Stephen Aron’s slim volume Peace and Friendship: An Alternative History of the American West and Pekka Hämäläinen’s heftier account Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America are at once a product of our prevailing culture of remorse and a substantial invalidation of its premises.1 We are remorseful for bad things Western colonists did to Native American inhabitants. But the remorse depends on how we see those inhabitants. Were they mostly victims of Western aggression? Or is the story more complicated?
Aron and Hämäläinen are both complicators, though in very different ways. Aron writes to remind us that the colonists and the Indians could get along together and even achieve genuine friendship for extended periods, despite the background of mutual hostility and the lurking premonition of violence to come. Hämäläinen writes to restore “agency” to the tribes that, in many histories, appear mainly as threats and obstacles to Western progress. Both set out to correct the record but only to a degree. The presiding spirit of both books is further condemnation of the West. But their accounts inadvertently undermine much of the usual condemnation.
To put these works in context, begin with a short tour of our postcolonial regrets.
Americans attuned to the pulse of woke opinion now routinely make “land acknowledgments” when they speak on campus or at other venues where they imagine that once upon a time Native Americans held sovereign sway. In much of the country, the celebration of Columbus Day has given way to the mournful observances of Indigenous Peoples Day. Our museums have for the last thirty years steadily emptied their shelves of native remains and artifacts. More recently the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990) has been interpreted as granting to tribal authorities legal custody of bones and artifacts that have no trace of ancestral connection to living people.
Sports teams around the country have divested themselves of team names and mascots.
Sports teams around the country have divested themselves of team names and mascots said to be offensive to Native American sensibilities. Environmentalists have successfully recruited Native American support for efforts to block pipelines, deny mining permits, and designate public land as off-limits to development. Meanwhile, claims about Native American spiritual practice have found a ready market among post-Christian Americans eager for alternative paths to transcendence. Writers such as Louise Erdrich (an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa), Sherman Alexie (Spokane-Coeur d’Alene), and Stephen Graham Jones (Blackfoot) have leveraged their Native American identities into literary success. Dozens of other authors sporting “indigenous” credentials and telling tales that draw on contemporary reservation life are finding publishers and a receptive audience in the general public.
That term, “Native American,” has of course displaced “Indian” as the preferred catchall for people who claim descent from the pre-European settlers of North America.
These developments have a lot more to do with today’s identity politics than with any reasonably informed understanding of the Native American past. To pay serious attention to that past is to find an abundance of historical wrongs but very little that fits with our specific appetite for group grievance and remorse.
The remorse that lies behind the land acknowledgments and the myriad other tokens of repentance stems from the belief that European colonizers and their land-hungry descendants brutally and single-handedly destroyed the native societies that they encountered in the New World. The invalidation that creeps into Aron and Hämäläinen’s books arises from the actual character of most of those native societies. Aron and Hämäläinen venture beyond both the old Noble Savage stereotype and the newer fantasy-genre idealization (think of James Cameron’s Avatar films) of peoples who supposedly possess ancient wisdom and a profoundly benevolent relationship with Mother Earth. The depictions of the Native American past in these books emphasize bellicosity, brutality, and transience.
The bellicosity is evident in the warfare so woven into the fabric of aboriginal America that nearly all aspects of social life centered on deadly aggression towards neighbors. Brutality was part of war but went beyond ambushes and raids to include the torture and mutilation of captives, which was often an end in itself. Transience is demonstrated by how short-lived these aboriginal societies were. Overrun by enemies, exterminated, in flight to remote regions, their peoples assimilating as slaves or refugees, or faced with natural catastrophes or climate changes to which they could not adapt, Native American tribes existed in what we now call a state of precarity. Far from enjoying peace, freedom, natural abundance, and a long idyllic epoch of accord with each other and the world around them, the native peoples of North America before contact with Europeans were survivors whose skills had been honed by millennia of hardship.
This social transience was not the result of some limited period of social breakdown.
This social transience was not the result of some limited period of social breakdown, such as Europe experienced in the aftermath of Rome’s collapse. Hämäläinen’s second chapter, titled “The Egalitarian Continent,” deals with what archaeology has revealed about the pre-contact patterns of settlement. One part of this story is the arrival of people in the Mississippi Valley around 1700 B.C. Those settlers initiated cycles of building towns and then abandoning them to disperse into bands that seasonally alternated between small-scale horticulture, hunting, and warfare.
When Europeans encountered the native peoples of North America, they saw villages, not towns. That’s because Native America was in the population-dispersal part of its cycle. Referring to the Southwest as well as the Mississippi basin, Hämäläinen writes that “The Indigenous history of North America in the late first and early second century C.E. was characterized by a distinctive pattern of simultaneous centralization and decentralization.” What he means is that regional powers, employing slaves, would build monumental towns, but the preyed-upon local populations would flee, preferring the risks of combat with the inhabitants of distant territories to the certainty of oppression if they stayed put. The towns were supported by a hinterland of corn and bean horticulture and long-distance trade in such luxury items as bear teeth from the Rocky Mountains and copper effigies. Eventually floods, droughts, or famines would unseat the towns, and America would return, so to speak, to quasi-wilderness, in which very low-density tribal groups would attempt to maintain exclusive control over large territories used for hunting as well as security.
