- Native Homes of Violence and Hope
In Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, Ned Blackhawk presents a deeply felt meditation upon a most refractory topic. Surely there are realms more resistant to historical scrutiny than violence. But is there another subject that is at once so central to how we understand the past and so impervious to historical methods of analysis? The oldest of all topics in a tradition of inquiry reaching back to Thucydides' studies of the Peloponnesian Wars, violence nonetheless remains among the freshest of historical subjects—and the most needful of deeper understanding.
Historians do not only study violence, of course; as literary theorists remind us, we also commit it. And so it is only fitting that a book which gracefully integrates representations and material realities starts with an attack on historical narratives that consign native peoples to marginality or invisibility. "Despite an outpouring of work over the past decades," Blackhawk charges, "those investigating American Indian history and U. S. history more generally have failed to reckon with the violence upon which the continent was built" (p. 3). If Blackhawk too casually dismisses James Merrell's grim portrayal of the Pennsylvania frontier as an American heart of darkness, Elliott West's heart-wrenching epic of Cheyenne cataclysm, and four decades of studies by American Indian activist-intellectuals and "new" Indian historians detailing the manifold traumas European colonialism inflicted upon Native America, the question he asks at the end of this excellent study of Indians and empires in the Great Basin remains as pertinent as ever: "Is there adequate space within the wellspring of American history to begin discussing the pain of America's indigenous peoples" (p. 293)?1
"Reconciling the dispossession of millions with the making of America," as Blackhawk admits, "remains a sobering challenge, an endeavor that requires re-evaluation of many enduring historical assumptions" (p. 3). Wallace Stegner articulated one of these assumptions in his classic, Beyond the Hundredth Meridian. Stegner's Great Basin lay sealed off from the winds of time. A "wasteland [End Page 335] naked even of game, sometimes even of vegetation," it was inhabited by "Stone Age bands lost on an unvisited plateau," Indians "as primitive probably as any left in the Continental United States." History arrived in the Great Basin in the person of John Wesley Powell and other Americans, who breathed life into these desert lands of "ancient and terrible stillness."2
Blackhawk seeks to reclaim the histories Powell overlooked and Stegner erased. Blackhawk delimits the Great Basin culturally instead of physiographically. The book's study area extends from the classic basin-and-range province of Nevada, eastern California, western Utah, southern Idaho, and southeastern Oregon to the Snake River Valley, the Colorado Plateau, and even the southern Rocky Mountains. Through the histories of the Utes, Paiutes, and Shoshones—band-centered groups who shared economic, cultural, and historical ties as well as Numic languages—Blackhawk demonstrates that the "terrible stillness" Stegner imagined was no "ancient" inheritance.3 Instead, it was a consequence of three centuries of transformations that undermined the autonomy of Great Basin Indians and eroded their ability to survive in an already inhospitable landscape.
Instead of relying upon the old trope that an overlooked topic deserves book-length treatment simply to stitch over one more hole in the boundless fabric of what scholars have misunderstood, forgotten, or destroyed, Blackhawk pursues a more compelling rhetorical course: He makes his story personal. The introduction to Violence Over the Land closes with Blackhawk's own family history. Unhinged by fearsome domestic abuse, his Western Shoshone great-grandmother, Mamie Andrews, was consigned by the state of Nevada to a mental institution at the age of twenty four, "where she lived alone for her remaining fifty-seven years" (p. 15). Blackhawk reminds his readers that there was little exceptional in Mamie's fate; the lives of the Western Shoshones, like those of other Indian peoples throughout the Interior West, have remained "filled with...