Finnish historian Pekka Hamalainen’s book, “Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America” (Liveright, $40), arrived this year with fanfare, drawing praise from an elite selection of media outlets and historians.
It is a self-consciously revisionist history of the struggle of the Indigenous peoples in what is now the United States. According to the book’s jacket blurb, the author “rewrites 400 years of American History from indigenous perspectives, overturning the dominant origin story of the United States.”
It is an ambitious project and an ideological one. Hendrik Hertzberg, a liberal journalist, said of ideology that “it is a very handy thing to have. It’s a real time-saver, because it tells you what you think about things you know nothing about.”
The New York Times compared his book to “The 1619 Project,” a tendentious retelling of America’s founding through the lens of African slavery, saying his book “aims to do nothing less than recast the story of Native American — and American — history, portraying Indigenous people not as victims but as powerful actors who profoundly shaped the course of events.”
Hamalainen’s ideology permits him to condemn the often-genocidal treatment of the Indigenous inhabitants of this land before the colonial expansion of the European powers. It allows him to hold up the brutal history of conquest and marginalization of those ethnic groups as disgusting and inhumane.
“Indigenous Continent” describes President Andrew Jackson’s hatred of Indigenous people and the actions and attitudes of elected officials who called for the “extermination” of Native Americans, an ugly legacy that represents a black mark on America’s conscience.
The author, an Oxford professor, regularly tallies statistics that illustrate the routine cruelty of the pioneers toward Native Americans. A famous case is the 1782 massacre at Gnadenhutten in present-day Ohio, where 96 Christian men, women, and children of the Lenape ethnic group were murdered, singing hymns as they died. In various places, colonists paid for the scalps of Indigenous people, even children.
The treatment of Native Americans was shameful, no doubt. But the book seems hesitant to acknowledge that brutality came not only from the victors’ side.
Hamalainen describes the “terrifying” torture inflicted on the Jesuits missionaries known to history as the “North American martyrs,” writing that “the violence was both methodical and spectacular — a form of cross-cultural communication designed to shock.” Such lines almost read like an intellectual justification of horrible inhumanity. Besides, says the author, the Jesuits welcomed the suffering for spiritual reasons.
Hamalainen’s consistent thesis reads something like this: North America’s Indigenous empires, the Iroquois, Comanche, and Lakotas, were powerful enough to intimidate the European colonizers as well as threaten the young American republic. They were key players in the struggle between the English and French — and in the American Revolution — but were unfairly excluded from treaty negotiations.
The author’s admiration of their impact and the fear they instilled in the Europeans, however, ignores how divided the Native Americans often were among themselves.
One example: After betting on the British over the French in many cases, many of the Indigenous who took part in the local battles between France and Britain were then defeated by their former allies. Even in the struggle with the American revolutionaries, tribal conflicts and old enemies made the Indigenous blind to the disastrous consequences of intra-indigenous strife.
The author focuses heavily on the cruelties of the “Whites” in the struggles. We hear of the time when some pioneers tore out a baby from the womb of his mother and then scalped the fetus.
But episodes of Indigenous vs. Indigenous “genocidal” tactics don’t get the same treatment, like the time one nation attacked an enemy tribe’s village, killing all except children who could be weaned to survive as captives (the unweaned infants were roasted and eaten).
Cannibalism was practiced against whites, but also against native rivals. The Iroquois “adopted” some captives, giving them a last meal before torturing them at stakes “caressing” them with firebrands. Then, the author describes in a flat tone, “women cut up the corpses and boiled the pieces in kettles so that the Iroquois could absorb the prisoners’ spiritual power.”
The subject of slavery is also evidence of the author’s selective outrage against injustice. “White” capture and sale of slaves, practiced to an astonishing extent, is justly condemned. Indigenous rivals, however, were routinely enslaved, and some of them sold.
The Seminoles in Florida welcomed escaped African slaves, but other Native Americans, like the “Red Stick” dissident movement among the Muscogees, “started killing Upper Muscogees and their African slaves.”
The missions of California are not treated exhaustively and Hamalainen describes their failure with less venom than he does the American depredations that occurred after the annexation to the United States and the Gold Rush.
He skips the destruction of the missions by the newly independent Mexican regime. Perhaps he should have visited the Mission of San Luis Rey de Francia in Oceanside to inform himself of the confiscations of the Indigenous resources the missions had protected.
The often-ugly history of our nation’s origins should bother the conscience of us all. But to see the “contest” for North America only in terms of the Pyrrhic victories achieved resisting “major” armed groups imposes on events a one-sided approach in which only those with the most power to do violence seem to be held up as examples.
Left out as a result are so many of the victims of the thousands of incidents of violence that make up the history of the encounter of the races on American soil.
The Indigenous “empires” were not the only losers here: So many other Native American groups were mistreated and marginalized, like the Mandans, who were practically wiped out by the Lakotas, according to the account in this book.
The secularist point of view of the author reminded me of Camus’ remark in “The Myth of Sisyphus” that “with God dead, there remains only history and power.”
Hamalainen is distinctly unfriendly to Christianity. He seems to revel in talking about the sacrilegious outbreaks and the murder of friars among the Indigenous. His exhausting, often one-sided narration of injustices would require an updating of the Camus quote: “With God dead, there remains only the history of violence.”
The real stories of suffering in the terrible history Hamalainen attempts to retell are so great that they demand a spiritual response. The picture painted by “Indigenous Continent” reminded me of something Alexander Solzhenitsyn, meditating on the history of his country, wrote in “Gulag Archipelago”:
“There is a simple truth which one can learn only through suffering: in war not victories are blessed but defeats. Governments need victories and the people need defeats. Victory gives rise to the desire for more victories. But after a defeat it is freedom that men desire — and usually attain. A people needs defeat just as an individual needs suffering and misfortune: they compel the deepening of the inner life and generate a spiritual upsurge.”