Native American History: Changing the Narrative

From the lecture series: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, PhD, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

For a very long time, non-Indians wrote as though Native American history began in 1492—set in motion by the so-called discovery of the New World. Examine both the consequences of that narrative and the creation of new narratives that challenge it.

Native americans playing music at sunset
(Image: Sogno Lucido/Shutterstock)
This article is the second in a series on Native American peoples. Read the first part here.

Native American History as an Epilogue

In early historical works, Indigenous people were portrayed as supporting actors in the story of America, bit players in a master narrative that celebrated the founding and expansion of the United States. At worst, Indians were cast as treacherous villains and bloodthirsty savages; at best, as co-conspirators in their own undoing or tragic heroes who valiantly resisted before accepting the inevitability of their demise.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Either way, Indians exited stage left eventually. History, thus conceived, served as a handmaiden of conquest, and a powerful one at that. By writing Indians out of the past, this version of America’s origin story denied Native people a present and a future.

Image of Frederick Jackson Turner
Frederick Jackson Turner (November 14, 1861 – March 14, 1932) American historian in the early 20th century. (Iage: Unknown/Public domain)

Perhaps the single most emblematic work in this tradition is historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” First presented before an august body of non-Indian historians in 1893, Jackson’s essay defined the frontier as “the meeting point between savagery and civilization” and the source of the unique—and decidedly white—American character.

Turner bemoaned the fact that 400 years after discovery, the frontier had finally closed—and with it, he surmised, came the end of Indian history. Soon, Turner believed, the savage Indians who had done so much to inspire the unique American spirit would be gone. Truth be told, Turner didn’t create this narrative so much as he canonized it. Indeed, as the scholar Philip Deloria notes, “This spatial reading of Indian history as a contest between the savage and the civilized has origins as old as European colonization itself.”

Learn more about Native America: A Story of Survival

History That Ends in Physical Conquest

So, too, did the assumption that the narrative must end in physical conquest. Through the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, non-Native historians wrote and rewrote the same history of inevitable conquest, though locating it in different times and places, involving different Native people. Such history writing resulted in deeply internalized ideas about the impossibility of Indians having a present, much less a future.

Portrait of Charles Sprague circa 1850
Charles Sprague (October 26, 1791 – January 22, 1875) An early American poet, often referred to as the “Banker Poet of Boston”. (Image: By Southworth & Hawes/Public domain)

Consider one example, the words of Charles Sprague, the so-called banker poet of Boston. In an oration delivered to commemorate American independence on July 4, 1825, this is how he eulogized what he called the unhappy fate visited upon Indigenous people:

Two hundred years have changed the character of a great continent, and blotted forever from its face, a whole, peculiar people. Here and there a stricken few remain; but how unlike their bold untamed, untamable progenitors! His degraded offspring crawl upon the soil to remind us how miserable is man, when the foot of the conqueror is on his neck. As a race, they have withered from the land. They will live only in the songs and chronicles of their exterminators.

Throughout the 19th century, excerpts from Sprague’s oration were reprinted in multiple editions of McGuffey’s Eclectic Readers, which Native and non-Native children used to learn how to read. Consider how these passages may have shaped their impressionable minds, what they communicated about Indians and Indian history.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these messages about Indians and the end of Indian history were ubiquitous, appearing in academic writings, dime novels, sculptures, paintings, musical scores, plays, and moving pictures.

Learn more about the Native South and Southwest in the 1600s

Challenging the Historical Narrative

Now, however, we need to balance the construction of this oppressive historical narrative with the creation of counter-narratives that challenge it. Let me begin by observing that there has never been a time when Native people weren’t the authors of their own histories.

The oral traditions and oral histories found across Indigenous cultures, for instance, have always been means of recording the past. “And,” the scholar Philip Deloria writes, “Native people have reshaped it in order to meet social, cultural, and political challenges. In this, they have been no different from any group of people in the world.”

The Iroquois in the Northeast, as well as other peoples, created belts fashioned from clamshell beads called wampum belts, intended for reading. Wampum belts narrate complex histories, record laws, and tell of the forging of relationships with others. The Western Apache in present-day Arizona recorded histories in the names and stories that they attached to places, or that places conveyed to them, still done to this day.

Image of Wampum belt given to William Penn at the "Great Treaty" in 1682
Wampum belt given to William Penn at the “Great Treaty” in 1682. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Winter counts long served as history books for Plains people, such as the Lakota and Kiowa. Lakota pictographic calendars feature a single glyph for each year, referred to as a winter. The Kiowa pictographic calendars feature two glyphs for each year. For the Lakota, each glyph refers to the name of a winter and serves as a mnemonic device from which the keeper of the count tells a much longer history of their people.

During the 19th and into the 20th centuries, Plains Indian graphic art served as a way for Native people to record personal narratives. Ledger art, for instance, takes its name from the ledger or account books on which Native people drew or painted. Ledger art, however, actually continued a tradition of recording history and narratives through images inscribed on everything from rock walls and buffalo hides to teepees and articles of clothing.

Portrait of Reverend Samson Occom
Samson Occom (1723 – July 14, 1792) was the first Native American to publish his writings in English. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

Through the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, too, Native writers, including Samson Occom, William Apess, Christal Quintasket, and D’Arcy McNickle, to name just a few, fashioned first-person narratives, novels, and histories on terms of their own making. None of them told the story that Frederick Jackson Turner had in mind.

