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Book Review: Indigenous Continent, The Epic Contest For North America
Pekka Hämäläinen's sweeping new book on North American history
The four-hundred-year struggle to keep the continent Indigenous had stretched colonists from the European powers, and then the United States, to the breaking point again and again. The enormous range of Native nations and the sheer depth and multiplicity of their resistance had frustrated the colonists, if it did not kill them. Some nations relied on naked force and numbers to corral and punish colonial powers, while others sought alliances with them. Some forged ties to other Native nations and reinvented themselves as confederacies. The Iroquois were the dominant imperial power in the heart of North America for generations, and in the early nineteenth century the Comanches and Lakotas built empires of their own. Instead of fighting these Indigenous powers, the colonists placated them. They desperately wanted to be allies and not enemies. They sided with power.
If you are interested in Native American history then the name Pekka Hämäläinen may have already become somewhat familiar, his books on the Comanche and Lakota Empires should be required reading. Part of why many people regard them so highly is his meticulous and rigorous approach of trying to understand these people from the inside, and viewing their actions through the historical position of the time. His latest offering goes beyond studying one specific nation however, and ambitiously presents the story of indigenous North America in its totality, from the emergence of the first pioneers through the Bering Straits to today. For most people Native American history is something of a blank - a pre-contact void, Pocahontas and the Pilgrims, something about colonial expansion and disease, then the great Plains Wars and the mounted Indian succumbing to defeat and reservations. Names and terms like wigwam, totem pole, Black Hawk, Geronimo, tomahawk and Mohican have entered our vocabulary, but even well-educated people know very little about the long centuries between John Smith and Wounded Knee.
Hämäläinen’s vision is to lay out exactly how these long centuries played out, and to emphasise how weak the colonial powers really were up until the mid-19th century, when railroads and communications technology finally tamed the Plains. His thesis is that North America, in contrast to Central and South America, remained a primarily indigenous continent for most of the time between 1492 and around 1892. His argument centres on the decentralised political and economic structures of Native polities, which he believes protected them against forms of European power that struggled to comprehend and defeat non-State entities. He carefully describes the five main modes of colonialism - Spanish, French, Dutch, British and American - how each approached America with different strategies and aims, creating lasting consequences for both the Europeans and the Natives. For Hämäläinen colonialism was a complex process which depended as much on Native action as European, the Native goal often being to force the newcomers to bend to their will, not to kick them out. The Native Americans wanted goods - textiles, guns, powder, lead, metal tools - while the Europeans wanted land, labour and sometimes converts.
Too often Native American history is presented through a politically progressive lens, whereby they were largely peaceful, passive and subject to horrendous violence and dispossession. Hämäläinen seeks to return them to their former stance as feared warriors, shrewd diplomats and creative politicians. His expertise and focus is largely on the north-east - the Iroquois League, and the two biggest Plains Empires - the Lakota Sioux and the Comanche. The south-east and the Pueblo areas also receive their dues, but with such a huge historical project, perhaps it is understandable that California, the Pacific Northwest, the sub-Arctic and Arctic regions get less attention. In the grand scale of the colonial period two regions and peoples stand out for Hämäläinen: the first being the Iroquois League, a confederation of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Oneida nations based around the southern Great Lakes; and the new mounted Plains Tribes - the Apache, Navajo, Comanche, Sioux, Utes, Wichita, Cheyenne and so forth. These two bulwarks were the greatest obstacle to European expansion, and between them threw off the Spanish, Dutch, French and British throughout the centuries.
The Five Nations League profoundly shaped American history by bolstering certain colonial projects—New Netherland, New York, and the other middle colonies—while thwarting others, most notably New France, whose commercial and territorial ambitions in the interior were severely reduced by Iroquois power…
During the Five Nations’ ascendancy, their soldiers were consistently the best-armed Indigenous power on the continent. By the 1680s, French imperial officials, unable to match Iroquois firepower, mobility, and reach, seemed to have resigned themselves to the Indians’ dominance over New France and Illini country. In the spring of 1687, the French fretted that the Five Nations “spread themselves on all sides in those directions [west and south].” The French officials were particularly horrified by the maneuvers of the Five Nations leader La Grande Gaule and his soldiers. “The facility with which they could exterminate our people, in consequence of the knowledge he possessed of our weakness,” stopped France’s empire-building in its tracks.
Colonialism, as we find out, was not ‘one thing’. There were many forms of colonial power, and each European approach was different. Flushed with success against the Nahuatl-speaking world and the Inca, the Spanish advance collapsed when they moved against the north American nations, resorting to building beleaguered Franciscan missions and struggling for centuries to advance into the continent, inadvertently gifting its inhabitants the greatest tool of them all - horses. The French and Dutch approached America with an eye to trade, France setting up the lucrative fur companies in the St. Lawrence and Ottawa River valleys and down the Mississippi. French policy flip-flopped between trade, slaving and formal colonies, while the British, and then American, method was to build settlements, create states and demarcate territory, often removing surrounding Natives as threats and impediments. While the latter obviously won out in the end, we are reminded again and again that it took the Conquistadors decades to conquer the civilisations of the south, while it took centuries of intense struggle to subjugate the north. Geography clearly matters in this regard, but Hämäläinen contrasts the hierarchical State against the Native political structure, which wasn’t egalitarian by any means, but built through kinship - a method of extending power and obligations outwards through networks of marriages, alliances and relationships.
