Rethinking the European Conquest of Native Americans

In a new book by Pekka Hämäläinen, a picture emerges of a four-century-long struggle for primacy among Native power centers in North America.

Print of Comanche procession
Library of Congress

When the term Indian appears in the Declaration of Independence, it is used to refer to “savage” outsiders employed by the British as a way of keeping the colonists down. Eleven years later, in the U.S. Constitution, the Indigenous peoples of North America are presented  differently: as separate entities with which the federal government must negotiate. They also appear as insiders who are clearly within the borders of the new country yet not to be counted for purposes of representation. The same people are at once part of the oppression that justifies the need for independence, a rival for control of land, and a subjugated minority whose rights are ignored.

For the Finnish scholar Pekka Hämäläinen, this emphasis on what Native people meant to white Americans misses an important factor: Native power. The lore about Jamestown and Plymouth, Pocahontas and Squanto, leads many Americans to think in terms of tragedy and, eventually, disappearance. But actually, Indigenous people continued to control most of the interior continent long after they were outnumbered by the descendants of Europeans and Africans.

Much more accurate is the picture Hämäläinen paints in his new book, Indigenous Continent: a North American history that encompasses 400 years of wars that Natives often, even mostly, won—or did not lose decisively in the exceptional way that the Powhatans and Pequots had by the 1640s. Out of these centuries of broader conflict with newcomers and one another, Native peoples established decentralized hives of power, and even new empires.

In a previous book, The Comanche Empire, Hämäläinen wrote of what he controversially referred to as a “reversed colonialism,” which regarded the aggressive, slaving equestrians of “greater Comanchería”—an area covering most of the Southwest—as imperialists in ways worth comparing to the French, English, Dutch, and Spanish in America. There was continued pushback from some scholars when Hämäläinen extended the argument northward in his 2019 study, Lakota America. (The impact of his work among historians may be measured by his appointment as the Rhodes Professor of American History at Oxford University.)

What was most distinctive about these two previous books was that Hämäläinen so convincingly explained the Indigenous strategies for survival and even conquest. Instead of focusing on the microbes that decimated Native populations, Hämäläinen showed how the Comanche developed what he termed a “politics of grass.” A unique grasslands ecosystem in the plains allowed them to cultivate huge herds of horses and gave the Comanche access to bison, which they parlayed into market dominance over peoples who could supply other goods they wanted, such as guns, preserved foods, and slaves for both trade and service as herders.

Hämäläinen treats Native civilizations as polities making war and alliances. In Indigenous Continent, there is less emphasis than in The Comanche Empire on specific ecosystems and how they informed Indigenous strategies. Instead, he describes so many Native nations and European settlements adapting to one another over such a wide and long time period that readers can appreciate anew how their fates were intertwined—shattering the simple binary of “Indians” and “settlers.” Indigenous peoples adapted strenuously and seasonally to environments that remained under their control but had to contend at the same time with Europeans and other refugees encroaching on their vague borders. These newcomers could become allies, kin, rivals, or victims.

Hämäläinen sees a larger pattern of often-blundering Europeans becoming part of Indigenous systems of reciprocity or exploitation, followed by violent resets. When Dutch or French traders were “generous with their wares” and did not make too many political demands, Natives pulled them into their orbit. Spanish and, later, British colonists, by contrast, more often demanded obeisance and control over land, leading to major conflicts such as the ones that engulfed the continent in the 1670s–80s and during the Seven Years’ War. These wars redirected European imperial projects, leading to the destruction of some nations, and the migration and recombination of others, such as the westward movement of the Lakota that led to their powerful position in the Missouri River Valley and, later, farther west. In this history, Indigenous “nomadic” mobility becomes grand strategy. North America is a continent of migrants battling for position long before the so-called nation of immigrants.

“Properly managed,” settlers and their goods “could be useful,” Hämäläinen writes. The five nations of the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) confederacy established a pattern by turning tragic depopulation by epidemic into opportunities for what Hämäläinen calls  “mourning wars” attacking weakened tribes and gaining captives. They formed new alliances and capitalized on their geographic centrality between fur-supplying nations to the west and north, and French and Dutch and, later, English tool and gun suppliers to the east and south. Hämäläinen insists that their warfare was “measured, tactical,” that their use of torture was “political spectacle,” that their captives were actually adoptees, that their switching of sides in wartime and the Iroquois’ selling out of distant client tribes such as the Delaware was a “principled plasticity.” This could almost be an expert on European history talking about the Plantagenets, the Hapsburgs, or Rome.

