Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America 
by Pekka Hämäläinen.
Norton, 571 pp., £17.99, October 2023, 978 1 324 09406 7
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The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of US History 
by Ned Blackhawk.
Yale, 596 pp., £28, April 2023, 978 0 300 24405 2
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Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance 
by Nick Estes.
Haymarket, 320 pp., £14.99, July, 979 8 88890 082 6
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The conquest​ of most of the North American continent by Anglophone settlers took roughly three hundred years, from the first stake at Jamestown to the last bullet at Wounded Knee. The Spanish had subdued a much vaster population of Indigenous peoples in Mexico and Peru in just under half a century and expected to repeat the formula, mobilising the Indigenous tributaries against the Indigenous core as they moved up from their outposts in Florida, only to find there was no power centre to replace. The last great city-state in pre-colonial North America, Cahokia, had dissolved two centuries before. Instead, the Spanish encountered a patchwork of peoples stretched thinly across the land, which would have to be won over town by town.

The fate of Hernando de Soto was paradigmatic. He sailed to the New World in 1514 and made his fortune in the Spanish campaigns against the Inca. By 1534 he was lieutenant governor of Cuzco, where he took an Incan noblewoman for his mistress and lived in the spectacular palace of the emperor Huayna Cápac. But his expedition of 1540 from present-day Louisiana to the Carolinas amounted to a series of disastrous confrontations with Native groups. He ended his days trying to pass as a god before a local chief, only to be exposed when he failed to dry up the Mississippi, into which his corpse was unceremoniously tossed by his men after he died of a fever. They scrambled back to Mexico City with the horses they had not slaughtered for food.

No prior record of success burdened the early English colonists. They could not afford the more languid colonialism of the Russian and French empires, whose fur traders established tributaries and commerce over the course of centuries, as well as making occasional attempts at the religious indoctrination of peoples in the tundra and wilderness that no settler planned to inhabit. The strength and entrenchment of Natives in North America, along with the Anglo determination to settle and not merely extract goods and labour, meant that there was a longer period of mutual testing before full-scale elimination could become an aspiration. The 18th century saw a series of setbacks along the perimeter of settlement: from the French and Indian War in the Ohio Valley to the Tuscarora, Yamasee and Cherokee wars in the Carolinas. In the 1760s, the British future in North America was ransomed by the Odawa charismatic Pontiac, whose forces, numbering only three thousand, seized eight forts and besieged Fort Detroit and Fort Pitt. While British troops were caught in such quagmires, the Qing Dynasty was securing its far Western frontier, crushing some of the last concentrations of Mongol nomadism in massacres that left more than 400,000 Dzungars dead. The skirmishes on the shores of Lake Michigan look puny by comparison.

The most foreboding development for Native peoples in North America was the cohesion of a unified settler state in the wake of the American Revolution. Far more than Black slavery, the Native question was central to the reordering of political loyalties on the eastern seaboard. From the vantage of the American colonials, the Indians were, as the historian Colin Calloway has put it, paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson, ‘the vicious pawns of a tyrannical king’. From the perspective of Westminster, the colonials were ungrateful rogue subjects who provoked needless border clashes that strained the Treasury, which had already been exhausted on their behalf in the French and Indian War. In his 1763 proclamation, George III made major concessions to Indian tribes and declared the Appalachian mountain range to be the outer limit of colonial expansion. For trigger-happy real estate speculators like George Washington, who had ignited the French and Indian War with an ill-planned attack on French forces in Jumonville Glen and who aimed to make his fortune selling land to settlers moving west, this entente was intolerable. Washington himself was at least willing to enforce a settlement line in order to prevent improvident squatters from occupying alienated land, but his more republican peers in the ‘Founding’ generation believed that the point of being an American was having access to cheap land. Any attempt to shut off the supply was met with strategic violence. When the crown sent the Pennsylvania trader and land speculator (and Washington rival) George Croghan into Ohio Country with a pack train of goods, including enough white linen shirts to clothe half the male Indian population, in an attempt to start realising its vision of imperial-Native co-prosperity, it was attacked in 1765 by a gang of American settlers (‘the Black Boys’) dressed up as Indians with charcoaled faces, who destroyed all 30,000 pounds of goods – three times the amount the Tea Partiers, also dressed as Natives, dumped into Boston harbour eight years later.

After the revolution broke out, most tribes treated the conflict as a British civil war. But the results were often dire for them: the Shawnee and the Delaware were pushed west of the Mississippi; the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, split between British and American-aligned factions, moved up to Canada and as far away as present-day Wisconsin, while the Seneca and Mohawks stayed in the east; the Creeks lost great tracts of territory in Georgia. The annexation and confiscation of Indian lands – and the control that the nascent US state would have over areas not already claimed by settlers – was expected to be one of the great boons of the revolution, allowing the state to build up its treasury by selling the land to its citizens. Yet the new federal government took a position similar to that of the empire it had overthrown: wary of the instability that resulted from a population fixed on moving west, it searched for a modus vivendi with the Indigenous peoples. The authors of the constitution considered the inclusion of an Indigenous local government led by the Delawares and with its own representatives in Congress as the 14th state of the union. In 1807, the United States forbade its citizens from surveying lands beyond the federal boundary, or even marking trees to signal future claims. Twenty years later, John Quincy Adams did not hesitate to send troops to burn down squatters’ homes and crops in Alabama. But these legal enforcements would be swept away in the coming demographic storm. The settler-sceptical northeastern Federalists had many political victories, and the state later used much of its ‘land bank’ for developments such as railroads and universities, while most yeomen farmers ended up as renters rather than owners. Despite this, the republican fantasy of numerous smallholders continued to power the trajectory of the young United States, which teemed with schemes for what Jefferson called ‘our final consolidation’.

