‘Indigenous Continent’ is thoughtful, provocative

Review: “Indigenous Continent” by Pekka Hamalainen

Broader historical treatment of Indigenous peoples in North American has been long in coming. A book published in 2022, “Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America,” offers a major step forward in understanding how native peoples have fared in the United States. Interestingly, it’s a historian named Pekka Hamalainen, a Finnish-born researcher currently living in England, who’s responsible for this advance.

By now, most of us understand you can’t look at pre-European residents of North America as one uniform group. The number of separate tribes can be intimidating. This book mentions most of them, but devotes special focus to some of the more influential. For many, references to such influential early Indigenous cities as Chaco Canyon (in New Mexico) and Cahokia (Illinois) will also be new and illuminating.

The author cites the invention of modern species of corn around 1000 AD as a critical inflection point. Growing corn, along with traditional squash and beans, allowed establishment of agriculture and a more settled society. Importantly, when supplemented with meat from hunting and fish taken from lakes and rivers, this provided a balanced nutritious diet.

Another important impact came with introduction of the horse, ideally suited for the grasslands of the American plains. First the Blackfoot, and later the Lakota, Sioux and Comanches depended on equine dominance in assuring their survival.

Motives of the European arrivals varied. The Spanish sought to convert those they found to Christianity and thereby “civilize” them. French leaders focused primarily on commerce, making liaisons with natives especially valuable. Great Britain sought to make natives their subjects while trying to take over land, partly for settlement but also for speculative sales. Fur trading, slave capture, and smallpox epidemics all impacted this history.

To the chagrin of all potential colonizers, these tribes proved adept at playing European powers off against each other in meeting their own objectives. And there was another commonality: colonists learned how little they could do without native help.

To us in upstate New York, It’s worth understanding how important the Iroquois nation became. The Iroquois made their homes in woodlands, while British, Dutch, and French arrivals stayed by rivers or on the coasts. As with Indigenous peoples elsewhere in North America, they knew the land, and showed strength in tactics, both military and diplomatic. They made decisions through building consensus, and took advantage of their kinship-based relationships.

Other tribes often turned to the Iroquois to help manage conflicts and difficult situations. Iroquois sometimes became peace brokers as France and Britain expanded their seemingly eternal European conflict to North America, but they initially tried to stay neutral when the American Revolution began.

After the Revolution, native peoples could no longer play one European power against another, but indigenous peoples nonetheless continued to dominate much of the country. This remained true even beyond the Civil War. Only the introduction of new technology, weaponry and also the railroad, changed the paradigm. Trains crisscrossing America facilitated wholesale slaughter of buffalo, depriving Great Plains natives of a critical source of food.

Treaties, the author points out, “became the United States’ most effective measure to divest Native American of their land.” Over 300 pacts were signed between 1783 and the Civil War, many of them violated in egregious shows of treachery. Forced marches and massacres at the hands of such genocidal American leaders as Andrew Jackson further reduced natives to the status of subjects. Once the federal government finally gained the upper hand, harsh rule continued with policies like those on Indian schools.

If you’re looking for easy reading, this is not your book. It’s long and dense with information. There are many events for which it’s difficult for Americans to feel proud. I’d have appreciated a better selection of maps, as events moved rapidly enough that I often lost the ability to focus geographically. However, this volume is well worth the effort and offers a wealth of perspectives I hadn’t previously considered. I found “Indigenous Continent” thoughtful, provocative and immensely informative.


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