*Indigenous Continent*

The author is Pekka Hämäläinen, and the subtitle is The Epic Contest for North America.  Rich with insight on ever page, might it be the best history of Native Americans?  At the very least, this is one of the two or three best non-fiction books this year.  How is this for an excellent opening sentence:

Kelp was the key to America.

Here is another excerpt:

Spain had a momentous head start in the colonization of the Western Hemisphere, but North American Indians had brought Spanish expansion to a halt; in the late sixteenth century there were no significant Spanish settlements on the continent — only petty plunder regimes.  North America was still essentially Indigenous.  The contrast to the stunning Spanish successes in Middle and South America was striking: how could relatively small Native groups defy Spanish colonialism in the north when the formidable Aztec, Inca, and May Empires had fallen so easily?  The answer was right in front of the Spanish — the decentralized, kinship-based, and egalitarian political regimes made poor targets for imperial entradas — but they kept missing it because the Indigenous nations were so different from Europe’s hierarchical societies.  They also missed a fundamental fact about Indigenous warfare: fighting on their homelands, the Indians did not need to win battles and wars; they just needed not to lose them.

The general take is that pushing out the Native Americans took longer than you might think, and also was more contingent than you might think.  The decentralized nature of North American Indian regimes was one reason why the Spaniards made more headway in Latin America than anyone made in North America.

To be clear, I am by no means on board with the main thesis, preferring the details of this book to its conceptual framework.  Too often the author heralds the glories of a Native American tribe or group, and along the way lets it drop that they numbered only 30,000 individuals, as was the case for instance with the Iroquois.  If you didn’t know the actual history of this world, and had read only this book, you would be shocked to learn that Anglo civilization was on the verge of subjugating one-quarter of the world.  Or that England had learned how to “take care of Ireland” in the seventeenth century, and it was only a matter of time before similar techniques would be applied elsewhere.  And it is not until p.450 that the author lets on how much technological progress the Westerners had been making throughout; somehow that part of the story is missing until the very end.

I cannot quite buy that “The Native Reservations were a sign of American weakness, not strength,” though I can see how they might be both (p.408).

Yet I think you can simply put all this aside and still get full value — and then some — from this book.  Among its other virtues, it is an excellent treatise on the 17th century and its energetic, exploratory nature.  Or for another example, I loved the p.152 discussion of whether Indians wanted the settlers to fence in their animals (the fences cut off travel paths for deer and other hunted animals, though the fences kept the settlers’ animals from destroying native crops).  The discussions of equestrianism are consistently excellent.

In the first twenty years of the United States, fights with Indians absorbed 5/6 of overall federal expenditure (p.343).

Here is a good NYT story about the book and its reception.  I would say that a Finnish white guy even tried to pull this off is a positive signal about its quality, at least these days.

As recently as 2019, his epic Lakota America: A New History of Indigenous Power was an MR “best book of the year.”  You don’t have to buy the whole story, and so I conclude that Pekka Hämäläinen is one of the more important writers of our time.


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