Evaluations of Native resistance to European occupation have always been bound up with contemporary political reckonings. Dee Brown, an amateur historian from Arkansas, published his bestselling book, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (1970), during the Vietnam War. Brown depicted the Indigenous peoples of the continent as heroically resisting an imperial onslaught beyond their control and fixed in the public imagination the notion of Indians as the noble victims of a slow-motion extinction. Though professional historians pointed out the book’s many factual errors and criticised its flattening of all violence in the West into ‘Indian Wars’, its unwitting embrace of the myth of the ‘vanishing Indian’ and its emotional manipulation of readers, Bury My Heart set the tone for nearly half a century of historiography. From Francis Jennings’s The Invasion of America (1975) to Benjamin Madley’s An American Genocide (2016), the subject of this scholarly outpouring has been the destruction of Native peoples at the hands of the British and US empires and their proxies. More recently, in works such as Jeffrey Ostler’s Surviving Genocide (2019), there is increasingly bald acknowledgment that, more than the military or vigilantes or even disease, the organising force behind the destruction was the capitalist economy itself.

But recent road maps of the historiography either sidestep material questions or mistake a colonised mindset for a progressivist one. The symptoms manifest in different, competing ways. Some work overcompensates for Native agency in the face of the European onslaught to the point that it neglects wider historical forces. There are studies by legal historians – Indigenous originalists in all but name – who, however correctly they emphasise the disciplinary power of the law over Native peoples, have so thoroughly internalised constitutional ideology that they seem not to notice how their cause has been instrumentalised by the most fanatically libertarian segment of American society. There is also a nominally left-wing Native scholarship that recognises the unique force of certain Native groups in environmental and anti-capital movements in North America, but resists historicising Native experience itself. Instead, it holds to romantic notions about peoples who are still privy to uncontaminated, non-Western consciousness, immune to the profit motive, and if left to their own devices would build societies, administer land and protect water in ways that modern states fail to emulate at their peril. These three versions of Native history are all the more regrettable because the 20th century offered examples of Indigenous co-operation with the left, cases contemporary political theorists have examined with more care than their historian peers.

Pekka Hämäläinen’s Indigenous Continent, the third book in his celebrated trilogy about Native American ‘empires’ – following Comanche Empire (2008) and Lakota America (2019) – attempts to flip Brown’s script. Hämäläinen gives no quarter to the claim that Native populations in North America were easy prey for Europeans. In his account, the continent was still up for grabs and the Native peoples were capable of inflicting severe, potentially irrevocable losses on the young United States. His evidence includes Native archaeological and material sources such as the Lakota ‘Winter Counts’ – buffalo hides on which they depicted the decisive event of a given year. (A book inhabiting a historical Native point of view still seems to elude contemporary academics. Daniel Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country (2001), which contained vignettes narrated from the imagined vantage point of Natives, looms as a cautionary tale of over-identification.)

The balance of forces in the early decades of the new nation was far from clear. In 1791, General St Clair’s US army was defeated on the banks of the Ohio River by the Northwestern Confederacy; a thousand American troops were killed or wounded. In the periodisation laid out in Richard White’s Middle Ground (1991), the irreversible decline of Indigenous peoples only set in at the end of the War of 1812, when ‘they could no longer pose a major threat or be a major asset to an empire or a republic, and even their economic consequence declined with the fur trade.’ This is where Hämäläinen makes his provocative claim: ‘Indigenous power in North America,’ he argues, ‘reached its apogee in the mid to late 19th century.’

How does Hämäläinen support his claim that some Native groups remained or became sufficiently powerful that they were serious strategic antagonists for the US state in the second half of the 19th century? For a start, he reads their histories as concomitant with but not inevitably subservient to that of the young United States: 1776 might mark the founding of the US, but he claims it also marked the declaration of independence of another ‘empire’ two thousand miles away – the Lakota Sioux. A former farming people from the Missouri River valley, the Lakota had started a series of explorations of the northern central plains in the early 1770s. ‘It was,’ Hämäläinen writes, ‘North America’s first sustained westward expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains.’ They claimed the Pahá Sápa – the Black Hills of South Dakota – as their homeland while Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence. Within a decade, the Lakota had become the Prussians of the Plains: a people with few obvious prospects, who, through a series of deftly managed alliances, such as with the more powerful Cheyennes and Arapahos, rapidly accrued power of their own. After years of raiding Crows, Kiowas and Poncas for horses, they were able to challenge their former allies, exile the agricultural peoples of the river valleys – the Omaha and the Otoes – and achieve what Hämäläinen calls ‘hegemony’ in the Great Plains.

