Youngsters growing up in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s watched “Westerns” on TV and in cinemas and then played cowboys and Indians in their own back gardens. Those who played the Indians drew the short straw because they were the bad guys. The cowboys on screen and in suburban gardens always won and, when in danger, the US cavalry appeared over the hill to save the day. The “Red Indians” were portrayed as ruthless savages who were the scourge of poor white people seeking new lives as they pushed westwards in horse-drawn wagons across the vast North American plains bringing progress and “civilisation” in their train. The story was more myth than fact however.

Pekka Hämäläinen’s “Indigenous Continent” explodes many such myths. It is a hugely ambitious mould-breaking study tracing the development of the “native nations” and of the long contest between them and European interlopers for control of North America. Hämäläinen comprehensively undermines previous accounts. The Indians were not random tribal groupings in a largely empty continent; they were the indigenous or “first” inhabitants of the huge expanse now comprising Canada and the USA. Nor were these founding peoples unsophisticated or primitive savages; indeed the savagery of the Europeans more often than not outdid that of the indigenous Indians. 

In brief but sweeping early chapters, Hämäläinen takes the reader across millennia as human habitation took shape in North America. Initially they were hunters rather than gatherers but as the last ice age drew to a close a warming climate favoured settlement. Distinct human groupings or “nations” gradually took shape with names that resonate still: Iroquois, Pawnees, Cherokees and Navajos. Highly devolved kinship-based governance structures oversaw economies based on animal husbandry and hunting or – increasingly – settled agriculture. These emerging “nations” were culturally sophisticated with origin narratives reflecting complex spirit worlds with sophisticated customary rules of behaviour. 

As Hämäläinen shows especially clearly, initial encounters between arriving Europeans and the “native nations” were mystifying to both. The Spanish incursions northwards from Mexico in the 16th century sought gold and silver and anticipated finding similar hierarchical structures as had facilitated their conquests in central and South America. But, unlike the Incas, the Indians in North America were not governed by kings and hierarchies and the Spanish grappled clumsily and unsuccessfully with such an unfamiliar world. For their part, the indigenous Indians had little interest in precious metals but every interest in securing food supplies inland and along the western coastlines; they played sharp games which frustrated the Spaniards. Indeed, despite repeated military efforts on their part, the Spaniards never secured lasting footholds in North America.

The French in the 17th and 18th centuries tacked differently and for a while at least, more successfully. In pursuit of hugely profitable beaver furs for the European market, Frenchmen traded successfully with indigenous Indians in the Great Lakes area until disputes between Indian “nations” either in their pay or opposed to them provoked corrosive local conflicts. The English took a different approach over the same period and settled migrants in crown colonies along the eastern seaboard. Here too efforts to reach accommodations with local indigenous peoples had mixed results; alliances were formed only to break down later. North America as a whole was in a complex state of flux with brutal encounters between “native nations” and among the Europeans and with indigenous peoples playing one European off against another to their own territorial or economic advantage. Notwithstanding their superior weaponry, the Europeans faced local challengers adept at use of their own albeit more limited weapons and – crucially – more familiar with the terrain on which they were fighting and able to box clever as a result. 

What changed everything before and after the establishment of the United States, was the Europeans shift from trading to settlement. From the Seven Years War and the diplomatic agreements which ended it in 1763, the territorial appetite of British colonists grew and the diplomatic engagement of key “native nations” with the Europeans was frustrated. The colonists sought independence from control by the British King and expansion beyond the Appalachian mountains. Instances of sheer brutality, even genocide, grew as the colonists sought more territory westwards and southwards. The story of the United States relationship with the “native nations” over most of the 19th century was one of westward territorial aggrandisement and of sustained but ultimately worn-down resistance by the indigenous peoples. That said, some “native nations” fought back tenaciously, notably the Comanche and Lakota.

What Hämäläinen demonstrates clearly and repeatedly is that “native nation” cohesion even in the face of disease-induced population decline, remained strong. Diplomacy coupled with military skill and sheer cunning were as apparent among the “native nations” as among the European interlopers and their US successors. A continent shaped and populated by indigenous peoples linked together in shifting alliances and confederations, resisted loss of territory to European outsiders for over four centuries. It was not until after the American Civil War that an ever more vigorous United States imposed territorial settlements (or “reservations”) to its liking and advantage on the “native nations”. 

Hämäläinen tells a shocking story in which savagery and cruelty attended the assertion of first European and then US ascendancy across North America. The “native nations” pushed back and where possible sought accommodation with their invading and colonising foes. They were sophisticated peoples civilised in their own distinctive ways; but they were gradually reduced to compliance on US terms. Most of history it might be argued is a story of conquest and colonisation; but it doesn’t make the grinding down of original inhabitants or indigenous peoples any less disturbing, even in retrospect.

When I started to read “Indigenous Continent”, I was struck by the fact that its author is from Finland. On reflection I realised that a Finnish historian is peculiarly well-qualified to write the story of the encounter between the “first” peoples of North America given that in Finland (and neighbouring countries), there still exists the only surviving “first people” of Europe. Across what we call Lapland, the Sami have continued to conduct their lives in ways established over many centuries. Finland and Sweden are richer countries and cultures as a result of having accommodated them. 

Hämäläinen’s immensely thought-provoking and stimulating study of the “native nations” of North America and their encounter with European outsiders, will revise our too often simplistic understanding of the evolution of that encounter. Unlike all those “Western” films and children’s games in back gardens in the post-war years this is a grown-up story and a salutary one.

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