In the second of a four-part series, three historians respond to Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States (New York: W.W. Norton, 2018). In the first essay, David Hollinger wrote about the role of knowledge and truth in John Dewey’s Progressive vision; in the next, Claire Bond Potter addresses the nature of grand historical visions; and in the final essay, Jill Lepore responds.
This essay was originally published on May 8 2019.
I assume I was invited to participate because my field of study is American Indian history, and this book does not cover a lot of American Indian history. So my role here is to talk about how we could and should deal with American Indians in American history.
You all may have seen Christine Delucia’s review of Jill Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States in the Los Angeles Times Review of Books, which catalogs a list of omissions. The main point of DeLucia’s review, however, was to highlight how Native history continues to be excluded from major mainstream and even many scholarly works on core issues of American history.
I have looked hard at this problem myself, and the results are in a book released last fall, called The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle. My purpose was to explore what American history looks like when seen through a Native lens. One of the chapters examines the explosion of drug trafficking in the Lumbee community of North Carolina in the 1980s. The history of that time period has excluded American Indian and rural American voices, explaining the war on drugs as a war against urban African Americans waged by law enforcement. It was that, but in the Lumbee community, it was also a fight for self-determination.
While Lumbee drug dealers pursued an economic equality that had eluded them in the civil rights movement, Lumbee attorneys and advocates fought for full federal recognition to address the autonomy that integration had undermined. Lumbee people simultaneously pursued legal and illegal paths to self-determination, exposing how the drug war was more than a way to incarcerate minorities and halt the progress of civil rights. It was also a way to suppress the self-determination of a people who, if they acquired political power as a sovereign nation, could use that power to rectify the hypocrisies on which the American nation rests.
Through an American Indian lens, the drug war was not just a way to undermine a marginalized group’s individual rights, it was also a way to prevent Indigenous nations from changing the way American politics worked. US democracy was conceived in the belief that the “merciless Indian savages” were hostile to it, and right through the 1980s, the U.S. government largely continued to treat American Indians as hostile enemies. I believe that if we are to gain a better understanding of how this government works and who it is for, we need that perspective.
These Truths explains that slavery made these statements of truth possible — enslaved people had not entered into the “state of society” that made equality possible (96). These Truths rectifies the exclusion of African Americans and the reality of slavery from our collective understanding of the past. Because trade histories and major syntheses have incorporated African Americans in the nation’s history, Americans everywhere are asking about their complicity in the inequalities that Black people still face. But we are still comparably nowhere when it comes to Native American history. Americans might know about genocide or disease, when they think about Indians at all, but they have no understanding of sovereignty or the meaning of treaty rights in the context of civil rights. And this reality points to a powerful and ongoing failure of the histories that get written and reach large audiences. Lepore does not say that the characterization of Indians as merciless savages, which paved the way for the theft of their land, also made these truths possible.
We may not see many American Indians when we read These Truths, but the fate of the political principles it explores would be very different if Native people were not in fact significant actors in this history. A meaningful integration of Indigenous history can substantially change and enhance our tellings of major episodes in U.S. history.
I know that Lepore is aware of much more Native history than she includes here, and I suspect that some of the reasons for Indians’ absence stem from the fact that Native peoples have had an ambiguous legal relationship to the United States, one that does not fit within the dominant framework of individual rights that emerged after the Civil War. Lepore offers a rich exploration of how the nation’s qualms about citizenship have put a drag on the truth of equality, but American Indians are central actors in how citizenship has been conceived and interpreted over time. Because they have been dealt with inconsistently, it might be difficult to incorporate them.
Take the Dred Scott decision; when Roger Taney declared in 1857 that African Americans could never be citizens because the inferior characteristics of their biological ancestry forever fixed their status as unfit for citizenship. He made this argument by way of comparison with American Indians. Taney claimed that Indians were governed by their own laws, and that their essential freedom made them eligible for naturalization within the United States. On the other hand, Taney’s predecessor, John Marshall, said Indians’ inherent savagery permanently prevented their eligibility for citizenship. Taney ignored Marshall’s precedent; he argued that unlike Blacks, Indians were unencumbered by their biology and could acquire citizenship. But, they must become citizens of states as individuals and lose their identities as tribes, making their land subject to state jurisdiction and not their own.