The picture of “centralization and decentralization” is derived entirely from Western archaeologists.
Note Hämäläinen’s terminology. He refers to this as “Indigenous history,” though there is no indigenous Herodotus or Tacitus to tell the tale, nor even any native folklore. The picture of “centralization and decentralization” is derived entirely from Western archaeologists digging in the dirt. And by titling his chapter “The Egalitarian Continent,” Hämäläinen un-tells much of his own account. The “centralized” polities such as Cahokia in Illinois, for example, were controlled, he says, by “highly driven elites” who “mobilized commoners and slaves” to drain swamps and build enormous edifices. Hämäläinen doesn’t think much of these “chiefs and priests” who “desired luxuries for their own aesthetic pleasure and as status symbols.” But their story is every bit as much “Indigenous history” as the small-scale societies that emerged in the eastern woodlands after Cahokia fell. Moreover, the word “egalitarian” doesn’t serve all too well to describe those woodland societies either. They had their own internal distributions of power and status, their own forms of domination.
Hämäläinen’s chapter on the long-ago native past is merely a preliminary to a book of sweeping ambition. His aim is to present a history of Native America during the entire post-Columbian period, down to the late nineteenth century, focused as much as possible on the aims and actions of native peoples, for whom the arrival of European settlers was, at least for most of this time, a relatively minor consideration. Their major concern, in Hämäläinen’s eyes, was fighting each other.
He tells this story with impressive historical skill and somewhat less impressive mastery of the anthropological record. The book opens with an account of the arrival of people from Asia across the (now submerged) land bridge to Alaska around 13,000 years ago. This date for the first settlement of the Americas has long been discredited by the discovery of much older evidence of human presence in the New World. Hämäläinen is indeed aware of that—a few pages later he nods at the Monte Verde site in southern Chile, dated to 18,500 years ago, but he then moves right along to Iroquois, Pawnee, Cherokee, and Navajo creation myths. This is disconcerting. Those myths provide valuable testimony about the cultures that created them, but they hardly belong in the part of the book titled “The Dawn of the Indigenous Continent.”
This is among Hämäläinen’s many efforts to set himself right with contemporary sensibilities. If the U.S. government is willing to credit the mythologies of Native Americans when it decides to “repatriate” native remains and artifacts, why shouldn’t a sober historian such as he indulge the similar pretense that carbon dating and native folklore deserve equal attention and respect in explaining how humans first came to walk these lands?
In a similar vein, Hämäläinen explains that he calls native “men and women” engaged in war “soldiers,” not “warriors.” One can read around such terminological frolic, but “soldier” is at best a misleading term. It denotes someone serving an organized army and under the discipline of a military command. Occasionally Native American leaders achieved an approximation of this, but most Native American warfare was the stuff of raids, ambushes, freebooting, and individual initiative loosely under the authority of war chiefs. But then Hämäläinen also rejects the term “chiefs” as well in favor of “officials” and “officers,” as though the model were nineteenth-century Prussia. But turnabout is fair play. General Mark A. Milley is currently the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Land transactions were rife with mutual incomprehension.
Hämäläinen’s relabeling doesn’t advance historical accuracy, but it fits with the long history of mapping Western concepts onto native realities. Land transactions were rife with mutual incomprehension as people who had a definite understanding of rights in land and its use for agriculture and raising livestock attempted to reach legal agreements with people who practiced transitory settlement, small-scale horticulture, and subsistence hunting and fishing. Hämäläinen and Aron both underscore that even their notions of exchange and trade were incompatible. Europeans came with an idea of fee-simple transactions, while Native Americans expected any exchange (sixty guilders for Manhattan) to be the opening of a sustained relationship of reciprocal obligation. This mutual incomprehension persists today: consider how the Lenape are now thought to be the rightful “owners” of Manhattan, simply because they happened to be here in 1626.
Aron, a former ucla history professor and currently the president of the Autry Museum of the American West, offers a tour of periods in American history in which Europeans and Native Americans contrived to get along with one another peacefully. The title of his book, Peace and Friendship, comes from the medallions that Lewis and Clark carried with them as gifts to Indian leaders on their 1803–06 trek from St. Louis to the Pacific coast and back. The medal shows a crossed hatchet and peace pipe, and a handshake between an Indian and an American. By Aron’s account, the “peace” enjoyed by the Corps of Discovery was tenuous and the “friendship” dependent on numerous gifts, the corps’ supply of arms, and the good luck of having Sacagawea along from Fort Mandan. Not only was she able to negotiate with her native people, the Shoshone, for the horses that Lewis and Clark needed to cross the Rockies, but her presence also signaled to all the tribes encountered along the way that the corps was a peaceful expedition. Women did not travel with war parties.
