The Vanishing Indians of “These Truths”
By Christine DeLuciaJanuary 10, 2019
These Truths by Jill Lepore
Readers of this ambitious tome encounter — briefly — the multilingual Guatícabanú, who interacted with Spaniards shortly after Columbus’s arrival; Powhatan, the paramount chief who negotiated with Jamestown colonists; Metacom (also known as King Philip), the Wampanoag leader who resisted New England colonial incursions; Pontiac, the Ottawa leader of an 18th-century multi-tribal uprising; and Sequoyah, the Cherokee inventor of an innovative syllabary. The lone indigenous woman mentioned by name is the Nahua interpreter La Malinche, who bore a son with conquistador Hernán Cortés in what is now Mexico. The final cameo is by Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo at the moment of his surrender to the US Army.
Aside from these appearances, indigenous people — the original inhabitants of the Americas who have lived, labored, and governed on this continent for thousands of years — are largely left faceless and nameless, subsumed within generalizations about “Indians.” Or they are simply ghosts, spectrally off-stage in the American story. You will not find a single named indigenous person from the 20th or 21st centuries. These Truths replicates the same troubling “vanishing” that Lepore critiques in 19th-century novelist James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans.
Indigenous absences are not a minor fault with These Truths. They lie at its core and they bear weighty consequences for the story that emerges. In a book that confidently bills itself as “an account of the origins, course, and consequences of the American experiment over more than four centuries,” the marginalization of indigenous people is a fundamental problem. Lepore takes on the undeniably difficult task of comprehending the American saga in a multifaceted spirit, attempting a type of middle path by concentrating, as she puts it, on “a great deal of anguish […] and more hypocrisy” alongside stories of “decency and hope, of prosperity and ambition.”
The book proposes to tell a wide-ranging story, and in many respects, like its consideration of the protracted struggle for racial equality, it poses a timely rejoinder to airport best sellers trafficking in whitewashed tales of Founding Fathers and military generals. But the narrative Lepore constructs relies on the eventual exit of indigenous actors to make way for other dramas.
Lepore has attained popular recognition and profitability as a book author and New Yorker writer, and she has aspirations for a version of These Truths to be used as an American history textbook as well as an “old-fashioned civics book.” I teach American history to college students and can attest, as I believe Lepore would agree, that students’ encounters with historical subjects and methods are important for reasons that reach far beyond classrooms. Learning American histories can be an opportunity for students to reckon with the complexity of past peoples’ lives, and an occasion to develop skills for critical and ethical thinking about contentious topics. I talk frequently with my colleagues about how to cultivate such learning, and how to select textbooks that support these goals. But classrooms can also be settings where troubling mythologies and outright untruths — about progress, belonging, rights, nationalism, and so on — become more firmly embedded in the minds of the next generations.
Methodology may have been a problem from the start. Lepore has a reliance on written literacy and record-keeping as powerful determinants of history and memory. The “history of truth is lashed to the history of writing like a mast to a sail,” she asserts, adding, “most words, once spoken, are forgotten, while writing lasts.” She makes this claim partly through a contention about the “literall advantage” supposedly maintained by Euro-American colonizers over peoples of indigenous and African descent, who oftentimes used non-written forms of expression and communication. Here she invokes a point initially aired 20 years ago in her Bancroft Prize–winning first book, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (1998), a study of Native American and colonial relations in 17th-century New England.
(Disclosure: I first debated this point with Lepore in 2006 when I was an undergraduate in the History and Literature program that she was chairing at Harvard, writing a senior thesis about the long legacies of the indigenous resistance movement known as King Philip’s War. We disagreed then about the nature of written records in history making, and their relationships to other forms of knowledge formation and remembrance.)
In the years that followed, scholars of early America and Native America have produced marvelously fine-grained reassessments of literacies, communication, and meaning production. You can now browse entire library shelves that illuminate the dynamic, enduring processes through which distinctive Native communities have transmitted information: knotted quipu strings, woven baskets, petroglyphs, standing stones, oral traditions, songs, dances, gestures, cornfields, clothing, sand and bone maps, and so much more. Haudenosaunee leaders, to choose just one example from the Northeast, have used shell beads woven into wampum belts to recall, transmit, and enact intertribal diplomacy across large stretches of time and space. Colonizers approached these materials and knowledge in complex ways: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson participated in wampum exchanges with indigenous delegations, recognizing the sovereignty of tribal nations even as they formulated policies designed to contain indigenous power.
