Ned Blackhawk’s The Rediscovery of America is a retelling of U.S. history centered on the Native American experience. (Image from "Outdoor Life and Indian Stories" by Edward Sylvester Ellis, 1912. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

In September 1862, Confederate forces met Union troops in Sharpsburg, Maryland. The ensuing Battle of Antietam would prove to be the bloodiest of the Civil War. Within weeks, President Abraham Lincoln issued his preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, decreeing that if the Confederate states did not rejoin the Union by January 1, 1863, enslaved people in the rebellious states would be freed. 

The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned Blackhawk Yale University Press, 616 pp.

Twelve hundred miles away, in the recently admitted state of Minnesota, the U.S. military was engaged in a different kind of war, a campaign of ethnic cleansing to remove Native peoples from their lands. This crusade was fueled by a demand for farmland by white homesteaders. In just 10 years, the population of settlers in Minnesota had soared from under 5,000 to 150,000. 

In a brazen violation of existing treaties, the U.S. government ceased paying promised annuities, and permitted homesteaders to squat and graze cattle on tribal lands. Clashes between settlers and Native Americans turned violent, sparking the six-month-long Dakota War, in which 1,000 settlers, Indigenous people, and U.S. soldiers died. General John Pope, commander of the U.S. forces, wrote, “It is my purpose utterly to exterminate the Sioux if I have the power to do so … Destroy everything belonging to them and force them out to the plains.” 

Violence against Native people was justified by racism: “They are to be treated as maniacs or wild beasts, and by no means as people with whom treaties and compromises can be made,”  Pope wrote. Three months later, with the express approval of Lincoln, the military conducted the largest mass execution in U.S. history, hanging 38 Indigenous soldiers in Mankato for their part in the Dakota War, one of more than a hundred campaigns against Native people fought in the West during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

These parallel histories—the first, a climactic event in virtually all Civil War narratives, and the second, a lesser-known story rarely linked to the larger context of the Civil War and its themes of dispossession and freedom—illustrate the argument at the heart of Ned Blackhawk’s The Rediscovery of America, a sweeping, even audacious, retelling of U.S. history centered on the Native American experience. Blackhawk asserts, “It is impossible to understand the United States without understanding its Indigenous history.” 

Blackhawk—a professor of history and American studies at Yale University and a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada—brings decades of academic bona fides to the task of synthesizing the deluge of recent scholarship on Indigenous Americans into a single, comprehensive volume. This achievement alone would make The Rediscovery of America a notable and important book. 

But for those outside academia, Blackhawk’s more interesting accomplishment is not the comprehensiveness of this deeply researched narrative. Rather, this impressive tome offers a bold new framework for understanding U.S. history. 

Since the 1970s, a generation of historians has pushed for the study of “forgotten” Americans. Blackhawk goes beyond a call for inclusion, arguing instead for a whole new paradigm, an “alternate American story that is not trapped in the framework of European discovery and European ‘greatness.’ ” Like The New York Times Magazine’s controversial “1619 Project,” which places African American slavery at the epicenter of the American story, Blackhawk prods readers to rethink our collective historical narrative, but with Native Americans at the hub. This is not just a question of focus, but also one of empowerment, elevating the continent’s Indigenous people from passive victims to actors in a centuries-long struggle over land and sovereignty. 

Since the 1970s, a generation of historians has pushed for the study of “forgotten” Americans. Blackhawk goes beyond a call for inclusion, arguing instead for a whole new paradigm, an “alternate American story that is not trapped in the framework of European discovery and European ‘greatness.’ ”

For the armchair historian, the book offers an exciting, even disorienting narrative. The experience is similar to viewing a world map drawn from the so-called Peters projection, which reduces the distortions at the equator and poles to reflect countries’ true sizes; the essential facts are the same, but the overall effect is disarmingly different.

The raw, violent outlines of Native American history are generally well known: the brutal warfare of the colonial era, then the settler colonialism during the nineteenth century, followed by forced assimilation, and culminating in the resurgence of cultural pride and identity politics. Blackhawk fills in this familiar framework with lesser-known histories. The result is a new chronology along with a new geographic focus, which shifts attention away from the urban East Coast to the nation’s interior. 

