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Unconventional Outlook: Ned Blackhawk Offers a New Analysis for an Ancient Region

Author and Yale Professor Ned Blackhawk sheds light on little-studied areas of Plains Indians history
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For Professor Ned Blackhawk of Yale University, conventional American Indian history too often involves a study of Native–white relations that ends, Hollywood-style, with the Plains Indian wars of the 19th century. Blackhawk, Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone and a professor of history and American studies, takes a more nuanced view of the ways Indian nations strove to maintain stability after military and political oppression, and draws attention to little-studied areas.

That’s the philosophy underlying Blackhawk’s work in progress, a book interpreting westward expansion from Native and non-Native points of view. His award-winning Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Harvard University Press, 2006) focused on the vast, sparsely settled parts of Nevada, Utah, California, Oregon and Idaho known as the Great Basin—home of the Ute, Paiute, Washoe and Shoshone, and one of the last areas in North America to hold its own outside the sphere of colonization. It won the 2007 Frederick Jackson Turner Award and the 2006 William P. Clements Prize for Best Non-Fiction Book on Southwestern America. Blackhawk spoke with Indian Country Today Media Network earlier this year after a lecture followed by e-mail and phone interviews.

What can you say about your project?

It is a single-volume integrative overview of American Indian history. It will be more interpretive than comprehensive, not descriptive in the textbook sense. The central theme concerns depictions of our shared experiences. It will engage broad interpretations about American Indian and U.S. history, linking the two.

What needs have you seen among Native students?

They grapple with the question, What does American history mean to me? It’s important to characterize the broad swath of Indian history, and the subjects may not be in the textbooks. I try to build an enduring form of institutional space for these and other things—scholarly resources at the highest level.

What should people take away from Violence Over the Land?

That the Great Basin is a part of American history and the American continent that deserves more attention and that many people don’t understand the extent of transformation and endurance that occurred following European settlement. American history has failed to gauge the violence that remade much of the continent before U.S. expansion, and scholars have not fully assessed the effects of such expansion on the many Indian peoples caught within these continental changes.

Doesn’t postmodernism avoid implying that anyone is particularly to blame for events? How do you depict colonialism without laying responsibility for genocide at its feet?

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There is a surprising amount of shared antagonism that led me to conclude that there’s no immediate culpability. We haven’t at all understood the depth of conflict and transformation that have occurred across North American Indian homelands over the past five centuries. There have been epicenters—the Plains Indian wars of the 19th century, for example—but it goes back in ways that few historians have fully understood. Native peoples understand the depth of transformation, but there’s a larger paradigm to be developed to understand the resistance and survival that characterized the Indian past. Assessing the larger transformation is where a lot of scholarly attention has been directed in recent decades.

Why are the Great Basin and its peoples not very well known?

They are the most intellectually maligned in American history, partly because they relied on irregular pine-nut harvests and were seen as wanderers on a never-ending food quest. It created an overwhelming sense that they were the most primitive people of not only the Americas but also the world, and a sense that they essentially have no history.

Did your family history assist in your analysis?

I’m Western Shoshone; my father and I and our family have longstanding personal attachments to the region going back as long as I can remember. I have a personal and intellectual interest in that area. My father and mother met in Detroit, where he studied in the 1960s. He was one of the first Native graduates of the University of Nevada-Reno and Wayne State University. He grew up in extreme poverty, and education was a potential path toward self-actualization. A long line of fundamentalist Christians in my family fostered literacy and Bible study. Back then there were few reservations for Shoshone Indians in Nevada. I have family all over Nevada, but the traditional homeland is the Sandy and Reese River valleys. But I’m mindful of the difference between the temporary history that my family and I are part of, and the more-distant colonial histories that are at the center of my scholarly work. They’re linked but not equivalent.

Do you feel things have changed? For you and your family, as depicted in the book?

As many people know all too well, reconciling the traumas found within our community and family pasts with the celebratory narratives of America remains an everyday and in many cases overwhelming challenge. My family’s experience does disrupt the staid and essential portraits of Indian life so common in the discourse of Great Basin primitivity.

What are the most pressing problems facing Great Basin tribes?

Invisibility is a serious problem. What happened to Forrest Cuch [fired earlier this year as head of Utah’s Division of Indian Affairs] is terrible. He’s one of the 21st-century leaders we need more of.