None of this would have been possible without horses. The domesticated horse originated in North America four million years ago, but had been extinct there for 10,000 years. Hernán Cortés and the Spanish brought the horse back to the Americas in the 1500s, and over the next two centuries they spread across their ancient homeland. Hämäläinen relates the account given to the English explorer David Thompson by one of the Blackfeet Indians, Saahkómaapi. In around 1730, the Blackfeet heard that there were horses in Snake Indian country and that not far away was the body of a horse that had been killed by an arrow. They found the dead horse and gathered around it. ‘We all admired him,’ Saahkómaapi told Thompson. ‘He put us in mind of a stag that had lost his horns; and we did not know what name to give him. But as he was a slave to man, like the dog, which carried our things; he was named the Big Dog.’

The people who most successfully mastered the power of the big dog were the Comanche of the Southern Plains. Like the Lakota, they were relative newcomers in their region, which incorporated parts of what are today Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Kansas. In the early 1700s, the Comanches started buying Spanish horses from the more sedentary Pueblo people, whom they quickly displaced as the major power in the southwest. When they forged an alliance with another horse people, the Utes, the result was a mounted army that raided Spanish settlements. The Comanche also operated a booming slave trade in subject Native peoples and other captives, as well as profiting from an enormous hunting range for buffalo. Hämäläinen writes that

for the Comanches the sun was ‘the primary cause of all living things’, and horses brought them closer to it, redefining what was possible: the biomass of the continental grasslands may have been a thousand times greater than that of the region’s animals. The Comanches plugged themselves into a seemingly inexhaustible energy stream of grass, flesh, and sunlight.

The Lakota, too, secured a vast hunting range, annexing swathes of the Northern Plains. Their relations with the empire to their east – the United States – was initially a trading one, in which the Lakota were by no means the inferior party. Hämäläinen gives the example of the fur tycoon John Jacob Astor building his supply chain right up to the Lakota’s doorstep so that they did not have to inconvenience themselves delivering furs and hides. By the 1860s, the Lakota, in a loose alliance with the Comanches, held sway over a territory larger than Western Europe.

Indigenous Continent is determined to downplay the usual culprits of Native decline: disease brought by Europeans certainly devastated Native populations, but some, especially horse peoples who lived in less dense clusters, were not greatly affected. Every technological innovation the Europeans brought with them – the mounted horse, the gun, the kettle – was acquired and adopted by Natives. In his headlong rush to overturn the Dee Brown story, Hämäläinen ends up reproducing some of its most dubious elements. The focus on military confrontations between the ‘fledgling United States’ and Native ‘armies’ is one of the chief misprisions. The destruction of Native peoples was a result of commercial imperatives as much as political ones. Between 1820 and 1889, for example, the number of buffalo – a major source of Lakota power – declined by 99.99 per cent, from 28 million to 1091. Anglo-European demand for buffalo leather to use in factory machine belts set off a killing spree in the 1870s. The 1848 Gold Rush lured hundreds of thousands of settlers to California through Indian territory, upsetting agricultural patterns and diminishing food supplies. The market went ahead of the cavalry. When Crazy Horse and George Armstrong Custer confronted each other at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, it was reported to be 44°C in the shade, and Evan Connell noted in Son of the Morning Star that ‘a shrewd Yankee merchant on the Yellowstone turned a neat profit selling straw hats for 25 cents.’ Hämäläinen continually emphasises the amount of land area still under Native control, but as the historian Daniel Immerwahr pointed out (his critical review of Indigenous Continent has been cobbled together as praise on the back cover), this is like the Republican Party claiming mass popular support because much of the map is coloured red, no matter how sparsely populated the area in question. The usefulness of calling the Comanche an empire becomes less clear when one considers that at the height of their power they numbered forty thousand people – the population at the time of Cincinnati.

At times Hämäläinen’s prose suffers from Silicon Valleyitis: the ‘nimble’ natives, endowed with ‘principled plasticity,’ outfox the sluggard American monolith. But many of the classic episodes he touches on – from the Native destruction of Custer’s 7th Cavalry to Geronimo and Quanah Parker’s raids on the Mexican border – were desperate Native last stands in the face of settler consolidation. As in his previous books, Hämäläinen hasn’t attempted to correct or improve the scholarly record so much as to declare it in need of overhaul: Copernicanism or bust. Yet Indigenous Continent has been treated as a revelation by some of the leading figures in the field – David Treuer, Claudio Saunt, Elizabeth Fenn, Elliott West – and its depiction of a pumped-up period of Indigenous control has achieved far greater commercial success than the milder revisionism in favour of Native agency of Kathleen DuVal’s The Native Ground (2006) and Michael Witgen’s An Infinity of Nations (2011).

Shortly after​ the publication of Indigenous Continent, a dissenting review appeared in the Washington Post from a historian who was himself preparing a work on the same scale. Ned Blackhawk’s Rediscovery of America won the National Book Award the following year. Blackhawk criticised Hämäläinen for concentrating almost exclusively on military and kinetic aspects of the confrontations between Europeans and Natives (he ‘studies equestrianism as well as anybody’, Blackhawk told the New York Times), and argued that Hämäläinen gave short shrift to the all-important legal dimension of Native struggles and failed to recognise ‘federal Indian policy as a constitutive feature of the emerging administrative state’. He described Hämäläinen’s ‘celebrations of Indigenous agency’ as ‘crude’. Blackhawk’s book sets out to retell the history of the United States from a Native perspective, but ends up being more a history of the policies, treaties and negotiations of the US state.