Aron devotes three chapters to the Shawnee and their connections to Daniel Boone. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the Shawnees, at least to any contemporary American eager to make a land acknowledgment or to turn over skeletal remains to native custody, is the peripatetic character of the tribe. The Shawnees enter Western history in the early seventeenth century as a tribe dispersed in villages across the Ohio Valley. The women farmed, the men hunted, and they had a fissiparous clan structure that discouraged long-term settlement in one place. By the 1630s, some Shawnees had moved to Alabama and Georgia. In the eighteenth century, some of these moved from the Deep South to Pennsylvania. Later this contingent moved back to the Ohio Valley and rejoined the Shawnees who had never left. In 1799, the Shawnees moved to Apple Creek, Missouri, on the western side of the Mississippi.
All of these moves were connected to conflict and warfare.
All of these moves were connected to conflict and warfare, but as much with other Indian tribes—especially the Iroquois—as with European Americans. Shawnees were capable farmers, but what especially mattered to them was access to good hunting. Daniel Boone knew the Shawnees from his childhood in Pennsylvania, and he encountered them again in 1769 when some Shawnees caught him poaching on their unoccupied hunting grounds in Kentucky. They took his pelts and equipment but let him go. Boone, however, was a serial trespasser. Captured again in 1778, he accepted formal adoption into the Shawnee tribe and adjusted to that life along with other American captives. He escaped five months later and returned to his American family.
Aron’s account of all this is richly detailed, and Daniel Boone comes across as an ambitious misfit, more trusted by the Shawnee than by his own people. Boone was eventually drafted into popular American history as a heroic frontiersman, but he might be more accurately described as an opportunist with had no real loyalties, having eventually left the nascent United States to live in French territory. He explained his ability to get along with unfamiliar Indians as owing to his practice of “always meet[ing] them frankly and fearlessly, showing not the slightest sign of fear or trepidation.” His capacity to live peacefully with the Shawnees later in his life after having fought with and killed Shawnees over many years he dismissed by explaining, “Many things happen in war that were best forgotten in peace.”
Aron’s account of such peaceful episodes is shadowed by our knowledge that they are all doomed. The prosperous Shawnee village of Chillocothe where Boone was once a captive and an adoptive son is now a stone marker in front of the Tecumseh Motel three miles north of Xenia, Ohio. It is not, of course, that Native Americans are extinct—far from it—but the stories we can tell of successful cultural exchange and integration all end the same way: displacement, marginalization, and comprehensive defeat for the original inhabitants. Aron’s account is worth reading just for the glimpses it provides of moments when things might have turned out some other way. But it is difficult to imagine what kind of sustainable rapprochement could exist between an aggressive Western society that makes intensive use of land and resources and prizes technological progress, on the one hand, and a collection of small-scale societies committed to raiding, capture, and hunting and dependent on extensive but lightly used territory on the other.
The Indian societies that survived colonial contact the best were the “civilized” tribes of the Southeast—until President Andrew Jackson drove them out—and the Pueblo peoples of the Southwest, who were agriculturally intensive and occupied land that no one else wanted.
Because Aron’s book focuses on cultural contact between Western “settler colonialism” and the native peoples of America, he devotes much of his space to figures that are well-known in the Western tradition. Hämäläinen’s book introduces a lengthy cast of less familiar characters—Native Americans such as the Cree leader Saahkomapiis and Po’pay, the leader of a Pueblo tribe. The account is crowded with native place names, clan designations, and incidents that only specialists are likely to have encountered before. Though Hämäläinen’s intent is to keep the settlers on the sidelines, he inevitably has to invite them onstage to make sense of native strategies. Perhaps his most powerful single piece of evidence of how peripheral the settlers were to native calculations is a 1721 map drawn by a Catawba. The Catawbas traded with Europeans and entertained them in their village, but the map focuses on the eleven Catawba towns, a Cherokee and a Chicksaw town, and hunting territory and relegates Virginia and South Carolina to squares on the edge of the known world.
Our “known world” is enlarged by both these books, though not necessarily in the exact ways the authors intend. Hämäläinen’s book especially is saturated with bloodshed and cruelty, which are no less horrific for his attempts to downplay the routine slaughter. Westerners often enough perpetrated their own atrocities on Native Americans. But if we are forced to keep score, the unavoidable conclusion is that when the Western encroachers acted out of greed, revenge, hatred, or bloodlust, they were defying their civilizational norms. When Native Americans took up the hatchet, it was often as a positive affirmation of their social norms. No one really wants to hear that or think that in these later days. It is more comforting to invent an imaginary Native America in which the aboriginal inhabitants attacked only as a last resort and, left to themselves, would have lived lives of fulfilling rituals and gratitude to benevolent spirits. It was never that way, and these books are timely reminders of what the collision between the West and the mostly Stone Age cultures of Native America really looked like.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 7, on page 64
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