Had Lepore substantively engaged non-textual knowledge systems and cross-cultural translation, she might have impressed upon readers a genuinely transformative approach to the wide-ranging means by which diverse historical experiences can be accessed. Or had she cultivated sustained relationships with tribal communities who still maintain these practices, she might have presented the issue differently. Instead, commenting on indigenous and African origin stories, she asserts with Eurocentric assurance: “[T]hese stories would be unknown, or hardly known, if they hadn’t been written down or recorded.”
These Truths underestimates readers’ capacities to deal with historical complexity and the nuanced ways that indigenous experiences trouble convenient story lines about America’s most iconic moments. It walks readers through an extended tour of the Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, and English monarchy and Parliament, but has little to say about the nature and evolution of indigenous political formations, conceptions of rights and responsibilities, or practices of decision-making.
Regarding the American Revolution, Lepore characterizes “nearly all Native American peoples” as allies of the British. This monolithic description elides just how contentious decisions around neutrality and allegiances were for diverse indigenous communities, who in fact pursued a large range of wartime alignments. It leaves little room for understanding groups such as the Oneidas, who chose to ally with the Americans and served in military units, or who experienced the American victory as an ominous new phase of accelerated expansionism into interior tribal homelands.
California earns a place for its role in the gold rush and proposed “free state” status preventing westward expansion of slavery, with no reckoning of how the sudden colonizer influx proceeded in tandem with the violent subjugating, even genocidal targeting, of California native peoples, as UCLA historian Benjamin Madley has recently demonstrated. About the US Civil War, the book devotes no space to Cherokees who allied with the Confederacy, or to Dakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Navajo, and other tribal communities who endured devastating executions, deportations, ethnic cleansings, and massacres under the Lincoln administration. We hear nothing about Mankato, Sand Creek, Canyon de Chelly, or other intensely important places that cast a different light on this pivotal era.
Even when the source material directly deals with interaction between native peoples and Euro-Americans, the text manages to gloss over these presences. An illustration of a 19th-century Missouri River trading post produced from an image by the Swiss-born artist and traveler Karl Bodmer — which shows native people standing in the foreground of John Dougherty’s Indian Agency — is retitled by Lepore simply as “Pioneers heading west.” This is a revealing demonstration of how erasure happens: one image, one sentence at a time.
These Truths provides readers with few satisfying analyses of the underlying structures, ideologies, and processes that animated American movement into native homelands and attendant dispossessions. It discusses “settlers” and “pioneers,” but generally declines to use the more trenchant word “colonizers.” While Lepore has made a point of disavowing what she deems scholarly jargon, she could have profitably used concepts like settler colonialism: an ongoing process of attempted indigenous displacement and erasure rather than a discrete event in bygone times.
Readers do hear about “colonies” but are given the impression that “colonial” refers to the period preceding the American Revolution, rather than being shown how colonialism continues right into the 21st century. Its limited discussion of debates regarding “founding an empire” (regarding annexation of parts of Mexico) in the mid-19th century reveals Lepore’s disinclination to acknowledge much deeper through-lines of American imperialism. Especially striking is complete absence of attention to the forcible, illegal overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii and annexation of Hawaii to the United States — events that occasioned vehement protest by native Hawaiians, underscoring deep indigenous opposition to becoming part of the American project.
Lepore is certainly no defender of neatly triumphalist American histories. She takes some pains to underscore tactics and subversions by which Euro-Americans took over native homelands, devoting several pages to acrimonious debates over Jacksonian Indian Removal, for instance, and describing Native people subjected to “human zoos” at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. However critically minded this approach may have been intended, it has the effect of foregrounding a narrative of indigenous victimhood. Nineteenth-century native history is characterized primarily by “suffering, massacre, and war” as well as military surrender and reservation confinement, summed up in a generalized notion that at the century’s end, “still the conquest continued.”