From the first Spanish encounters with Natives, European jurists mulled over ideas of Native sovereignty. As Blackhawk shows, much of the legal work of the early republic was sealed in decisions such as the Supreme Court chief justice John Marshall’s trilogy of judgments between 1823 and 1832 which made the federal state – rather than individual states – the sole guarantor of sovereign rights on the continent, enshrining the doctrine of ‘discovery’ and relegating the Indigenous from the status of murkily rights-bearing ‘occupants’. Blackhawk presents the Monroe Doctrine – the policy that saw European meddling in the Americas as a hostile act – as an attempt to prevent Europeans from re-conspiring with Indigenous peoples against the new state. At the same time, the US government treated Native groups as ‘nations’, which could be afforded territories outside US legal jurisdiction. Policies and plans for Indians ranged from ‘removal’ onto reservations to forced buyouts of land, from indiscriminate slaughter to the payment of annuities into trusts that Natives couldn’t access, from the subdivision and marketisation of their lands to forced assimilation, from re-sovereignisation to de-sovereignisation and back again.

The Rediscovery of America is most impressive on the Civil War period. It’s not just that the first stirrings of the conflict came in the struggle to extend slavery into the West, but that the Civil War scrambled the interests of Native Americans while sharpening questions about rights for citizens of the republic. The 15 per cent of Navajos in slavery looked to the Union Army for their liberation, while the Cherokees – who owned thousands of Black slaves – sided with the Confederacy (the last Confederate general to surrender was the Cherokee leader Stand Watie). The Creeks were split on the war question, with some siding with the Union and others with the South. Some of the Dakotas in the Great Plains, meanwhile, already under pressure from settler inroads into their territory, became alarmed that freed Black slaves might seize the nation’s capital and divert Native annuities to themselves. As with the Revolutionary War, the Civil War meant balance-of-power triangulations for Native groups.

Blackhawk sees the 1860s as a period of radical US legal readjustment over Native claims on the land. The first Fort Laramie Treaty (1851) officially recognised a vast Lakota homeland in the Plains, as well as hunting rights in abutting territories. Federal seizure of Lakota land was forbidden without the approval of three-quarters of adult Lakota males. Whereas Hämäläinen interprets the treaty as the fruit of Lakota power – these were the grand concessions its horse warriors could wrest from Washington – Blackhawk sees it as the pinnacle of goodwill between Natives and the US government, which, for a brief moment, viewed the land as something other than an endpoint for settlement. The treaty allowed settlers safe passage to territories further west, but an ample space for the Lakota seemed assured. In practice, the sheer number of miners traversing the territory, and the new mineral deposits discovered in Indian lands, made violations of this treaty and others an American tradition. After the sham Treaty of Fort Wise (1861), the Cheyenne were divided over the best way to handle settler incursions. Chiefs such as Tall Bull and White Horse led radicalised bands of Dog Soldiers, who engaged in an all-out offensive against settlers, while chiefs such as Lean Bear and Black Kettle instead supported treaty adjustments. After the US army renewed its attacks on the Plains Indians in the 1860s, the Dog Soldiers were smashed at the Battle of Summit Springs. Lean Bear was killed while wearing a medal Abraham Lincoln had presented to him the year before. A Colorado unit of the Union Army committed one of the nation’s largest single massacres – 160 people – at Sand Creek.

The end of the Civil War meant the Union Army could more easily concentrate its forces in support of settlers in the West. By the late 1860s, mounted Native counterraids targeted railway lines as conduits of violence and accelerated settlement. But this failed to stop railroad towns springing up across the Midwest, bulging with settlers proud of what their mere presence had accomplished. In Omaha in the 1990s, my public library still displayed a relic of this chapter of American progress in the form of the scalp of William Thompson, a settler attacked during a raid in 1867, who had preserved the lopped-off sliver of his head and had it tanned for posterity.

Seventeen years after the first Fort Laramie Treaty, a new version was drafted that contains hints of the legal landscape to come: farming equipment and training were offered to the Lakota by Washington – a gesture towards assimilation that was refused by the Lakota chiefs. A clause in an 1863 treaty with the Shoshones determined that ‘whenever the president of the United States shall deem it expedient’, the Shoshones would ‘abandon the roaming life’ and ‘convert to lives as herdsmen or agriculturalists’. As Elliott West put it in Continental Reckoning: The American West in the Age of Expansion,*

past treaties had typically promised mutual amity between encroaching settlements and Native peoples, then laid down some demarcation between them. Now, with no stark division possible, treaties became more direct, assertive, pointed and particular. They would partner with the reservations that had emerged in the 1850s. There Indians would be set apart, not on the edge of an expanded nation, but inside of it, and the purpose was not to keep them apart from white society but ultimately to make them part of it.

By the mid-19th century, many Native nations found themselves in the position of powerless rentiers, living under what Emilie Connolly calls ‘fiduciary colonialism’. Washington had devised a system of annual annuities instead of one-off buyouts of land, but much of the money was invested in state and federal bonds, effectively making Natives passive investors in their own dispossession. In 1887, the Dawes Act was passed, allowing the US government to subdivide Indian land – previously commonly held – into private allotments of 160 acres apiece: the idea was to break Native patterns of land tenure and force Indians into the capitalist order. The new ‘owners’ would either have to make their portions profitable or sell up to settlers. Though some tribes were initially exempt, the extension of the act in 1898 and the abolition of tribal governments led to the loss of around two-thirds of Native American land over the next thirty years.