While The Rediscovery of America’s exhaustive narrative covers the full span of history, Blackhawk’s thesis—that “American Indians were central to every century of U.S. historical developments”—is most persuasive in his retelling of the American origin story.

Appropriately, the author devotes the first half of the book to the colonial era, when daily encounters between Indigenous people and the colonists were commonplace, and the dominance of the European empires was not preordained. It’s a complex story that expands well beyond simplistic descriptions of Spanish missionaries, French trappers, and British settlers. Instead, Blackhawk portrays a web of interdependence, with Native people and Europeans deeply entangled with one another through trade and commerce, military encounters, diplomacy, and social affairs. 

These relationships defy simple descriptions—at times, they were amicable and mutually beneficial, at others, antagonistic. Perhaps the most apt description would be opportunistic—both Native tribes and Europeans benefited from trade and the exchange of knowledge. Tribes and colonists forged diplomatic and military alliances in protection of shared interests, and against common foes. Such relationships were fluid, and at times deeply personal—rape and kidnapping occurred along the same continuum as conversion and intermarriage.

Connections between Europeans and Native people shaped daily life, patterns of settlement, and economic development in America, with global consequences. The Spanish, for example, built their American empire around silver mining enabled through Indigenous labor, an enterprise so successful that it transformed European economies by providing a universal currency, facilitating the mercantile and commercial revolutions. 

Blackhawk depicts Indian nations during the colonial period as strategic, at times pitting colonial powers against one another. Other groups, like the Iroquois, successfully brokered a balance of power among the European empires in North America that lasted 50 years. 

Blackhawk’s portrayal of the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763), a global event he boldly labels “the principal conflict in American history,” offers an interesting case study for how a Native American reframing can alter our understanding of the past. Most historians emphasize the importance of the Seven Years’ War as a prelude to independence, pointing to Britain’s burdensome war debt, which prompted the taxation of its colonies, a key factor in sparking the Revolutionary War. 

Blackhawk focuses instead on a second major outcome of the war: France’s cession to Britain of its expansive but sparsely settled lands east of the Mississippi River. The addition of this massive, arable territory was a boom for homesteaders ranging from small farmers to plantation owners like George Washington, who were eager to expand and diversify their holdings. More than 100,000 settlers flooded the Ohio River Valley between 1770 and 1790, raiding Indian villages and squatting on Native lands. 

The author argues that decades of instability in this frontier territory became a flashpoint for “an elemental struggle” between Native Americans and white settlers. Blackhawk concludes, “This interior world … would determine much of the history of the new Republic. From Indian resistance to the enforcement of new national laws and policies, struggles over interior lands shaped the contours and eventual structures of the new American government.”

Managing chaos on the frontier proved an ongoing headache first for the British Crown, then for the nascent U.S. government. Indian leaders complained that settlers were “like a plague of locusts.” Eager to expand their borders and their states’ relative size and influence, governors from Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina encouraged settlement and condoned violence, offering $100 bounties for Indian scalps. 

Blackhawk argues that the British government’s inability to control violence in the interior helped shape anti-monarchical attitudes among settlers, contributing to the Revolution. Indeed, the Declaration of Independence listed the Crown’s failure to protect frontier settlers from “merciless Indian Savages” among their grievances. 

The ripple effect of the Seven Years’ War and the ensuing instability of the interior continued after independence. Blackhawk asserts that the Articles of Confederation failed in part because the weak national government couldn’t raise an army or staff military forts and confront Indigenous tribes on the frontier. Lacking a strong national defense, settlers in Kentucky and Ohio called for citizen militias, birthing a political culture of skepticism toward national authority that echoes today. And border states, including Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York, seized Indian lands for themselves in violation of existing treaties, provoking Native Americans and undercutting the weak national government.

