by Pekka Hämäläinen
Liveright Publishing Corporation
There is an old, deeply rooted story about America that goes like this: Columbus "discovers" a strange continent and brings back tales of untold riches. The European empires rush over, eager to stake out as much of this astonishing "New World" as possible. Though Indigenous peoples fight back, they cannot stop the onslaught. White imperialists are destined to rule the continent, and history is an irreversible march toward Indigenous destruction.
Yet as with other long-accepted origin stories, this one, too, turns out to be based in myth and distortion. In Indigenous Continent, acclaimed historian Pekka Hämäläinen presents a sweeping counternarrative that shatters the most basic assumptions about American history. Shifting our perspective away from Jamestown, Plymouth Rock, the Revolution, and other well-trodden episodes on the conventional timeline, he depicts a sovereign world of Native nations whose members, far from helpless victims of colonial violence, dominated the continent for centuries after the first European arrivals. From the Iroquois in the Northeast to the Comanches on the Plains, and from the Pueblos in the Southwest to the Cherokees in the Southeast, Native nations frequently decimated white newcomers in battle. Even as the white population exploded and colonists' land greed grew more extravagant, Indigenous peoples flourished due to sophisticated diplomacy and leadership structures.
By 1776, various colonial powers claimed nearly all of the continent, but Indigenous peoples still controlled it--as Hämäläinen points out, the maps in modern textbooks that paint much of North America in neat, color-coded blocks confuse outlandish imperial boasts for actual holdings. In fact, Native power peaked in the late nineteenth century, with the Lakota victory in 1876 at Little Big Horn, which was not an American blunder, but an all-too-expected outcome.
Hämäläinen ultimately contends that the very notion of "colonial America" is misleading, and that we should speak instead of an "Indigenous America" that was only slowly and unevenly becoming colonial. The evidence of Indigenous defiance is apparent today in the hundreds of Native nations that still dot the United States and Canada. Necessary reading for anyone who cares about America's past, present, and future, Indigenous Continent restores Native peoples to their rightful place at the very fulcrum of American history.
"[M]agisterial... the pace and the scope of the book have a force of their own: Hämäläinen makes it clear that America's past is crazily, energetically, tumultuously crowded with incident; that Indigenous power has affected everything about America... I can only wish that, when I was that lonely college junior and was finishing Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I'd had Hämäläinen's book at hand. It would have helped me see that there was indeed a larger story: that my civilization hadn't been destroyed; that my tribe's contribution to the past wasn't merely to fade away in the face of history; that Native peoples--for better or for worse--made this country what it was, and have a role to play in what it now struggles to be." -- David Treuer, author of The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, writing for The New Yorker
"In [Hämäläinen's] first two books, he explored notable peaks of Native power, as many recent histories do. But now, with Indigenous Continent, he stitches them into a sustained counterpoint to the conquest narrative. Five hundred years of North American history appear in his telling not as the story of colonization, but of a fierce and unsettled continent, bristling with possibility . . . You cannot read Indigenous Continent and retain the belief that Native societies quickly and permanently collapsed. Hämäläinen's book not only exposes settler boasts of continental conquest as self-serving fictions; it rejects the entire settler sense of what constitutes American history. It is stand-everything-on-its-head history, offering the thrills of a sharp perspectival flip." -- Daniel Immerwahr, author of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States
"[A] towering achievement. By gathering the experiences of multiple Native peoples--across an astounding expanse of time and space--Indigenous Continent explodes the view that American history unfolded inexorably according to European and American design." -- Andrew Graybill, The American Scholar
"In this strikingly original and sweeping account of the epic contest for North America, Pekka Hämäläinen challenges the foundational story of conquest that underpins U.S. history. That storyline, he argues, is based on outlandish imperial claims and unrealized declarations of mastery. In fact, Native peoples resisted everywhere and at every turn, and they continue to do so to this day. Persuasive and compelling, Indigenous Continent is a much-needed correction to centuries of colonial aggrandizing." -- Claudio Saunt, author of the National Book Award finalist Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Territory
About the Author:
Pekka Hämäläinen is Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University and the author of The Comanche Empire, winner of the Bancroft Prize, and Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power. He lives in Oxford, England.