A Finnish Historian's Ambitious Rethinking of Native American History Draws Praise and CriticismHistorians in the News
tags: historiography, Native American history, Indigenous history
Americans may know the story of Crazy Horse, the Lakota warrior who led the rout of United States Army forces at Little Bighorn, or of Chief Joseph, the Nez Percé leader whose eloquent protest against his people’s forced removal to a reservation still echoes today.
But how many know the story of Po’pay, the Pueblo religious leader who led a revolt that drove the Spanish out of New Mexico in 1680? Or Opeka, a Shawnee sachem who shrewdly negotiated with the governor of Pennsylvania in 1710 to spare the lives of his people accused of killing colonists?
Their stories are among the many that appear in “Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America,” a sweeping new book by the Finnish historian Pekka Hamalainen. And while they are fleeting players, they are hardly footnotes.
“Indigenous Continent,” published on Tuesday by Liveright, aims to do nothing less than recast the story of Native American — and American — history, portraying Indigenous people not as victims but as powerful actors who profoundly shaped the course of events.
Hamalainen, a professor at the University of Oxford who has written acclaimed histories of the Comanche and the Lakota, is hardly the first scholar to argue against the trope of the “doomed” Indian, who inevitably falls victim to the onslaught of guns, germs and capitalism. But he takes the argument further.
The confrontation between European settlers and Indigenous America, he writes, “was a four-centuries-long war,” in which “Indians won as often as not.”
“Indigenous Continent,” which comes with endorsements from some leading historians, aims to be a paradigm-busting book in the vein of best-sellers like “The 1619 Project,” from The New York Times Magazine, and David Graeber and David Wengrow’s “The Dawn of Everything.: A New History of Humanity.”
“Pekka belongs to a small but growing group of scholars who are taking up the challenge of re-envisioning the grand narrative of early American history,” Claudio Saunt, a historian at the University of Georgia, wrote in an email.