Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America

Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America
by Pekka Hämäläinen

Liveright Publishing Corp., NY, NY, 2022
592 pp. Trade, $40.00
ISBN 978-1631496998.

Reviewed by: 
Allan Graubard
December 2022

The conquest of North America by European-bred powers tells a tale that most, if not all, of us recognize. From Columbus’ first contact in 1492 with Taino Indians in the Caribbean to the massacre of Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, by the US Army in 1890 – nearly four centuries – the inevitability of conquest leaves little to discuss. And that remains unless the deep history of Indigenous America comes into focus. Then this tale dissolves. In its place a contest for supremacy emerges, played out in different ways by diverse groups, both Indigenous and not, with the former largely leading the latter.

The history of human habitation in North America, of course, stretches much farther back, perhaps 23 millennia. This temporal expanse, which our author examines, not only highlights Indigenous origins, if briefly. He also uses it to support his interpretation of what happened when the Old World met the New World and several centuries on as the United States and Canada formed.

It is, and ever was, an encounter of sophisticated social, cultural, and political structures, something well to remember. And when viewed in this light makes for a striking reassessment that the author charts chronologically: from the aforesaid dawn of the indigenous continent through the 16th-19th centuries. A poignant epilogue brings us up to date. Along the way the author explores the power Indigenous peoples possessed, their skillful use of it – as much to enrich or preserve their identities as to expand their reach, both geographically and politically – and how this all evolved when confronting Spanish, Dutch, English and French colonial designs, and American expansionism.

Typically, cohabitation was possible when colonists respected Indigenous cultures and mores, despite the differences involved, including money and exchange values, gender roles, sexuality, war, spirituality, land use, and sanctioned authority. When this did not happen, typically with the Spanish and Americans, conflict mushroomed and political realities shifted to suit opposed needs. What our author makes clear throughout, however, is how well Indians did for how long, and for what reasons they used their power -- whether that meant forming large confederacies when circumstances required it or quickly adopting European animals (the horse), technology (the rifle), language, and sometimes religion when they wanted or needed to. The rise of the Six Nations Iroquois, the Sioux Seven Fires, the Pueblo peoples, the Comanche Empire, the Indian Confederacy, and more provide exemplar narratives. Inter-tribal conflict, which was part of this mix, also presents different needs, including repopulation; the victors absorbing their victims into their tribe. Recall the devastation wrought by European-spread disease that the Indians had no immunity to, as an essential vector in their diminution. By the tail end of the 19th century, nearly 70 percent of Indigenous North America had perished, and what was once theirs was theirs no more.

Coverage of significant events permeates the narrative, sometimes with surprising perspectives. While De Soto and other conquistadors believed they were conquering new lands for their Spanish masters, the Indians misled them. Exploiting the Spaniards’ lust for gold and silver, the Indians steered them away in futile explorations quite further afield. Along the mid-Atlantic coast, when England and the Dutch Republic sent ships to site areas for ports and fisheries, Algonquian mariners “monitored and, when necessary, attacked them”; keeping, as our author notes, much of that area free of colonial bases for decades at a time. With the rise of the Iroquois Six Nations, by the late 17th century the dominant power of the “great interior” (yet uncolonized by Europeans), a refined foreign policy well served their interests, until their demise a century on during the American Revolution. The revolt of the Pueblo peoples against the Spanish in 1680 is reviewed as a successful moment of inter-tribal cooperation against a repulsive enemy –  whose hubris, imperialist policies, and enslavement of Indians brought no quarter during the revolt. A century plus later, with the Louisiana Purchase by then President Jefferson, discussion centers on an animating rationale: the US government’s perception of a “grave threat” –  a second French Louisiana, founded on close cooperation with the Indians, which would not kowtow to US law or force. Of the war of 1812, a secondary cause rises. In addition to the impressment of US sailors into the British navy and other violations of US maritime rights is the British alliance with Ohio Indians, “several hundred thousand strong.” In this light, as the author notes, the brutal war was also “a regional [one] between the United States and Native Americans” engaged as much for territory as for the very survival of the fledgling democracy.

As the US and Canada matured so did its policies toward the Indians, which if not explicitly criminal in intent were certainly so in effect. The consequences, which readers might believe have resolved at long last, sustain. The recent apology by the Pope and the Canadian Government for the abuses suffered by upwards of 150,000 Indian children, legally taken from their families and tribes to attend federally mandated “Indian Residential Schools” from 1831 to 1998 is only one case in point. Assimilation by force in this respect takes on another, cruel cast, which non-Indians in Canada seem to have recognized, and which now involves public study and an award of 40 billion dollars as compensation; part of which will be used to reform Canada’s troubled child welfare system.

In the end, this book presents an authoritative revisioning  of what, as its subtitle claims, the epic contest for North America was. Thoroughly researched, well-constructed in eight parts, and clearly written, it is, for this reader, and I hope for others drawn to it, a primary resource that seamlessly connects multiple historical facets, which have, as foundation, made us what we are.