Lepore and others have discussed Dred Scott as a historical moment of national dissolution and a crisis of authority. It is that, but when you analyze the decision’s language about American Indians, the case also reveals a structuring idea of citizenship that includes not only race but also land and property. Historian Fred Hoxie analyzed the case and argues that when we take seriously the relationship of American Indians to African Americans in Taney’s decision, race “is a category employed by those who seek to locate themselves within a diverse and contested landscape,” a landscape where the functioning of America’s political institutions depended upon Indian land being made available for use by Black labor and for profit by white slaveholders (Hoxie 358). It is the transformation of this relationship between Indian land, black labor, and white property through the Civil War that inaugurates the expansion of rights which Lepore chronicles up to today. But if we ignore this relationship as we talk about the expansion of individual rights, we run the risk of repeating what Hoxie called the “big lie”— erasing the separate and distinctive political identity of American Indian tribes in order to obviate the United States’ obligations to the tribes on whose land we have built our nation (Hoxie 343).
This fragile democracy — in all of its “contingencies and accidents, wonders and horrors” (Lepore, 11) — is not only fragile because people are imperfect. It is also fragile in large part because it was built on sand, not rock. It was constructed on land that belongs to other nations besides the American nation.
Yet with the exception of Cherokee Removal and a brief mention of the Dawes Act, we learn little about how that land came to be governed by European settlers and then the United States. Instead, Lepore sums up the revival of Jamestown as “miraculous” (37), not explaining how hard Virginians worked to reject the diplomatic and political principles of their Powhatan hosts. English settlements in New England sprouted “like cattails along the banks of a pond” (43), as if by a natural law rather than an expropriation of land driven by religious prejudice. Lepore does originate the American tradition of protest — she phrases it as “by what right are we ruled?” (55) — in the critique of Spanish genocide and the battles fought by Indians and Africans, but little is offered about the consequence of these rebellions for the truths on which the nation rests. Instead, we ultimately learn that when it came to Indians, each generation of Europeans and their descendant settlers just fell short “of their own understanding of justice” (337).
But for citizens today, understanding who governed that land prior to European and African arrival, and who governs it still, seems important if we are to know the form this new government took and whether it can be governed “by reflection and election, by reason and truth” (xiv). This land didn’t just used to belong to indigenous nations — it still does. For example, in 1980 the Supreme Court affirmed that the Black Hills still belong to the tribal nations that signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868, and that the federal government owed them over $100 million. The Lakota and other tribes have refused to take the money, insisting that they want the land. And so it has been for other Native people, whose sovereign jurisdiction over territory forms the integrity of their nations, no different than the American nation. And Native people are indeed just as American as everyone else, though they have a different relationship to this land than other Americans.
What does American history look like through a Native American lens? To Elizabeth Fenn or Jace Weaver, it looks like an expanding and contracting network of global trade, governed for most of its history by Native actors, not European ones. To Kathleen DuVal, the United States is a preventable accident, with a design so flawed that it required saving by the very people it was meant to marginalize. To me, writing about the Lumbees, it looks like the co-creation of a nation of nations, rather than a nation of immigrants. To David Treuer, it is a story of self-determination and creativity; to Nick Estes or Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, it is the story of resistance to ongoing tyranny. While these are very different histories they have one thing in common: they illustrate how American society rests on both pre-existing and enduring economic, social, and political principles built first by Native people, who have continued to maintain them.
Including American Indians as full-fledged political actors in a synthesis of the United States would mean fully integrating the means by which this nation was born in principles of erasure and forgetting, not only in principles of humane governance. Simply adding more Indians to the recipe won’t fix the problem; the answer is not found in the social media hashtag, #dobetter. We might, instead, contemplate an indigenous practice of history that is responsive and responsible to all those who have sacrificed to see this experiment in government survive. An indigenous practice of history must pass this test: do your ancestors recognize themselves in the narrative? Full inclusion has costs — something about the master narrative must be left out. But if we include American Indians, at least we are not telling a distorted truth about the past.
Malinda Maynor Lowery (Lumbee) is Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill and Director of the Center for the Study of the American South. She is the author of The Lumbee Indians: An American Struggle (University of North Carolina Press, 2018). You can follow her on Twitter @malindalowery