And there’s the rub. Hämäläinen, a northern European, feels comfortable applying the ur-Western genre of the rise and fall of empires to Native America, but imperial history comes with more baggage. Hämäläinen seems certain that Comanche or other Indigenous imperial power was different in nature from the European varieties, but it often seems as if Indigenous peoples did many of the same things that European conquerors did. Whether the Iroquois had “imperial moments,” actually were an empire, or only played one for diplomatic advantage is only part of the issue. Hämäläinen doesn’t like the phrase settler colonialism. He worries that the current term of art for the particularly Anglo land-grabbing, eliminationist version of empire paints with too broad a brush. Perhaps it does. But so does his undefined concept of empire, which seems to play favorites at least as much as traditional European histories do.

If an empire is an expanding, at least somewhat centralized polity that exploits the resources of other entities, then the Iroquois, Comanche, Lakota, and others may well qualify. But what if emphasizing the prowess of warriors and chiefs, even if he refers to them as “soldiers” and “officials,” paradoxically reinforces exoticizing stereotypes? Hämäläinen is so enthralled with the surprising power and adaptability of the tribes that he doesn’t recognize the contradiction between his small-is-beautful praise of decentralized Indigenous cultures and his condescension toward Europeans huddling in their puny, river-hugging farms and towns.

Hämäläinen notes that small Native nations could be powerful too, and decisive in wars. His savvy Indigenous imperialists wisely prioritized their relationships, peaceful or not, with other Natives, using the British or French as suppliers of goods. Yet he praises them for the same resource exploitation and trade manipulation that appears capitalist and murderous when European imperialists do their version. In other words, he praises Natives when they win for winning. Who expanded over space, who won, is the story; epic battles are the chapters; territory is means and end.

And the wheel turns fast, followed by the rhetoric. When British people muscle out Natives or seek to intimidate them at treaty parleys, they are “haughty.” At the same time, cannibalism and torture are ennobled as strategies—when they empower Natives. Native power as terror may help explain genocidal settler responses, but it makes natives who aren’t just plain brave—including women, who had been producers of essential goods and makers of peace—fade away almost as quickly as they did in the old history. As readers, we gain a continental perspective, but strangely, we miss the forest for the battlefields.

It’s already well known why natives lost their land and, by the 19th century, no longer had regional majorities: germs, technology, greed, genocidal racism, and legal chicanery, not always in that order. Settler-colonial theory zeroes in on the desire to replace the Native population, one way or another, for a reason: Elimination was intended even when it failed in North America for generations.

To Hämäläinen, Natives dominated so much space for hundreds of years because of their “resistance,” which he makes literally the last word of his book. Are power and resistance the same thing? Many scholars associated with the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association find it outrageous to associate any qualities of empire with colonialism’s ultimate, and ongoing, victims. The academic and activist Nick Estes has accused Hämäläinen of “moral relativist” work that is “titillating white settler fantasies” and “winning awards” for doing so. Native American scholars, who labor as activists and community representatives as well as academics in white-dominated institutions, are especially skeptical when Indigenous people are seen as powerful enough to hurt anyone, even if the intent is to make stock figures more human. In America, tales of Native strength and opportunistic mobility contributed to the notion that all Natives were the same, and a threat to peace. The alternative categories of victim and rapacious settler help make better arguments for reparative justice.

In this light, the controversy over Native empires is reminiscent of what still happens when it’s pointed out that Africans participated in the slave trade—an argument used by anti-abolitionists in the 19th century and ever since to evade blame for the new-world slaveries that had turned deadlier and ideologically racial. It isn’t coincidental that Hämäläinen, as a fan of the most powerful Natives, renders slavery among Indigenous people as captivity and absorption, not as the commodified trade it became over time. Careful work by historians has made clear how enslavement of and by Natives became, repeatedly, a diplomatic tool and an economic engine that created precedents for the enslavement of Black Americans.

All genres of history have their limits, often shaped by politics. That should be very apparent in the age of the 1619 and 1776 projects. Like the Declaration and the Constitution, when it comes to Indigenous peoples, historians are still trying to have it both ways. Books like these are essential because American history needs to be seen from all perspectives, but there will be others that break more decisively with a story that’s focused on the imperial winners.