She’s missing another story — the creative and often ingenious response by indigenous people in the face of dehumanizing circumstances. In the case of the Columbian Exposition, it is true that “White City” organizers intended fairgoers to scrutinize Native Americans as ethnological specimens and contrast them with technological progress and modernity showcased elsewhere. But as Rosalyn LaPier and David Beck note in City Indian: Native American Activism in Chicago, 1893-1934, some indigenous participants leveraged the fair to their own advantage, entrepreneurially pushing for better wages as performers or gaining enhanced social status through their visibility. Potawatomi leader Simon Pokagon issued a scathing “Red Man’s Rebuke” in response to the dominant racist Indian imagery on display. This helped him develop a rapport with Chicago’s mayor that led to efforts to improve indigenous representations and rights. Lepore might argue that any synthetic work necessarily has to be selective about the details it includes. But when a text repeatedly curtails histories in ways that play up indigenous repression, it fosters a partial view, at best.
Perhaps the most disappointing aspect is the book’s relegation of native topics almost entirely to the early period of American history. The equation of indigeneity with “early” is a pernicious trope in antiquarian history writing, as Jean O’Brien has demonstrated in Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. One wonders how These Truths might have been transformed by thoroughly engaging the influential critiques of historian Philip Deloria, son of the celebrated Dakota intellectual Vine Deloria Jr. (and now a colleague of Lepore’s at Harvard). His Indians in Unexpected Places demonstrated how Euro-Americans came to imagine native people and nations as incompatible with American modernity, and unfurled the forceful, innovative ways that natives themselves have refuted this stereotype.
The lone moment when the book does engage 20th-century indigenous topics is in discussing the occupation of Alcatraz Island, a strategic takeover in 1969–1971 organized by Indians of All Tribes and other groups (rather than by the American Indian Movement as Lepore attributes it). It distills activists’ goals as pushing for creation of a Native American Studies center and describes the “Black Power movement, the Chicano movement, and a growing Asian American movement” as making “similar demands.” The push for educational reform was important. But subsuming Red Power under this umbrella misses a major point. Indigenous activists also pressed the US federal government to recognize tribal nations’ sovereign difference and called for fulfillment of treaty obligations, a context very different from the Civil Rights movement’s focus on inclusion and equal standing within the United States.
The 20th and 21st centuries get the most ink in These Truths, and these eras involved dramatic reconfigurations of tribal nations’ relationships with the United States. But there is no mention of the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, part of the “Indian New Deal” that reversed previous assimilationist policies and refashioned tribal governments; the 1940s formation of the National Congress of American Indians, a coalition representing American Indian and Alaska Native rights; the detrimental “termination era” of the 1950s and 1960s during which the federal government attempted to extinguish tribal sovereignties and nation-to-nation obligations; or the pushback by Natives like Ada Deer, the Menominee scholar and activist who eventually succeeded in reversing termination during the Nixon administration. We don’t learn about native people moving to cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, and Los Angeles, resulting in vibrant “urban Indian” communities — the subjects of Cheyenne and Arapaho novelist Tommy Orange’s recent best seller There There. When Lepore ruminates on voices dissenting from US involvement in Vietnam, the Gulf War, and the “war on terror,” she does not reflect on why Native Americans serve in the US military at one of the highest per capita rates.
Had These Truths grappled with tribal-led fish-ins in the 1970s or US Supreme Court decisions involving vital matters of American Indian law, it could have addressed the enduring force of treaty rights and tribal jurisdiction. If it had explored the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978 that overturned long histories of spiritual repression, it could have recognized more complicated trajectories of religious struggle. Discussing indigenous challenges to passport policies and border walls could have reframed debates about immigration. These Truths might have engaged with third-party politics through figures like Winona LaDuke, the White Earth Ojibwe activist and scholar who twice served as running mate to Ralph Nader. Their Green Party platform envisioned American futures distinct from the ones supported by either the Democrats or Republicans that occupy so much of Lepore’s attention.
The “Baby Veronica” adoption case, tribal casino gaming, land claims, repatriation of objects and ancestral human remains from museums, the Cherokee Freedmen, and Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claims to Cherokee identity: all of these recent headline-grabbing controversies arise from indigenous political contexts.
