Ned Blackhawk redefines United States history through the lens of Natives


In preparation for an exhibit by the Historical Society of Greater Lansing, I’m doing a deep dive into immigration history. The exhibit, “Origin Stories: How You Got Here,” will tell how 50 Lansing residents, both past and present, came to the United States and ended up in the area. The exhibit opens in late April at the Library of Michigan and is part of a statewide grant program underwritten by the Michigan Humanities Council.

We at the society knew we would be remiss if we didn’t include an origin story from a Native point of view, since the first people to occupy the land were Native Americans.

The research got me thinking about my own family history. As a small child, maybe 6 years old, I remember driving with my maternal grandparents to visit my grandmother’s family in her hometown of Sault Ste. Marie. As we neared the end of that adventure, my grandmother casually mentioned, “You know, our family owned all of Sault Ste. Marie and the Soo,” the latter referring to the Canadian Sault Ste. Marie just north of the border.

I didn’t understand what she was talking about back then, but I understand more today. I can trace my maternal family’s history in Sault Ste. Marie back 10 generations. More than in theory, that extended family of aunts, uncles and cousins did “own” that region. They were descendants of the original Chippewa/Ojibwe tribe that was in that area as early as the 15th century.

As I grew through my teen years, I slowly learned more about my maternal grandmother’s heritage. No one ever talked about her family being Native American. Certainly, no one talked about how she and her three brothers were abducted and sent off to Indian boarding schools — my grandmother to a Catholic convent in the western Upper Peninsula and her three brothers to the Mount Pleasant Indian Industrial Boarding School.

The boarding school movement and Indian Removal Act, along with sham treaties and massacres, were the most egregious systemic processes used to take land from Native Americans. The 2023 movie “Killers of the Flower Moon” depicts another one of the violent schemes.

Yale University Professor Ned Blackhawk details these schemes in his most recent book, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History,” which won the 2023 National Book Award for Nonfiction and a 2024 Michigan Notable Book award. Blackhawk, a member of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians, grew up in Detroit and is the son of a poet and a rare book dealer.

In the first sentence of the book, Blackhawk asks, “How can a nation founded on the homelands of dispossessed Indigenous peoples be the world’s most exemplary democracy?” He then sets out to answer that question from the viewpoint of Native Americans.

In the introduction, he says the book aims to “rejuvenate U.S. history outside of the tropes of discourse that have bred exclusion.” Very early on, he dissects one of those tropes, “discovery,” which is an essential aspect of the American origin story we’re taught in school. Blackhawk changes “discovery” to “encounters” — encounters with Native peoples who lived in this country well before that “discovery” began.

Most of us have been taught American history from the viewpoint of peoples who came from outside its borders. Blackhawk’s book accomplishes the important goal of explaining Native history in the context of American history, making the case that American history and Native history are intertwined. He details treaty after treaty, which ultimately resulted in land grabbing and the termination of Native nations.

Blackhawk gives important recognition to Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, who was married to the region’s Indian agent.

Schoolcraft is considered one of the first Native American literary writers, and her work, which was originally in her native language of Ojibwe, according to Blackhawk, celebrates the “sweet delight” of the “inland seas.” However, she also writes about “the forces of colonialism.” Blackhawk quotes part of one of her poems, “Far from the haunts of men away / For here, there are no sordid fears, / No crimes, no misery, no tears / No pride of wealth; the heart to fill, / No laws to treat my people ill.”

Schoolcraft, like many Native American parents, had the terrible experience of sending her children to Indian boarding schools. By 1928, more than 40% of Native children had been snatched from their homes and sent off to distant boarding schools since the practice began, according to Blackhawk.

My grandmother never talked about the boarding school experience, and I doubt we would have ever learned about it if it weren’t for that fateful day when she discovered her brother Earl was alive and living in Louisiana. He had run away from the Mount Pleasant boarding school when he was 13 and hadn’t been heard from for more than 50 years. Blackhawk’s book adds important context to stories like these.


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