It would be negligent not to mention that on July 4, 1827—two years to the day after Charles Sprague characterized Indians as degraded offspring who would live only in the songs and chronicles of their exterminators—leaders of the Cherokee Nation opened a convention that led to the adoption of a constitution.

Modeled on the US and other state constitutions, it reflected Cherokee values and was meant to protect Cherokee sovereignty. The foot of the oppressor certainly wasn’t on the necks of the Cherokees who made this full-throated proclamation of continuing independence.

Learn more about the American Revolution through Native Eyes

New Indian History

Moving forward in time, Native and non-Native scholars transformed history from within colleges and universities during the second half of the 20th century. During the 1960s, the so-called New Indian History turned a critical eye toward celebratory conquest narratives and, if haltingly, began to craft Indian-centered stories that recorded Native history from Native points of view.

While many of the New Indian Historians rarely went beyond the archival sources generated by non-Natives, other scholars developed innovative approaches through American Indian Studies and ethnohistory, a blend of history and anthropology.

American Indian Studies grew out of demands made by Native faculty and students for culturally relevant curricula. The number of Indian faculty and students on college and university campuses was small but it was growing considerably during the 1950s: By 1969, Minnesota; the University of California, Berkeley; UCLA; and UC Davis had all started American Indian Studies programs, and many others followed.

By 1969, Minnesota; the University of California, Berkeley; UCLA; and UC Davis had all started American Indian Studies programs, and many others followed.

Among the founders of American Indian Studies were the Crow Creek Sioux writer Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, the Powhatan-Renapé and Lenape scholar Jack Forbes, and the Standing Rock Sioux intellectual Vine Deloria, Jr. A number of these scholars came together in March 1970 for the First Convocation of American Indian Scholars at Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. Their goal, Elizabeth Cook-Lynn later recalled, was to “bring about a change in the way Native life in America was studied.” She continued:

The main aim of these discussions was to assert that Indians were not just the inheritors of trauma but were also the heirs to vast legacies of knowledge about this continent and the universe that had been ignored in the larger picture of European invasion and education.

The creation of new historical narratives based on these principles developed unevenly, particularly in terms of the periods on which they were focused. Most of the revisionist work from the 1970s through the 1990s, for instance, covered the 400 years between initial contact between Natives and newcomers and the end of the 19th century.

Around the Columbian Quincentenary in 1992, a new interpretive framework focused on encounters emerged. The historian James Axtell richly described encounters as mutual, reciprocal—two-way rather than one-way streets, generally capacious, and temporally and spatially fluid.

Histories modeled on encounters supplanted worn-out narratives of discovery and conquest by emphasizing diplomacy, negotiation, and exchange.

Histories modeled on encounters supplanted worn-out narratives of discovery and conquest by emphasizing diplomacy, negotiation, and exchange. In so doing, the problematic concept of a rigid, racially defined frontier gave way to dynamic conceptions of middle grounds, contact zones, edges, and borderlands.

Learn more about how connections were forged between Native Americans and newcomers

Distinguishing Past and Present

Strangely, though, few scholars had much to say about encounters that took place after 1900. Instead, historians typically imagined 20th-century American Indian history as being fundamentally different from the more distant past. In recent years, scholars have challenged the drawing of sharp distinctions between the distant and more recent past. Yes, the balance of power shifted dramatically through the 19th and 20th centuries.

But this shift amounted primarily to a change in the context of encounters between Natives and newcomers; it didn’t bring an end to the encounters themselves. If 20th- and 21st-century encounters have remained as mutual and reciprocal, as temporally and spatially fluid, and generally capacious as they ever were, then we can imagine the last two centuries as a seamless part of one grand narrative, one story. We return to the relationship between history and contemporary Native America.

Charles Sprague, Frederick Jackson Turner, and the frontier historians who came before and after them wanted people to believe that American Indian history had ended, that Native people would vanish, and that tribal sovereignty would disappear right along with them. They turned the past into a history that served as a weapon of conquest in the 19th century, and that serves as a roadblock to recovery and renaissance in Native America today.

But the creation of new historical narratives can help remove that roadblock. Indeed, recalling the words of Lumbee legal scholar David Wilkins, we can now add the rewriting of the old master narrative as yet another way that tribal sovereignty is manifested in the purposeful actions taken by individuals and groups. This reassertion of sovereignty through the reclaiming of history is especially poignant in the context of the books and articles authored by Native scholars, such as Malinda Maynor Lowery, Joshua Reid, and Philip Deloria, all of whom offer historical perspectives on their own families, communities, and nations. Why does this matter?

Learn more about Native America in the Early 1900s

Because, as Denetdale explains, for her and many other Native scholars, studying and critiquing history plays a vital role in what she calls “the recovery and revitalization of our community, family, language, and traditions.” It’s about translating the events of the past into a different history, a history of Indigenous survival through more than 500 years of colonialism, one of the most extraordinary stories in human history.

Common Questions About Native American History

Q: Where exactly did the Native Americans come from?

Native American history generally shows Native Americans to have entered North America from the Beringia land bridge at least 15,000 years ago.

Q: How many Native Americans are thought to have been killed in the genocide by Europeans?

The European genocide of Native Americans is believed by scholars to have killed, at the very least, 130 million.

Q: How many Native Americans were in North America around the time of 1492?

It is commonly believed that in 1492 when the Caribbean was reached by Columbus, there were over 10 million Native Americans living in the United States territory alone.

Q: Which Native American tribe was the most dangerous during the time of the conquest of the Americas?

Native American history shows the Comanche Nation to be one of the most dangerous and dominant tribes during the 18th century.

This article was updated on December 14, 2020

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