Ned Blackhawk’s Rediscovery of America

Design by Anasthasia Shilov

Professor Ned Blackhawk’s office resembles that of most history professors, albeit a bit messier: there is a pathway to his desk cleared through open boxes of books, and posters for past Native American Cultural Center events are propped against the wall. At his office hours a few weeks ago, we talked about my upcoming senior essay and strategic pointers for law school admissions. I left with a copy of The Rediscovery of America inscribed: “For Hilary, Toward A New American History.” 

The introduction of Blackhawk’s The Rediscovery of America, published this month by the Yale University Press, sets an ambitious goal: “This book seeks to reorient U.S. history by redressing the absence of American Indians within it.” Starting with encounters between the Spanish and Indigenous communities in the 15th century American Southwest, Blackhawk weaves a story of United States history that centers Native people at every turn—the Constitution was shaped in part around the need to regulate Indian land and Indian affairs, and the uranium deposits which helped transform the U.S. into a 20th-century nuclear hegemon were drawn largely from the Navajo reservation. [For those wondering: Blackhawk uses the terms Indigenous, Native American, and American Indian interchangeably in his book, and I will do the same. “While problematic in their homogenization of distinctions,” he writes, they “offer insights in the histories of power and difference” that are central to colonialism.]

For Blackhawk, it is impossible to understand the truths of United States history without Native American history. He is a critic of Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s These Truths, an influential 21st-century reimagining of United States history. Blackhawk’s second footnote reads: “For an overview of U.S. history without attention to settler colonialism or ongoing processes of Indigenous dispossession, see Jill Lepore, These Truths: A History of the United States.” Leaving out Indigenous people from the story of the United States is not only unjust, but inaccurate. And truth is central: Blackhawk critiques not only histories that exclude Native Americans, but also histories that stress “Indigenous elimination” at the expense of Indigenous agency. 

If it seems odd or unfamiliar to structure an American history entirely around Indigenous people, that is perhaps the entire point. “The intent of the book is to intervene into existing paradigms of U.S. historical inquiry,” said Blackhawk. This intervention informs many of the stylistic and historical choices that make up the book. For example, he did not include any chapters on pre-Columbian Indigenous life. This particular decision, I think, illuminates much of Blackhawk’s approach to writing a comprehensive Indigenous history of the United States. While The Rediscovery of America introduces an entirely new way of understanding American history centered around Native Americans, it also invests in and builds off of existing academic structures.

Blackhawk is focused on accurately representing the diversity and complexity of Native American histories and cultures. Citing his relative unfamiliarity with the work of pre-Columbian scholars, “I didn’t want to find myself simplifying or minimizing the complexity of these earlier times,” he said. This is one of his critiques of other historians who have written Native American histories in recent years. When asked about his searing review of Oxford historian Pekka Hämäläinen’s 2022 book Indigenous Continent, published in The Washington Post last fall, Blackhawk cites simplification as a central error. Hämäläinen essentially argues that Native American communities were the most powerful historical actors throughout much of U.S. history, which Blackhawk fundamentally disagrees with. In being “defiant,” said Blackhawk, in “trying to invert the familiar narratives of U.S. history,” Hämäläinen obscures both the realities of settler colonialism and the diversity of Native American tribes across time and space. 

But accurately depicting the diversity of Native America, Blackhawk admits, is easier said than done. “It is a huge challenge to not reduce these Native American experiences to a homogenous whole, and to recognize the diversity and heterogeneity within Native America,” said Blackhawk. One way he does so is through portraying conflicts between tribes within each of the regional studies of his early chapters. Unlike typical American histories, which tend to place all Native American tribes in diametric opposition to settlers, Blackhawk emphasizes how tribes at times sided with colonial powers, such as the French-Algonquian alliance in the Seven Years’ War. Complex stories such as these show how Native American tribes exercised power and agency in the geopolitical conflicts of colonial America, both in conflicts with settlers and strategic alliances with colonial armies that strengthened their strategic position in a multipolar world.

However, as much as Blackhawk’s work is new, different, and even corrective for American history as a field, it is also in many ways conventional. It follows familiar narrative and historical styles throughout much of the book, and generally cites established historians. It does not read like a manifesto or a work of activism. 

I asked Blackhawk about this, whether he sees himself as an activist. He was hesitant. “This is a work of activism of sorts,” he finally responded. “It’s trying to intervene within a historiographical universe.” He described the structures of American historical knowledge as calcified, constraining possibilities for imagination. “If we can dislodge, disrupt or reorient those structures of inheritance,” said Blackhawk, “we can conceive of alternative possibilities.” 

This tactic—working within existing frameworks to improve the system—is by no means universal. I imagine that many Indigenous scholars might find this approach conciliatory, caving to the expectations of a flawed status quo. But Blackhawk is clear about his strategy: “If you don’t have conventional structures of historical or academic inquiry, it’s hard for your field to be translated to others.” Native American history is relatively new as a field, and Blackhawk has fought for its recognition both at Yale and nationally. Blackhawk admits that, often, legitimacy is predicated on conforming to the status quo. 

Using convention to his advantage also serves to expand the reach of The Rediscovery of America. The beginnings of the first several chapters open with scenes of encounter and uncertainty between Native Americans and settlers. Chapter Two, for example, begins with the story of Giovanni da Verrazzano glimpsing the fires of Block Island’s Narragansett residents from across Long Island Sound. Blackhawk narrates Verrazzano’s journey as if the reader is sitting in the boat with him, describing the sounds and smells of a Narragansett village. “One of the ways to reach out of the academy is to conform in part to some of the narrative strategies that traditional or public histories use,” said Blackhawk. “I use some of these strategies to bring people into an unfamiliar analytical space and narrative.” 

While Yale and other Ivy League schools have prestigious history departments and academic presses, they have not historically invested in Native American history. Leading schools in this field tend to be out west, such as the University of Washington, where Blackhawk earned his Ph.D. But Yale offers prestige and resources, important tools for growing not only Blackhawk’s career, but also his entire field. “In certain ways,” said Blackhawk, “Yale provided the right institutional home for finishing, crafting, publishing [the book].” 

Although Blackhawk points out that The Rediscovery of America is a project that he had been “carrying with [him]” since before he arrived at Yale, he describes how his time here made the book possible. “The students were really an essential community throughout this book’s formation,” said Blackhawk. While the Spanish borderlands were Blackhawk’s primary area of interest when he came to Yale, he soon began to teach new classes, such as “American Indian Law and Policy,” which in turn influenced his own academic work. “By teaching that class to these students and helping them navigate law school admissions, I have come to understand the world in a way that I didn’t previously,” said Blackhawk.

As much as Yale has shaped Blackhawk’s work, however, he has shaped Yale just as much. When Yale hired Blackhawk in 2009, the Yale Daily News published an article titled “Number of American Indian profs doubles – from one to two.” Over his time here, Blackhawk has been a central force in hiring Native faculty and supporting Native students, as both a mentor and an active leader in Yale’s Native American Cultural Center community. “I am very proud of the things we do here for Native American studies, and I’m also very proud of the fact that we now have many more people doing them,” said Blackhawk.

In the light of the political, cultural, and environmental crises of our current time, Blackhawk writes that “it is time to put down the interpretive tools of the previous century and take up new ones.” Blackhawk’s book is a new tool for the American historical consciousness, a way for academics, students, and all people to rediscover a story of the United States that our traditional histories have long repressed.

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