.12
Pervasive violence and dispossession are more than sidebars or parentheses in the story of American history. They call into question its central thesis. The exclusion of Native Americans was codified in the Constitution, maintained throughout the antebellum era, and legislated into the twentieth century: far from being incidental, it enabled the development of the United States. U.S. history as we currently know it does not account for the centrality of Native Americans.
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Notwithstanding its growth, Native American history remains encumbered by many challenges. The habits of previous generations remain calcified. College campuses, textbooks, and public memorials continue to exclude Native peoples. As Pawnee scholar Walter Echo-Hawk maintains, “The widespread lack of reliable information about Native issues is the most pressing problem confronting Native Americans in the United States today.”34
More studies are needed to historicize Native Americans and assess how Native agency and power have shaped tribal and non-tribal communities. The twelve chapters here seek to denaturalize familiar subjects and expose undetermined, contingent moments of social formation. They offer alternative temporalities of U.S. history; locate Native Americans within larger global contexts; and establish the enduring sovereignty of Native communities as a defining thread of U.S. politics.
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.
1. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonization Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, 2nd ed. (London: Zed Books, 2012); Patrick Wolf, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research (December 2006): 387–409. For an application of “settler colonialism” to U.S. history, see Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon, 2014). The terms Indigenous, Native American, and American Indian all generally refer to the first peoples of the Americas and are used interchangeably herein. While problematic in their homogenization of distinctions, these terms offer insights into the histories of power and difference that comprise foundational chapters in the history of global colonialism.
2. For an overview of U.S. history without attention to settler colonialism or ongo- ing processes of Indigenous dispossession, see Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: Norton, 2018).
9. For discussion of history textbook production and the absence of American Indians, see Frederick E. Hoxie, “The Indian versus the Textbooks: Is There Any Way Out?” Occasional Papers in Curriculum Series (Chicago: Newberry Library, 1984).
10. See Susan Sleeper-Smith et al., eds., Why You Can’t Teach United States His- tory without American Indians (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015). 11. Charles J. Kappler, ed., Indian Affairs: Law and Treaties, 5 vols. (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904), 2:55–807.
12. See chapters 8–10 for Civil War–era conflicts. For 40 percent, see Charles Wilkinson, Blood Struggle: The Rise of Modern Indian Nations (New York: Norton, 2005), 285.
34. Walter R. Echo-Hawk, In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided (Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum, 2010), 13.