The Rediscovery of America jumps from treaty to treaty, from act to act, in a narrative of accelerating Native dispossession. Unlike Hämäläinen, Blackhawk’s book stresses that the ultimate fate of Native peoples would be determined not by military might but by how the US state chose to view them. Discussing Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Fourteenth Amendment, he acknowledges that the government established the principle of birthright citizenship for Blacks, but criticises the legal provisions that allowed it to rebuff the demands of untaxed Indians (Native Americans have an exceptional status in the constitution and the laws of the land do not uniformly apply to them). Yet the most powerful Native constituencies at the time were bent on securing their own sovereignty, not equal citizenship with former slaves in the American nation-state. It is one thing to strive for equal rights within a country’s borders and quite another to work towards sovereignty outside them. A Westerner himself, Lincoln was not inclined to be generous to the Indigenous population. His Homestead Act of 1862 allowed any adult to claim a free plot of land, provided they had never taken up arms against the federal government. More than 160 million acres, most of it taken from Native Americans, passed into private ownership as a result. In the same year, Lincoln’s administration sent a volunteer army to combat a band of Dakota, led by Little Crow, which had attacked settlers in the Minnesota River valley. A poor harvest and the depletion of wild game meant the Dakota people were starving and desperate; after suppressing the uprising, the army took more than two thousand Dakota, most of them non-combatants, into custody and sentenced 303 to death. Lincoln insisted the number be lowered, but the 38 men hanged in Mankato, Minnesota still comprise the largest official execution in American history.

By​ the 20th century, Native dispossession on the continent, excepting reservations won by legal wrangling, was complete. As Blackhawk illustrates, US colonialism meant that Native leaders were faced by the false binary of assimilation or maintaining cultural distinctiveness. The main site for confronting this problem was the Society of American Indians. Founding members such as the Oneida leader Laura Cornelius Kellogg argued for outright ‘Indian communism’ and against US citizenship for Natives, while the Santee Dakota doctor Charles Eastman believed that Native Americans could have a productive relationship as US nationals while retaining cultural autonomy. Other Natives embraced the terms of integration, such as Eastman’s contemporary, the Kaw Charles Curtis, who became vice president under Herbert Hoover and advocated complete assimilation, as Jefferson had a century before. Blackhawk’s sympathies clearly lie with the likes of Eastman and more radical autonomists such as the Yankton Dakota thinker Zitkala-Ša, as well as later anti-assimilationists such as Vine Deloria Jr.

The legal battles that preoccupy Blackhawk demonstrate the power of American lawmakers and lawfare when it comes to Native interests. Less often acknowledged is the way Native attempts to claim rights through the US constitution and established legal pathways ended up reaffirming the legitimacy of the US executive and its conceptions of property rights. With few options available to them, it isn’t surprising that Native Americans used every means possible to ensure their survival, and from the perspective of Aboriginal activists in Australia, simply having treaties on which to base such claims is a great advantage. But even the most radical policymakers have come up with little beyond the existing programme of slightly differentiated special economic zones – this one given over to nuclear waste, that one casinos – and there is little to suggest this will change. There is a reason the most stalwart market fundamentalist judges on the US Supreme Court pride themselves on their commitment to tribal rights. When Native lawyers praised the poetry of Neil Gorsuch’s majority opinion in McGirt v. Oklahoma (2020), which effectively awarded the Muscogee Nation legal jurisdiction over a territory the size of Lebanon, there was little discussion about what political experiments might follow that legal victory. Similarly, there was no thought after Gorsuch’s majority opinion this year in Grants Pass v. Johnson, which effectively criminalised homelessness in America, about how the two opinions might be linked. The restitution of Native property in order to fulfil treaty obligations (though always rescindable) buttresses all claims of legal title and further sanctifies settler property.

The difference between Native and Black reparations could not be starker. Whereas Black reparations (unless tied to probably impossible evidentiary showings of slave inheritance) run up against another relative constant of the American legal order – the principle of ‘equal protection’ – Native treaty rights are themselves black-letter law. Blackhawk is right that he’s identified a place for Natives within the American legal order – the place they have been given, as interpreted by judges. Black reparations were never so legally entrenched, and exist as a concept in tension with prevailing understandings of equal protection, however much those understandings are bemoaned by left-liberals. The Rediscovery of America ends up embracing the co-optive limits of the US constitutional order: what was broken by unprecedented economic expansion with the assistance of a rushing-to-keep-up state, he suggests, can best be remedied within that same state’s legal architecture.

Asharp contrast​ to Blackhawk’s liberal legalist orientation can be found in the work of Nick Estes. A citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe and a generation younger than Blackhawk, Estes bears the marks of the political radicalisation brought by the 2008 financial crisis and the Dakota Access Pipeline protests of 2016-17, which attempted to block the construction of an oil pipeline traversing the Standing Rock Reservation. In Our History Is the Future, Estes balances a political polemic with an account of Native resistance to settler advances, stressing the environmental impact as well as the imbrications of Native American resistance and the international left, a history absent from both Hämäläinen and Blackhawk’s narratives. Our History Is the Future begins with Marx’s metaphor of the mole. ‘The mole is easily defeated on the surface by counterrevolutionary forces if she hasn’t adequately prepared her subterranean spaces, which provide shelter and safety,’ Estes writes, ‘even when pushed back underground, the mole doesn’t stop her work.’