A casual reader, upon reaching page 789 of the main text, might decide to pass over the voluminous endnotes (which Lepore reports she has kept “clipped and short, like a baby’s fingernails”). But notes are where scholars reveal their hands of cards. They tell us whose thinking has influenced the writing and who the author considers important critical interlocutors. As far as I can discern, the notes to These Truths cite no indigenous scholars. The omission is striking given the abundance of award-winning historical scholarship by Jean O’Brien, David Chang, Robert Warrior, Paul Chaat Smith, Brenda Child, Noenoe Silva, Amy Lonetree, Lisa Brooks, Kiara Vigil, Beth Piatote, N. Bruce Duthu, K. Tsianina Lomawaima, Michael Witgen, Ned Blackhawk, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, Malinda Maynor Lowery, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Debbie Reese, Joshua Reid, Kent Blansett, Nick Estes, and Alyssa Mt. Pleasant — to name just a handful of indigenous intellectuals — whose publications have proffered innovative new methodologies that challenge the supposed silences of written archives, and located indigenous experiences as central, not marginal, to North American histories.
Non-indigenous historians have also done enormous work to demonstrate the significant ways that indigenous histories have contoured every aspect of American development, including politics. Yet even the most prominent, highly accoladed research and writing — the kind that is really hard to overlook — is missing. Pekka Hämäläinen (Bancroft Prize winner for The Comanche Empire), Ari Kelman (winner of a Bancroft for A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek), Louis Warren (Bancroft winner for God’s Red Son: The Ghost Dance Religion and the Making of Modern America), Elizabeth Fenn (a Pulitzer awardee for Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People), Colin Calloway (a National Book Award finalist for The Indian World of George Washington), and Kathleen DuVal (a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize for Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution) are nowhere to be seen in Lepore’s notes. Nor do their ideas and interventions appear reflected in the main text. In so many ways, the resulting book seems to reflect pervasive disengagement from conversations that Lepore’s professional peers have done so much to move forward.
These Truths concludes with a metaphor about the US ship of state, arguing that this “tattered” vessel could be restored to stability and dignity if only liberals and conservatives could commit to concerted civic action and rational discourse. This conciliatory vision makes sense only from a certain insular vantage, one that conceives of the US nation-state as a project well intentioned (though flawed) from its founding moments, intrinsically worth fixing and carrying forward. One wonders how the book might have arrived at an alternative conclusion if Lepore had chosen to pursue in her final pages not a protracted dissection of Donald Trump’s 2016 election but a different powerful happening from that year: the gatherings at Standing Rock. Oceti Sakowin community members and allies from many tribal and global communities convened to protect the waters around Mni Sose (the Missouri River) from being crossed by the Dakota Access Pipeline. The movement shone a bright light on a deep history of American colonialism that manifests far more continuity than difference across US presidential administrations.
These Truths is a missed opportunity on many levels. It loses sight of longer-term trajectories, structures, patterns, and mentalities that have shaped America over multiple centuries. It evinces the blinkered conclusions that can arise from a position of security, status, and privilege. It may well find its way into classrooms. If it does, I hope that educators will critically contextualize its claims. They might juxtapose it with Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians, which notes that the “ways in which Indian history has intersected with yet often run counter to histories of other Americans” demonstrate how “U.S. citizenship, political equality, and individual rights are not natural virtues coveted by all but have a long history of contestation.” Or as Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, has put it: “Writing US history from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual national narrative.”
Reckoning with These Truths has led me to ruminate on what alternative accountings and timelines of American history can look like. A few weeks ago, I attended a land acknowledgment event outside of Chicago’s monumental Field Museum. The museum originated with the 1893 World’s Fair and still contains many of the indigenous objects from that exposition. Museum staff have recently launched a comprehensive reconceptualization of the Native American exhibitions to more accurately reflect specific tribal histories as well as connections to present-day indigenous communities. My colleague Doug Kiel, an Oneida historian at Northwestern University involved in the project, remarked that the revamped exhibitions would assist visitors, “maybe for the first time, to realize that there is another layer of Chicago’s history that they are completely unfamiliar with.”
The acknowledgment included dedication of an interpretive placard describing the long history of the place known as Shikakw’a, “the traditional homelands of the Three Fires Confederacy: Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi.” As the assembled crowd stood in the cold, we could see Chicago’s skyline, including Trump Tower, which was too small to give much notice from this distance.
Christine DeLucia is a historian at Mount Holyoke College and will soon be joining the faculty at Williams College. She is the author of Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast.
LARB Staff Recommendations
D. Berton Emerson on Carrie Tirado Bramen’s “American Niceness: A Cultural History”...
A gorgeous photo album of America’s unvisited places of its troubled past....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.