- Decolonization and Resilience in North American Indigenous History
When I teach the history of colonialism, I use the canonical work of Frantz Fanon and Edward Said to break the subject into two interrelated paradigms. Fanon’s work is deeply anchored in an analysis of Indigenous people’s experiences of colonialism. His critiques apply directly to our discipline, which has been tightly bound to colonial projects and upholding the development of the nation-state. Underlying his arguments, Fanon calls for a radically different academic practice: a decolonization of knowledge and scholarly approach. Said’s work, particularly Orientalism, represents a narrower postcolonial approach. Though equally interested in decolonizing knowledge, Said is less focused on the experiences of Indigenous peoples, while more interested in understanding the technologies and representations of imperialism and colonialism that were enacted upon them. Targeting representations of the Other, this approach analyzes colonial processes and power structures without directly seeking and foregrounding Indigenous voices, self-representations and reactions.
This is, of course, a false dichotomy. In practice, there is often no clear demarcation between these two approaches; the latter informs the former. The difference in subject matter, however, remains important to identify. It lies in each paradigm’s trajectory and purpose. As studies of the workings of empire, works like Said’s are more deeply anchored in contexts where colonialism is entrenched and technologies of power well-articulated; while scholars of Indigenous experiences seek a reevaluation of power dynamics in the meeting between colonial and Indigenous peoples, often questioning the assertion that colonies and empire were the single most important influence defining specific spaces and peoples. In marking this difference, it is critical to note that even as they seek to deconstruct, postcolonial studies sometimes risk reinforcing colonial representations and power structures. For Linda Tuhiwai Smith, author of Decolonizing Methodologies, the field of postcolonial studies is often “defined in ways which can still leave out indigenous peoples, our ways of knowing and our cultural concerns.”1
The books reviewed here fit into a spectrum between these two paradigms, emphasizing the resilience of Indigenous peoples in the face of colonial and imperial pressures. Michael Witgen’s An Infinity of Nations challenges historians of the seventeenth, eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries to reevaluate the overall strength and importance of imperial structures west of the Great Lakes. For Witgen, this was a space dominated and defined by Anishinaabeg and Dakota peoples, a reality that histories of the region still need to address. Tom Arne Midtrød’s The Memory of All Ancient Customs takes a similar approach. Midtrød disentangles Hudson Valley peoples from the colonial world around them, demonstrating that some Indigenous peoples remained politically, socially and culturally distinct until the 1780s. Both books attempt to dig past the colonial legacy of early–North American historiography and its canon of source material. Linford D. Fisher’s The Indian Great Awakening is an excellent example of how both approaches can be better integrated. His study of Indigenous Christianity makes a significant contribution to our understanding of both colonial approaches to Indigenous peoples and their own repurposing of them. Matthew L. Rhoades’s Long Knives and the Longhouse is the most traditional of the four texts, arguing that Virginia’s westward expansion was possible only through the colony’s interaction with, and eventual use of, the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.
An Infinity of Nations implicitly argues for a comprehensive new narrative of early North American history. Witgen demonstrates that through a complex relationship involving both peace and conflict, the Anishinaabeg and Dakota forged a Native New World that ensured their continued place and influence...