Marx wrote of his admiration for Native American societies in his copious ‘Ethnographic Notebooks’. The work of the anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, a persona non grata in contemporary Indigenous Studies, made Marx appreciate the Haudenosaunee’s ‘sense of independence’ and ‘personal dignity’, the diminishment of which Marx and Morgan lamented as a product of mankind’s ‘property career’. What interested Marx most about the Haudenosaunee was the way they organised themselves: not in a state, but as a league in which citizens – including women – could voice their concerns at regular intervals. Marx was convinced that the goddesses of Mount Olympus revealed the lost status of women in ancient societies. In Morgan’s ethnographies, he found much more evidence for his views as well as other clues to alternatives for society outside capitalism. One could, he wrote, find ‘what is newest in what is oldest’.

Marxism did not make many inroads in Indian thought in North America – as opposed to its adoption by Indigenous thinkers elsewhere in the Americas – until the Second World War. Six decades before theories of settler colonialism were developed by Maxime Rodinson for Israel and, in their current academic configuration, by Patrick Wolfe for Anglo-settler states, Karl Kautsky refined the distinction between ‘work’ colonies, where Europeans settled and conducted extermination, and ‘exploitation’ colonies, where the aims were more purely extractive and relied on local labour. But the importance of radical politics for Native American thinkers wasn’t merely abstract. Lenin’s policies on safeguarding Indigenous cultures in the Soviet Union were looked on by many Native Americans as preferable to the forced assimilation initiatives of the US Bureau of Indian Affairs. When Native nations petitioned to attend the Versailles Peace Conference, the Wilson administration dismissed them out of hand.

In 1932, the Marxist Nez Perce anthropologist Archie Phinney travelled from Idaho to the Soviet Union. He completed a doctorate at the Leningrad Academy of Science in which he favourably contrasted Soviet management of minority peoples with US federal Indian policy. As Benjamin Balthaser has noted, of particular interest to Phinney was the way that – in theory, if not in practice – the Indigenous peoples of Russia maintained dual identities as Soviet citizens and custodians of their cultures, which retained the right to outright self-determination. Phinney acknowledged the necessity of the developmentalism imposed by the US state but pointed out that it was hardly in Indian interests to become proletarians at the same level as the poorest people in the country. ‘The US government,’ he wrote, ‘feels compelled to rehabilitate [the Niimíipu] and bring them up “to the level equal to that of the average rural white family”. Yet that “average rural white family” is itself in need of a strong dose of “rehabilitation”.’ He argued instead for reforging traditions of common ownership on reservations into democratic co-operatives which would allow Indians to pursue – and exhibit to the rest of the country – alternative paths towards social transformation.

Native-Soviet mutual admiration reached its zenith in 1942, when Chief Fallen Tree of the Mohawk nation presented an Indian war bonnet to a representative of Stalin, whom the Indian Confederation of America voted ‘warrior of the year’. But the rest of the decade saw radicalism weaken dramatically. The interest in Marxism vanished with the Cold War consensus, as figures such as Luther Standing Bear – who starred as an Indian gardener in the Red Scare film Bolshevism on Trial – became a standard bearer for the ‘progressive’ Indian cultural movement of the 1940s and 1950s. More materially, 45,000 Indigenous soldiers had enlisted in the Second World War (the US military relied on code based on the Navajo language). But there were good reasons for Indigenous activists to think that the US state was starting to move in their favour. Roosevelt’s New Deal had included an ‘Indian New Deal’, in the form of the Indian Reorganisation Act, which counteracted some of the measures that had divided Indian lands. His administration closed down Indian boarding schools and other vehicles of violent assimilation, and also sought to re-sovereignise Native lands, including by means of legal jurisdiction. The Reorganisation Act went so far as to include provisions for the state to buy land and restore it to Indian reservations. As a further counter-thrust legal advocates for Natives such as Felix Cohen sought to bring the states back into submission by, for instance, suing them in federal court for withholding welfare payments to tribes. In the following decade, Roosevelt’s Indian New Deal was undermined by Western senators who sought to terminate the status – and take over the territorial holdings – of tribes by using the language of civil rights to insist on their members becoming fully integrated citizens of the nation.

One of Roosevelt’s more enduring reforms was the policy of hiring Native Americans to work at the Bureau for Indian Affairs. Many of the leading Indian activists of the postwar decades held jobs at the bureau, transforming it into a laboratory for reform. They conceived of their mission as preserving New Deal gains and their particular foe was the postwar drive for ‘termination’, by which politicians sought to cut off federal land grants to tribes deemed sufficiently assimilated. The 1956 Indian Relocation Act accelerated this process by moving Indians into cities en masse. The result was predictable: a new revolutionary movement of Native Americans who channelled their sense of dislocation into a new wave of activism known as Red Power.

