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American Empires

A frank study of native history requires nuance and moderation.

Idaho Native Americans, 1897
Two Native Americans from a Southeastern Idaho reservation, wearing tribal dress. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen (2022, Liveright), 592 pages.

In Indigenous Continent, Finnish historian Pekka Hämäläinen reinterprets the colonization of North America as an encounter between civilizational and political equals. It is a major undertaking, and it’s not clear that he manages to back up his core contentions. But even in partial failure, Hämäläinen illuminates the complex relationship between American and indigenous power. 

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The book takes as its subject all of North America, from Columbus’s arrival to the Battle of Wounded Knee. It contends that Native nations functionally ruled the continent for centuries after colonists arrived, and the U.S. didn’t establish political hegemony over the continent until the late 19th century. Indigenous imperial power forced French, English, and Spanish colonists to settle in specific locations and extracted constant tribute from them as a precondition for survival. “Colonists could do very little in North America without Native support and consent,” he explains, “a constraint that drove them to radically calibrate their ambitions.” 

The Iroquois, Comanche, and Lakota (Sioux) appear in this grand narrative as the formidable indigenous empires of the New World. Hämäläinen is at his best when highlighting that much of great power politics in North America had little to do with white colonists or their young nation. Wars in the interior between the Seven Council Fires of the Sioux, the Five Nations of the Iroquois, and other polities dramatically reshaped population flows and political boundaries. To their white contemporaries, struggling to survive on narrow strips of coastal or riverine land, these imperial wars were often invisible. Well into the 1700s, the western interior was assumed by many Europeans to consist of a “Sea of the West” that led directly to China.

The new technologies of guns, powder, metal, and horses intensified indigenous military encounters in the interior. Hämäläinen, perhaps the world’s preeminent scholar of the “expansionist equestrian regimes” the Comanche and Lakota, argued in his previous books that the arrival of the horse into the American West gave rise to new imperial forms. Hämäläinen understands these nations as colonial, no less so than the American model. “The systematic repetition of key political acts,” including raids, tribute extraction, and diplomatic missions, made up the power projection of Lakotas and Comanches. Only an American innovation in mobility, the railroad, allowed the federal government to finally impose its own order on the indigenous interior. 

By contrast, Hämäläinen struggles to back up his claim that smaller Indian nations wielded the power he wants to attribute to them. He admits Eastern seaboard nations used “more nuanced and delicate tactics,” evading colonial powers through misdirection. Most often, Indian tribes and nations “cannot stop the colonial advance, but can slow it down.” It is unclear how this view is different from traditional historiography.

Hämäläinen commits to certain rhetorical techniques that struggle to hold up under scrutiny. Consistently, he describes both massacres and military victories by colonists as signs of weakness rather than strength. The Pequot and Raritan massacres “distort historical reality…they make the colonies seem more powerful than they actually were,” and they “exposed a deep-rooted anxiety over enduring Indigenous power: the attacks were so vicious because the colonists feared the Indians who refused to submit to their rule.” The argument is forced and made weaker by repetition.

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Hämäläinen’s perspective on brutality varies dramatically depending on who is committing it. The Iroquois practice of “caressing” bound captives with firebrands and boiling and eating their corpses is a ceremony for peace. “Ritual absorption of enemy bodies and souls…eased the Iroquois’s pain and helped them regain reason; it restored normalcy.” When Susquehannock war bands torture their prisoners to death, they are “overwhelmed by grief and driven by distress.” Elaborate Lakota diagrams made out of severed body parts are “communicating through violence.”

Hämäläinen missteps in speaking about religious encounters with Indians, treating them as less real than economic interactions. The Indians’ presence did not “threaten the souls” of the Puritans, and Puritan attempts to convert Indians were not simply cover for an “underlying, unspoken impulse” to turn them into productive laborers. The text mysteriously glides through the Revolutionary War, a crucial inflection point in Indian history, as well as the arrival and devastation of alcohol in Indian country.

At various points in Hämäläinen’s story, both Native and American leaders believe that a social union could improve both peoples. Cherokee women welcomed the arrival of modern farming and home building techniques. Thomas Jefferson openly desired Indian and white settlements to “meet and blend together, to intermix and become one people.” Lewis and Clark’s expedition was as much diplomatic as it was exploratory, including more than fifty conferences with Indian leaders and a summit in the Lakota “capital.”

That vision of mutualist cultural assimilation is now largely lost. It may never have been possible, even before Wounded Knee. Hämäläinen’s perspective, recognizing Native nations as genuine powers in all their awfulness and splendor, may help reconstruct this vision. But his overbroad thesis makes it difficult to fully buy it. 

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