The reality of an Indigenous continent has remained obscure because European empires, and especially the United States, invested power in the state and its bureaucracy, whereas Native nations invested power in kinship. From the beginning, European arrivals judged Indians on European terms. Later historians did the same, focusing on state power as the driving force in America. Kinship could be a source of great power, and Indigenous nations possessed advanced political systems that allowed for flexible diplomacy and war-making, even if Euro-Americans often failed to see them
I was reminded at these moments of the work of James C Scott, who outlines how state power tries to create legibility through formal administration, and how this contrasts with the barbarian, the nomad, the subsistence farmer and the warband, who seek to become illegible and therefore invisible and unintelligible. How different Native nations responded to this challenge was illuminating, for example the Cherokee created a Constitution based on the American version, ratified in July 1827, along with a National Council and bicameral legislature. Meanwhile the Shawnees, attacked by both the English and the Iroquois during the late 17th and early 18th centuries, became almost fully nomadic, making it impossible to count, corral or coerce them:
Many Europeans believed that the Shawnees had withdrawn from all things colonial to save themselves. They were wrong. The Shawnees had redefined the relationship, opting for more selective and fleeting interactions that they could control. Instead of retreating, they moved closer to colonists to trade and forge alliances with them… A headless confederacy built on mobility, the Shawnees surprised, outmaneuvered, and eluded the colonists over and over. Their confederacy may have had no more than two thousand people
With such a mosaic of politics and warfare across a huge continent, and with the political turmoil of the American Revolution, it is little wonder that we see no ultimate vision of America, from either side. The linear direction afforded us by hindsight was not obvious at any point in time, and continual tales of colony collapse, starvation and isolation pepper almost every chapter. It was a struggle to keep a hold of the shifting alliances and players through the book, especially during the wars around the north-east. Personally I would have benefitted from the occasional overview paragraph, to describe the patterns of confederations and colonies, but otherwise Hämäläinen writes clearly and with an obvious mastery of the topic. If you are left-leaning in politics you’ll likely see some kind of covert justification of colonialism in his writing, if you lean right you’ll likely see his condemnation of racism and special praise for Native women as pandering. I think he does a fair job overall, describing in great detail Iroquois, Comanche and Lakota expansion and brutality against their Native neighbours, a topic often left unsaid, along with Native systems of slavery and the gruesome torture of war captives.
Tabeau noted how Lakota soldiers enclosed an Arikara town with their tipis, “forming a barrier which prevents the buffalo from coming near.” Turning hunger into a weapon, the Lakotas could “fix, as they wish, the price of that which belongs to them and obtain, in exchange, a quantity of corn, tobacco, beans, and pumpkins that they demand.” Although the Arikaras provided the Lakotas with the three sisters—squash, beans, and maize—for free, the Lakotas forced the Arikaras to buy bows and arrows from them, even though the Arikaras were “surrounded by woods suitable for supplying them.” This “ruinous commerce” turned the surviving three thousand Arikaras into Lakota vassals. As Tabeau explained, the Lakotas saw in the Arikaras “a certain kind of serf, who cultivates for them and who, as they say, takes, for them, the place of women.” The Arikara towns at the confluence of the Missouri and Grand Rivers now belonged to the Lakotas. Tabeau, sidelined, complained bitterly that the Lakotas “make the Ricaras [Arikaras] understand that I treat them [the Arikaras] as slaves.”
Probably what comes through most is the sheer human drama of the story. We get to see war chiefs, adventurers, explorers, missionaries, prophets, resourceful colonists and the grand actors of history - Washington, Jackson, Tecumseh, Metacom, Custer, Sitting Bull - all playing out on the epic tapestry of North America. Decisions by individuals mattered as much as the bigger currents of technology and politics. Shocking violence, heroic deeds, the simple grind of raising crops, the astonishing rise and fall of nomadic empires and European civilisations, all contained in one continent and a few centuries. If I had to fault it I’d say he overemphasises the role of Native resistance in his analysis, the epilogue almost veering into a polemic. He also writes very closely to his subject matter, with little room to breathe at times, but these are I suppose minor quibbles.
Overall he achieves what must have been a superlatively daunting challenge as a writer, condensing down thousands of Native histories and centuries of complexity into a single, readable book. The great sadness in many ways is watching so many moments of possibility pass by, from simple misunderstandings between totally alien cultures. Since we know how it ends, there is a strange feeling when reading about Tecumseh’s War, the Natchez, Powhatan or Pueblo Uprisings, or the Black Hawk War, seeing how fate played out, the potential for counter-histories in the balance. Many people ask me on Twitter for book recommendations that cover Native American history, and unless you’re specifically interested in one obscure tribe or region, this is probably the best primer and overview on the market. My hat off to Hämäläinen, I can’t wait to read whatever comes next.