In 1966, this slogan was first displayed on the side of a Chevrolet driven by the activists Clyde and Della Warrior and Hank Adams at a parade by the National Congress of American Indians in Oklahoma City. A banner on the other side read ‘Custer Died for Your Sins’; Vine Deloria Jr, the leading figure in the Red Power movement and the most formidable Native political writer of the 20th century, used this as the title of his groundbreaking book published three years later. Custer Died for Your Sins was an attempt to re-radicalise Indian affairs at a time when they seemed in danger of dissolving into the wider civil rights movement. For Deloria and Clyde Warrior, the civil rights movement played into the hands of assimilationists. What Indians needed to do, they argued, was to exploit the shrinking openings for autonomy granted by the Roosevelt reforms. ‘In our hearts and minds,’ Deloria wrote, ‘we could not believe that blacks wanted to be the same as whites.’ Instead of supporting Lyndon Johnson, Deloria and Warrior preferred the right-wing candidate Barry Goldwater, since the Arizona senator, like them, wanted Native Americans to live separately within the US, in reservations, with their annuities invested in the stock market. ‘I’m going to vote for that man,’ Warrior joked. ‘He’s a racist and so am I.’ Deloria thought the most promising possibility for a Black-Indian alliance was via a figure like Stokely Carmichael, who wanted a Black nation with its own land. ‘Peoplehood is impossible without cultural independence,’ Deloria wrote, ‘which in turn is impossible without a land base.’

In the late 1960s, the Red Power movement became radicalised beyond Deloria’s expectations with the foundation of the American Indian Movement (AIM). Formed in Minneapolis by urban Indians who had endured police brutality after being forced into the cities, the movement swept across a younger generation that was determined – unlike Deloria’s generation – to achieve its aims through popular mobilisation rather than bureaucratic manoeuvring. In 1964, the Oglala Lakota activist Russell Means and his father began an occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, which they believed was theirs as a result of the Fort Laramie Treaty. (As Estes points out, it more properly belonged to the Ohlone people.) Five years later, when Richard Oakes and LaNada Means led a larger encampment, they were joined by a hundred activists, who set up a Bureau of Anglo Affairs inside the old prison walls. When the Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday arrived on the scene, he felt what he saw was a pantomime ‘running too well in the groove of revolution and reform’. ‘If the takeover of Alcatraz proved anything at all,’ he wrote, it was ‘that the Indians had learned only too well how to deal, and with a conscious irony their teachers never intended, in that grandstand morality that the American public has always taken as the best evidence of heroism. The poverty of that ethic could not have been more effectively exposed, I think, had a performance of Indians been given there on the dock.’ In 1972, AIM occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and a year later – in its most dramatic encounter – its members seized the town of Wounded Knee, on the Pine Ridge Reservation, leading to a shoot-out with federal officers, who wounded fourteen AIM activists at the same site where nearly three hundred Lakota had been exterminated 83 years earlier.

The immediate goal of AIM – recuperation of territory – was unrealised. But it changed the conception of Native Americans in the public imagination, and, alongside Deloria’s indefatigable polemics, made the Nixon administration back away from termination. Critically, AIM also made Native Americans a liability for US Cold Warriors, with the Eastern Bloc and Soviet press regularly running stories about the poor treatment of Indians. In the wake of the Wounded Knee shooting, Russell Means and his fellow activists received letters of support from East German schoolchildren. But AIM was divided over its relationship with the international left. ‘Marxism is the last thing on my mind,’ Means said at a meeting in 1975. ‘Marxism is as alien to my culture as capitalism and Christianity.’ Another wing of AIM took a different view. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, herself a protégée of Deloria’s, expanded AIM’s ties to the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. She and other activists worked to counter the CIA’s co-option of the Indigenous Miskito people and developed networks with radical Indigenous activists in Central America that have lasted to this day.

But the barriers to full co-operation and support between Native American activists and Third Worldist countries were formidable. Estes merely demonstrates these limitations when he gives the example from 1979 of AIM activists forging a deal with Iranian revolutionaries to deliver mail to the US hostages at the embassy in Tehran: risking life and limb to get a letter to US military and diplomatic personnel is an example of atavistic American patriotism more than an instance of Third Worldist solidarity. Third World countries were for the most part fundamentally statist, determined to claim the reins of power from their colonial predecessors, and repressed Indigenous populations who dissented from the national programme. In the 1970s, in contrast to Howard Adams, an avowedly Marxist Indigenous activist, who railed against the ‘red bourgeoisie’ that increasingly ran the affairs of Indian nations, the Secwépemc George Manuel conceived of the ‘Fourth World’ as an alternative ground for rallying Native peoples. He envisioned a New World Economic Order that would be less commodity-centric and less damaging to the environment than the New International Economic Order that developed in Third World countries in the decades after the Second World War. Manuel visited Tanzania, where he admired Julius Nyerere’s socialist project, but many Native Americans shared Deloria’s contempt for anti-colonialist statists. In his foreword to Manuel’s Fourth World, Deloria writes that ‘when the Lakota protesters were surrounded by federal officers [at Wounded Knee] … the Third World was either nowhere in sight or busy making speeches on behalf of the Palestinian Liberation Front.’ The rationale for Native Americans to try to make gains through the courts was compelling: unlike the populations of decolonising countries in Asia and Africa, they formed only a tiny minority and could never hope to change government policy drastically. But the compromises agreed along the way have meant that successful Indigenous resistance to environmentally destructive extractive projects, as recently conducted in Ecuador, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Panama and elsewhere, remains out of reach for their peers in North America. The strategy in Latin America of shutting down a mine by making a local Indigenous issue into a national one is less attractive in the US context, where Natives have better luck with the courts than with representative institutions.

