By Felicia Jamison, Ph.D. student, Department of History
On Wednesday evening, the UMass Amherst History Department hosted a talk by Professor Ned Blackhawk of Yale University as part of the 2013-14 Annual Lecture. Blackhawk, a specialist in Native American history, discussed the limited historiography of indigenous peoples in America. The field of Native American Indian Studies has grown substantially since its origin in the late twentieth century, however, there is still much to uncover about the complex and violent history of these indigenous peoples.
In recent years there has been an increase in the scholarship of Western and borderland histories. In his groundbreaking historical narrative Violence Over the Land, Blackhawk recounts the violent history of early seventeenth-century America and its lasting effects on the indigenous peoples of the Great Basin region. It is commendable that scholars are filling in the numerous gaps of American historiography; however, each new work on the subject broaches more questions that have yet to be answered. How does a nation make peace with its violent past? How can said past be incorporated into the traditional national narrative? Is it possible to change the engrained legacy of marginalized peoples as innately inferior?
How can we as historians alter the national discourse that continues to view the Native American experience in a negative light? As a child, I remember joking with friends that they were an “Indian giver” if they had given me an item and decided to request it back at a later date. This is how we as children learn to view the tumultuous history between indigenous peoples and American officials — peoples who simply requested to occupy parcels of the enormous land previously taken from them by Europeans and Americans alike. Or if you enjoy sports, one can discuss the modern implications of having a national football team named the Washington Redskins. The image of a Native American in traditional garb and the term “Red Skin” seems to freeze the American Indian into a static mold in which he is still a prehistoric nomad. It its evident that the legacy of indigenous peoples has been engrained in our national history — in both writing and rhetoric — as inferior to “Americans.”
So where do we begin in tackling this monumental task of altering the stereotypical and enduring caricatures of Native American peoples as less than? The essential studies of scholars such as Blackhawk challenge the Academy to view the history of Native Americans as people who were adapting to the constantly changing environment of America, their homeland. Rather than simply viewing them as prehistoric or destitute, we must attempt to understand the violent past that placed them in their modern predicament of poverty, illness, and isolation. It is apparent that the Academy has its work cut out for itself with researching, writing, and teaching this traumatic and dark past chapter of our nation’s history. However, one thing is certain: the history of Native Americans must have a place in American historiography.
Ed: Felicia’s commentary on Native Americans in popular culture brings to mind UMass Amherst’s former mascot, the Redman. In the 1970s the Redman gave way to Sam the Minuteman, and today few students recall the mascot that drew upon negative stereotypes of indigenous peoples.