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Yale professor examines Native American history in new book

Indigenous perspectives have often been excluded from U.S. historical narratives. A Yale University professor hopes to spotlight the importance of those perspectives in a new book.

Portrait by Dan Renzetti

Ned Blackhawk is a professor of History and American studies at Yale University. He is also a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada. Blackhawk said the Indigenous narrative of early American history has been largely erased or ignored in the broader American educational system.

“In these long years of teaching Native American history I’ve really always felt like there wasn't a sufficient kind of common text or interpretive work to offer my students,” Blackhawk said.

Blackhawk said his generation has confronted the absence of the Indigenous perspective in education. However, in the past decade, Blackhawk has seen a proliferation of academic scholarship that he calls “The Rediscovery of America.” It is what inspired him to write the book, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History.”

Blackhawk began teaching in 2009 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He began research during a 2017-2018 fellowship for Early American History at the University of Pennsylvania. It’s when he unknowingly began writing the first chapters of what is now his book.

“I didn't formally decide to craft this narrative until relatively recently in my career but I've been thinking about it a long time,” Blackhawk said.

Blackhawk said scholarly findings from the past decade have provided more detail on Native American history. It inspired him to compile those findings for a larger audience. He said questions and conversations about U.S. history and the Native perspective have been brewing in the academic world and in the mainstream.

“We’ve come to a point in our nation's history where we are perhaps really for the first time positioned to have a national conversation about the history of this community in respect of Indigenous or Native American population,” Blackhawk said.

The book is split into two parts: from early contact until the U.S. Constitution, and then the Native American and U.S. state relationship and federal Indian policy to the present day. It contains maps that show the contemporary state and federally recognized nations within the contiguous United States.

Blackhawk said writing the book was a challenge because of the enormity of the subject. History has at times been shrouded by erasure and disrespect. He said it inhibits people from understanding how central Indigenous people are to the making of the U.S. and its communities. He hopes readers continue to become more informed by reading about and engaging with Indigenous communities.

“I would kind of encourage people to feel not too overwhelmed by the challenge in a way that might be inhibiting but to really see it as our collective and incumbent responsibility to more fully understand the historical landscapes,” Blackhawk said.

Jeniece Roman is WSHU's Report for America corps member who writes about Indigenous communities in Southern New England and Long Island, New York.