From The Future of the Discipline column in the December 2012 issue of Perspectives on History

The Futures of Native American History in the United States

Pekka Hämäläinen, December 2012

Detail from a Navajo serape. David Heald photo, courtesy the National Museum of the American Indian.The history of Native Americans began when first peoples appeared in the Western Hemisphere and started to pass on stories of their experiences. This tradition continues today. Another tradition in the practice of recording Native American history took form when Western Europeans began to write about the indigenous peoples they encountered in the Americas, projecting their fears and fantasies onto their subjects who would have struggled to recognize themselves in the portrayals. This tradition too continues today, and professional scholarship has disentangled from it with difficulty; a decisive break did not come until the late 20th century with the rise of the "new Indian history," which drew on ethnohistorical methodologies to cut closer to indigenous realities. The new Indian history is old now, its name evoked rarely except in historiographical essays like this, but its ambitions and sensibilities inform much of the current scholarship. In contemplating the futures of Native American history, it is important to recall these multiple origins, for they are part of the field's present, and will be part of its future.

New Indian historians placed indigenous peoples at the center of things, hoping to recast the old master narrative of America that locked native people on the wrong side of modernity. They have, by any measure, been widely successful. The last quarter of a century has seen a succession of groundbreaking studies that have changed American history almost beyond recognition. Early American history, where the impact has been strongest, has experienced what one scholar recently called an "indigenous turn." Gone is the trivialization of Native Americans as myopic, prepolitical actors, mere speed bumps in Anglo-America's westward expansion, and gone is the reduction of hundreds of indigenous communities to a hazy backdrop of frontier hostility. Rather than a monolithic, preordained sequence, the creation of America is now seen as a multilateral process that created new worlds for all.

The ascendancy of Native American history has been so forceful that some of its practitioners fear that the field is running out of steam, having exhausted its creative momentum. Such concerns reflect in part the anxieties of scholars who set out to decenter American history and suddenly found their marginal field at the center. Native American history has come into its own and it has expanded beyond its traditional confines. It has penetrated deeply into American history, and it is there, in the mainstream, where it will flourish. Tightly intertwined with borderlands, environmental, and imperial histories, Native American history will continue to reshape the contours of American history. Building on an already substantial body of scholarship, new studies will elucidate the roles and meanings of gender, race, sexuality, intermarriage, slavery, and empire in Indian-colonist relations—and, increasingly, in Indian-Indian relations as well. We will learn about previously obscured indigenous borders and centers and we will bend our representations of colonial and early national realms around them. We will continue to debate how Native American or colonial early America really was and whether resistance or accommodation defined its course.

But some concerns about the futures of Native American history are well warranted. Embedded in the mainstream, the field is dissolving into broader historiographical currents, gradually saturating them. This may mark the ultimate triumph of the new Indian history, but it is a success laced with uncertainty: when subfields become new orthodoxies, they tend to stiffen and become reactionary. This is a particular concern for Native American history which, along with African American history, has become something of a moral touchstone of American history, deeply critical of its last half millennium. There are, however, in-built dynamics and new developments in the field that will help it retain a critical, subversive edge.

During the last two decades, many Native American communities have experienced dramatic revivals. They have rebuilt economies through lobbying, resource development, and gaming, and they have built schools, houses, hospitals, and cultural centers. They have fought for federal recognition and asserted treaty rights in courts. Stronger communities have translated into stronger voices: Native intellectuals are becoming more vocal, and growing numbers of Native peoples are entering graduate schools and faculties. Together, these developments pose compelling challenges to the practice of Native American history. Some Native thinkers demand that Native peoples should write their own histories and decide how, and if, their histories should be disseminated to wider audiences. They want to reclaim their histories from the snares of scholarly and media misrepresentation and they insist that academic research should empower indigenous communities. Some see an unbridgeable divide between oral traditions and archive-based documentation and assert the primacy of the former, arguing that Native stories extend deeper in time and get closer to the essence of indigenous experiences.

Native American history has become a contested ground, where debates about the politics of knowledge production, intellectual gatekeeping, and the ownership of the past simmer. The controversies will continue, but scholarly common grounds will emerge. In fact, they already have. Both Native and non-Native writers have started to produce studies that narrow the gap between indigenous expectations and established academic practices, pushing Native American history in new directions. Scholars now write directly about the pain and psychological trauma of Native peoples, sensitizing us to the human dimensions of racism and dispossession and forcing us to come to terms with the pervasive violence of American history. They have started to write about such neglected topics as Native American–African American relations and such divisive ones as the enslavement of African people by Native people. They explore the complex linkages among Indian removals, Indian reservations, and U.S. constitutional history, and they probe how Native people have resisted, survived, and exploited assimilationist federal programs. Terms like ethnic cleansing, extermination, cultural genocide, and historical memory are entering the scholarship with unprecedented theoretical vigor.

New studies are also challenging the tidy periodization of American history into precontact, colonial, and national periods by showing how deep-rooted indigenous practices survived to shape colonial policies and by showing how the legacies—and the very practices—of colonialism continue in the present. And new studies are pulling Native American history from early America closer to the present, where the field can respond more directly to the needs and concerns of indigenous communities. The vicissitudes and ambiguities of federal Indian policy and law; Native struggles for self-determination in a paracolonial situation; affirmations of Native identity through political activism, cultural preservation, repatriation, language revitalization, spiritual movements, wage labor, intermarriage, and mobility; the rise of pan-Indianism and modern Indian nations and the related reconfiguration of national, state, and tribal relations; the connections between the decline of keystone species and indigenous self-determination; the division of Indian tribes into haves and have-nots: these and other emergent lines of research that are now realigning Native American history will alter how we understand multiculturalism, democracy, sovereignty, and the role of the nation state in modern American society.

These are global issues, and they are pulling Native American history into the world. For some time now, and increasingly since the Columbus Quincentenary, scholars, intellectuals, and activists across the world have engaged in transnational conversations about indigenous issues. The establishment of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association in 2008 integrated those efforts by providing a broad interdisciplinary platform for global indigenous studies. There is now an emergent field of comparative indigenous scholarship that is gathering momentum and is exemplified by innovative studies that have traced, among other topics, treaty-making processes in New Zealand and the United States, indigenous diasporas across the Americas and the Pacific and Atlantic rims, and the forced removal of indigenous children into state institutions in Australia and the United States. It is already clear that one of the futures of Native American history will be comparative and transnational. If the recent studies are an indication, that future is secure and bright.

Pekka Hämäläinen is the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University. He is the author of The Comanche Empire.