The call for a single, coordinated diplomatic and military response to the Native nations and for a centralized authority to regulate and tax interior lands helped, in turn, to make the case for a strong federal government embodied in the Constitution. And it was with the Indigenous people, Blackhawk argues, that the new republic honed its expertise with the tools of government and diplomacy, signing nearly 400 treaties with Native nations in the years between independence and the Civil War. 

The book’s timeline is, appropriately, heavily weighted toward the colonial era. However, it is difficult to argue that events of the 20th and 21st centuries conform with Blackhawk’s thesis concerning the centrality of Indigenous history. 

Native Americans are largely absent from post–World War II narratives, despite their ubiquity in mid-century popular culture. That’s no surprise—600 years of violence have pushed the lives (and stories) of Native people into the margins. But Blackhawk makes the provocative point that their absence became a self-fulfilling prophecy, not only shaping our understanding of American history but also “inform[ing] policies toward Native nations aimed to assimilate them into American society.” 

Blackhawk’s final chapter includes a disturbing section on cultural erasure—a pattern of post–World War II policies that included the forcible removal of one-third of Indigenous children into white foster care or adoption, along with housing, job, and education incentives intended to encourage Native peoples to urbanize and abandon reservations. Additionally, he outlines a series of U.S. “termination” policies in the decades following the war, aimed at ending tribal recognition, privatizing tribal lands through claims settlements, and eliminating federal responsibility for Native Americans. Blackhawk makes the compelling argument that these policies should be understood within the cultural context of Cold War ideology, the clash between Indigenous ideologies of communal governance and land ownership, and American individualism. As one Cold War–era South Dakota congressman fumed, “Socialist Democrats are making much ado about fighting Communists and Communism throughout the world, and yet the same Administration … [is] bringing it right to America and Communizing the Indians just as thoroughly as if they were citizens of Russia.”

The Rediscovery of America is a dense narrative, brimming with unfamiliar histories and big, expansive themes. Among the book’s most interesting contributions is its legal history. For 250 years, the courts have struggled to define what it means to be a nation (or, more accurately, nations) within a nation, and its myriad implications, including land ownership and legal jurisdiction for civil and criminal cases. 

Blackhawk traces the Supreme Court’s narrowing interpretation of Native sovereignty, beginning with the earliest days of the republic, when Indigenous tribes were treated as separate nations accorded legal rights and diplomatic status, to the 1830s, when the Court redefined Indian tribes’ relationship to the United States as a domestic dependent, resembling “that of a ward to his guardian.” By the late 19th century, the Court had given Congress power to supersede existing treaties, with full administrative power over tribal lands. Blackhawk places each of these judicial shifts in historical context, explaining how changes in the interpretation of Native nations’ legal status served as pretexts for changes in policy intended to buttress corporations’ and white Americans’ rapacious demands for Indian lands. 

Twentieth-century policies encouraging Native American assimilation were based on a contrary assumption—that Indigenous people are a race, not a nation. Race-based policies aimed to weaken or eradicate reservations by providing socioeconomic benefits to Indigenous people individually rather than collectively. Throughout the book, Blackhawk explores the idea of racial identity, contrasting depictions of Native Americans with those of Black Americans and other ethnic groups, and exploring how racial ideologies justified policy shifts.

Today, the question of whether Native Americans are a nation or an ethnic group remains unsettled, in both policy and law. On one hand, there is a general legal consensus supporting a narrow notion of Native sovereignty—for example, tribes have the right to sell water and mineral rights and to build casinos on their reservations. However, it is also implicit that Native American sovereignty is not the same as the sovereignty attached to other countries—in other words, the U.S. government treats the Iroquois differently than it treats France. On the other hand, Native Americans are listed among racial groups on the census, and are at times beneficiaries of race-based policies like affirmative action.