The​ most successful attempt in recent years to reconcile Indigenous and left political theory is Robert Nichols’s Theft Is Property! (2020). The problem, as Nichols argues, is that the Marxist left has long detected traces of anarchic romanticism in Indigenous claims about dispossession, claims that too closely resemble the arguments made by Proudhon on behalf of the European peasantry: that their land, once held in common, had been expropriated unjustly by a feudal class of landlords and the remedy was simply to get the land back. It didn’t seem to bother Proudhon that, if property could be stolen from the peasants, this meant they already had a modern conception of property; instead of trying to free contemporary proletarians from exploitative wage labour, Marx claimed, the Proudhonists wasted time dreaming of a golden age that never existed. Nichols concedes the power of Marx’s critique but points out that, in North America, land became property in the very instant it was expropriated from Natives, for whom it is not a contradiction to claim that ‘the earth is not to be thought of as property at all, and that it has been stolen from its rightful owner’. Much as former slaves found they had no choice but to sell their labour, so even the Natives with the most favourable treaties had no choice but to sell their land. The trouble is that while Nichols makes a strong case for the conceptual novelty of counter-dispossession – that reclaiming land is different from its original seizure and holds inherent radical potential – the historical record doesn’t bear him out. Areas reclaimed by Indians have not for the most part been used for collective or anti-capitalist ends; alternative political structures have not for the most part thrived there. Without attention to actual Native hierarchies and ways of doing business – was the Mashantucket battle against unionisation efforts at their Foxwoods casino a cause for celebration? – one risks taking the Dakota Access Pipeline protests as the norm for Native political organising rather than the exception.

In Our History Is the Future, Estes traces different aspects of 20th-century Indigenous political strategy. Like Archie Phinney, he aims to be a resolute Marxist and materialist thinker. Like Deloria, he believes Natives should exist in autonomously governed lands within the US but outside its jurisdiction and monoculture, and that any strategy must tack between legal advocacy and direct action. And like his collaborator Dunbar-Ortiz and Manuel, he sees his cause as world-spanning. But he seems not to have considered how these various ingredients combine. For a self-styled Marxist, Estes has an odd tendency to view his subjects as phenomena untouched by history. The notion that the Indigenous traditions have resources which Native people have carefully preserved unaltered for centuries and which perfectly fit the grooves of contemporary environmentalism, feminism and radical democracy seems more like a roundabout expression of wishful presentism than any organic outcome of Indigenous experience.

Estes takes Hämäläinen to task for calling the Lakota an ‘empire’ and Richard White for designating them ‘expansionists’ – not because the terms are categorically wrong but because he believes portraying them in such a way has made their ‘colonisation more palatable’. Estes himself prefers to stress Native traditions of flexible kinship and the adoption of outsiders, but biological determinations often have the upper hand in contemporary tribal politics. No other group in America is so fixated on blood percentages as Native Americans, whose numbers have climbed in the past two decades as more and more people claim Indigenous identity. Though some tribes reject genetic tests, others based on reservations typically have blood quantum requirements of at least a quarter, and individuals must be able to trace descent from 19th-century US government censuses or the registers, such as the Dawes Rolls, that were used to subdivide and apportion Native land. The financial and cultural benefits that can accrue to those of Native descent, as well as a concern to protect distinctiveness and way of life, incentivise the limiting of tribe numbers. But having special rights and privileges based on blood goes hand in hand with other forms of racism: people of mixed Native and African American ancestry, for instance, have regularly been denied recognition.

As for the land, when Estes repeats Deloria’s claim that the Lakota have inhabited the Badlands for at least a thousand years – a claim based in myth rather than the archaeological record – one wonders: why does it matter? Why claim a millennium, when the more reasonable case is simply that no one should be moved off land as a result of a capitalist onslaught aligned with a settler state, whether they have been there for a hundred years or ten thousand. Said believed Palestinian identity had been forged in response to Zionist oppression of a particular people in a particular place in modern capitalist time. He did not, like Deloria, entertain notions of transhistorical identity stretching back before modernity, whether rooted in biblical land grants or mystical battles in the mists of Germania’s Urzeit. (As Estes notes, Deloria counselled Native Americans to copy Zionist success in legitimating their land claims.)

Native identity as it is most often expressed today began with Indigenous prophets such as Neolin, Pontiac and in particular the early 19th-century Shawnee evangelist Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, who determined what it meant to be white and Indigenous, although their invented traditions were a tell-tale blend of modern science, Christian eschatology and Native survivals. Tenskwatawa’s status as a holy prophet was confirmed after he predicted a solar eclipse in 1806. (He had consulted an almanac.) Along with Tecumseh and other Indigenous visionaries, Tenskwatawa developed a notion of Native authenticity that was threatened by corruption by whites, who were ‘children of the Great Serpent’.

Why suggest the Lakota were self-sufficient, peaceable buffalo hunters in the Black Hills for a thousand years, when they stalked buffalo for less than a century and were so thoroughly connected to international trade that, on entering the homes of their chiefs, visitors found New England carpets, French soap, African coffee, Haitian sugar and knives from Sheffield? What does it mean that the Oneida Nation still celebrates its supporting role in the American Revolution and reveres George Washington, or that a Mohawk man wears a laminated copy of the Fort Laramie Treaty around his neck? Are these signs of freedom or captivity? Nothing could be more patronising to Indigenous peoples than to deny the cost of their survival or pretend that their consciousness exists outside modern time, on a reservation outside history.

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