Power Politics on the Indigenous Continent

Professor Pekka Hamalainen wrote the book I was going to write. The book I had started research on in 2019 and planned to write since 2015. However, taking on lots of research and writing projects outside of this field slowed my normal breakneck speed for such things to a crawl. With the release of Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America, however, it looks like I lost the race. You might think I am going to whine about this, but I am not. Hamalainen is possibly my favorite currently active historian and I cannot think of a person I would have rather lost this race to. I constantly recommend his work to people, especially The Comanche Empire, which I still regard as his best book. Additionally, and this I realized the day after I learned this book was going to come out, having the general meta-historical narrative out there and completed actually frees me to focus in the future on the real core of my specialty: the geopolitical theory of large Native American confederacies. My opening still exists, and may even be better by being more focused. No longer having to include as large a historical section means it might even end up being a very large article or book chapter rather than a whole book. So my options for publication increase.

I believe this background means I am one of the most qualified people to review this book. I would first like to start with the positive aspects, which are the largest number of reactions I have.

Hamalainen gives us a very 5,000 feet above and looking down view on Native American history from precontact until the late 19th Century and the final round of ‘Indian Wars.’ Works like this are inevitably going to avoid too much hyper-specific detail and focus instead on broader strokes, but despite this the book manages to be almost as complete a narrative as it is possible for such a work to be. This big picture focus is on the political power, autonomy, and dynamism of Native American actors even deep into the period when colonists began seizing land and becoming powers in their own right. As a theme, this focus is kept consistently throughout the text. In providing this service, Hamalainen gives us a macro-history that restores Native Americans to their rightful place as part of the continents balance of power rather than simply being either ‘savages’ or ‘helpless victims’, which is what the two dominant strands of hyper-ideologues in North American history tend to reduce them to. This recognizes the importance of understanding these polities in ways separate both from progressive and reactionary Eurocentric scholarship.

The geographic space covered is from the desert border separating Mesoamerica from North America (a major cultural divide that predates colonization in many ways) up to the Canadian arctic. The focus naturally tends towards the bigger and more geopolitically significant nations and alliance networks, such as the Haudenosaunee, Cherokee, Anishinaabe, Comanche, Lakota, etc.

While it is apparent to anyone widely read in Native American history, particularly in niche specialist books about specific areas and time periods, that some of these confederations (especially the Haudenosaunee and Comanche) were most often the strongest powers in the region, general macro-historical narratives often ignore or downplay this despite their ability to outlast and defeat multiple European colonial projects. Hamalainen’s book’s primary contribution is showing how for the first century after colonization native powers were the strongest all over, and how even in the century after that both the Lakota and the Comanche still maintained dominance in particular regions. This is important and necessary work for the field. And long overdue in a generally accessible format like this work is.

I do, however, have some critiques.

The first and more minor one is that two major actors in this narrative still get a fairly short shrift. I do understand from personal experience one must always highlight some things and de-emphasize others. I did it quite a bit of this selection in my own book. But a person reading Indigenous Continent with little preexisting knowledge of the subject would definitely not quite get the power of the Blackfoot Confederacy at its height nor the uniqueness of the Tlingit experience. The second in particular would serve as a great example because of it mostly fighting the Russian attempt to colonize America to a stalemate, but more importantly because of its maritime and naval character. The Tlingit and Haida had canoes that were so large they were more like longships or small galleys and small cannon were often mounted on them. They wore body armor made of washed ashore Chinese and Japanese coins that was often bulletproof to musket fire. They lived what might have been the highest standard of living in the pre-Victorian world due to their ability to exploit the Pacific Northwest’s natural riches in such a way as to develop an extremely sophisticated material culture without having to engage in farming or urbanization.

A more substantial critique I have is that the (correct) fixation on Native power and autonomy in the book can sideline the very real existential dangers faced by native people from the start, and so once the tables turn against the native powers it can come across to the reader as extremely jarring and almost unexpected. A few paragraphs near the start really explaining why Natives were so disproportionately effected by Eurasian disease (it was because of there being far more domesticatable animals in Eurasia giving people who grew up around them for generations far greater disease resistance but also greater ability to spread them) would have helped the general reader. This would show clearly that these persistent and proportionally deadly outbreaks turned North America into a place of pure chaos and destruction from the 16th Century onwards. This was the single most post-apocalyptic setting human beings have ever found themselves on a hemispheric scale in recorded human history. Rather than diminish the narrative of Native power and autonomy it actually increases it by making the achievements of these countries that survived and for a time even thrived all the more impressive.

These events are of course talked about in Hamalainen’s book but not in a central way. This means that the constant background of irreplaceable losses among natives is sidelined along with the concurrent growth of the settler populations not only due to immigration but also a truly staggering and long lasting baby boom. This was something the more destabilized native powers could not replicate, and thus by the early 18th Century the tide really had turned against them and they were clearly headed towards perpetual underdog status through demographics. Yet in Hamalainen’s narrative settler advantage seems to only really appear about 50-100 years after this, which could throw a reader for a bit of a loop.

None of these critiques of mine sabotage the point of the book or its importance, however. I believe this is the correct book to introduce general audiences to the importance and awesomeness of Native American history and finally rewrite the focus of the narrative around North American history. The history of the peoples before the rise of what we now call modern North Atlantic society is every bit as important in understanding this continent and how to live on it as that which has come since.

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