Threads of this centuries-long debate came to the fore this year, in a Supreme Court case challenging a 1978 federal law that gives preference to intra-tribal adoptions of Indigenous children. The plaintiffs, which included a white foster couple from Texas seeking to adopt a Native American child, argued that the law violated the equal protection clause of the Constitution. In June, in a 7–2 decision, the Court upheld the law, affirming the federal government’s right to make laws concerning Native American tribes and protect child welfare, while acknowledging that it is unusual for Congress to wade into the area of family law. Citing a lack of jurisdiction, the Court skirted the question of whether the law, with its explicit racial preferences, violated the equal protection clause, but at least one justice—Brett Kavanaugh, who voted with the majority—explicitly welcomed the opportunity to examine the issue in a future case. 

Constitutional scholars and tribal advocates agree that the issue at stake—an affirmation of Native American sovereignty—undergirds a wide array of established legal rights on Indian reservations, including land ownership, water and mineral rights, certain forms of judicial authority, exemption from certain taxes, and gaming rights. If courts were to redefine Native Americans as a racial or ethnic group—like Blacks or Latinos—all such rights would be at risk.

The call for a single, coordinated diplomatic and military response to the Native nations and for a centralized authority to regulate and tax interior lands helped, in turn, to make the case for a strong federal government embodied in the Constitution.

The Court’s majority position makes clear that the justices were swayed not merely by questions of constitutionality, but also in deference to Native Americans’ troubled history. In a concurring opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that the Court’s decision upheld three promises: “the right of Indian parents to raise their families as they please; the right of Indian children to grow in their culture; and the right of Indian communities to resist fading into the twilight of history.” 

The Rediscovery of America is an important, possibly even a landmark, book. Ned Blackhawk persuasively argues that the histories of Native America and the United States are inextricably intertwined and, more controversially, asserts that an entirely new paradigm—completely with new themes, geographies, and chronologies—is necessary to create a balanced, comprehensive American history. The book is academically rigorous and exhaustively researched.

It is, however, an academic book. It is dense, laden with facts and events. Blackhawk is scrupulous in his attention to detail, acknowledging changes over time, distinctions among tribes, geographies, and cultures. To his credit, he has written a nuanced, expansive history. But for the average, non-scholarly reader, it’s a lot to digest.

The history of Indigenous peoples is, at times, appalling and violent. And yet, the narrative is, at times, surprisingly clinical. Maybe because Blackhawk writes in academic prose, or because the book is so packed with facts and timelines, it is less emotionally compelling than one might expect. There’s also a lost opportunity for images to carry some of the weight. The book does include 10 maps and about a dozen photos and illustrations. But the addition of more recent images, like photos of the Lakota occupation of Alcatraz in 1969, or the politically charged artwork of T. C. Cannon—could have been really affecting. 

In comparison with the 200 pages that cover the colonial era, Blackhawk’s treatment of the 20th and 21st centuries feels light. Discussion of the four decades since 1980—an era characterized by the resurgence of cultural identity, the reassertion of tribal sovereignty, and the expansion of economic opportunities through the gaming industry—is particularly cursory, summarized in just five pages. That’s a shame, because recent events offer an opportunity to connect historical threads to current controversies, like the disputed Dakota Access pipeline. 

With The Rediscovery of America, Ned Blackhawk has opened the door to a national conversation. Blackhawk sets the tone with his opening line, asking rhetorically, “How can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world’s most exemplary democracy?” 

Blackhawk is calling for a revolution in the way American history is conceptualized, studied, and taught. In doing so, he takes aim at old myths about American exceptionalism and the democratic experiment. Scholars have long debunked these narratives, although they still retain some hold in the popular imagination. While academics and educators can argue about whether Blackhawk’s new paradigm should replace existing frameworks for understanding American history, he has succeeded in demonstrating that a deeper knowledge of Native American history should supplement (if not supplant) our understanding of our collective national experience. 

This book has been born at a particular cultural moment, in which certain state officials have meddled with the curricula of high school civics and history classes, pressured the College Board to reconsider the content of its AP African American history course, and banned the teaching of critical race theory. In the context of these culture wars, Blackhawk’s book and his insistence on the centrality of the Native American experience are tinder. But it’s a conversation worth having. And long overdue.

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Sara Bhatia is an independent museum consultant who writes about museums, history, and culture.