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Violence and Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS)

OHERO:KON - UNDER THE HUSK which follows two Mohawk girls on their journey to become women. Together, they undertake a four-year rite of passage for adolescents, called Oheró:kon, or “under the husk.” (Women Make Movies) do they look like Man Eaters?

This blog continues the examination of the American Historical Review (AHR) Exchange on the topic of historians and Native American and Indigenous Studies. The exchange began due to the coincidence of AHR receiving two related books:

Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks
Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast by Christine M. DeLucia

AHR decided to use the serendipity to propose a “bundled ‘feature’ review” that addresses methodological developments in the NAIS field. The search for a reviewer led to David Silverman (George Washington University) for his expertise in violent conflicts, a seemingly sensible decision since the two books were about a single war.

The results surprised the AHR staff. They decided rather than just wait for angry letters to the editor in response to the review, they would reach out to some of the people likely to write such letters and give them a chance to participate in a formally designated exchange. The general comments related to methodology and the NAISA organization were covered in the first blog (Native American and Indigenous Studies: Another Culture Wars Episode). Here I wish to focus on one aspect of the history of the war itself: violence.

Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War by Lisa Brooks

David J. Silverman

Silverman comments on many facets of Brooks’s book in addition to violence. The purpose of the blog is not regurgitate everything he included in his review. Instead it is to focus on the specific points of contention meaning the treatment of violence.

1. Brooks also adopts a perspective common in descendant communities that Native people in the seventeenth-century New England were adverse to violence. 

Following this blanket assertion, Silverman provides some specifics.

2. She contends that Natives in seventeenth-century New England could not have conceived of the kind of large-scale, indiscriminate killing exhibited by the English in the Pequot War, even though the Haudenosaunees, with whom they were in regular contact, employed similarly bloody tactics against their Indigenous enemies in the eastern Great Lakes and in southern Ontario during the same period.

One thought which came to mind when reading this passage was did Silverman mean to suggest that Brooks was unaware of the Haudenosaunee actions or was she aware of them but didn’t think it applied to her New England Natives?

3. She suggests that Mohawk raids against the Nipmucs were for the purpose of “enforcing the protection and jurisdiction of their own Great Law.” She neglects to mention that New England Algonquians called these raiders “man eaters” and were terrified of them for good reason. [bold added]

Neglects because she didn’t know or neglects because she rejects the implication?

4. In Brooks’s telling, violent tribute-collecting raids by one community against another are not acts of extortion but expressions of love and kinship to restore balance to long-standing relationships.

I apologize but reading this phrase called to mind the recent “summer of love” that recently ended violently in Seattle. That experience skews the way I respond to these words.

5 For instance, she downplays a raid ordered by the Narragansett saunkskwa (or female sachem) Quaiapen against the Nipmuc community of Quantisset as little more than a fit by a “temperamental sister” made in a spirit of “love and kinship.” She disregards that the victims of these raids certainly did not see it that way, as their appeals for help to colonial authorities clearly demonstrate. She imagines the Wampanoag saunkskwa Weetamoo finding the presence of slaves in the English town of Newport to be strange, despite all we have learned over the last twenty years about the ubiquity of slavery and the debasement of captives in historic Native America. [Bold added]

These verbs paint a poor picture of the scholarship regardless of all the praises heaped on her for other parts of the book. It also raises the issue of what happens when one politically-correct people encounters another politically-correct people and the result is violence and/or slavery. Speaking as an outsider to this time period who has only this Exchange to rely on, it is easy for me to understand why someone would choose to downplay, disregard, and neglect it.

6. Brooks addresses how the Wampanoag Harvard scholar Joel Iacoomes died in a shipwreck on Nantucket while on his way back to Martha’s Vineyard, but her discussion neglects to mention that Nantucket Wampanoags murdered and robbed him and his English crewmates after they made it to shore. Brooks likewise interprets cases in which Native gunmen missing their English targets in battle during King Philip’s War were actually deliberate attempts to strike fear and sow chaos but not kill. She eschews that those same resistance fighters killed somewhere between eight hundred and three thousand English colonists during the war. In these cases and more, Brooks has abandoned basic standards for handling evidence to scrub the historical record and, I would contend, infantilize her historical subjects. [Bold added]

As Silverman describes it, he is accusing Brooks of systemic distortion presumably in preference of her political or cultural agenda.

7. When Brooks does mention Native violence, she often resorts to the passive voice, the same method used by previous generations of white historians to conceal colonial violence against Indigenous people…. Such formulations distance Brooks’s historical subjects from their actions.

If there is such a change in authorial voice [and I have no choice but to reply on Silverman here since I have not and do not intend to read the book], then that would suggest that Brooks knew what she was doing, meaning she glossed over, minimized, ignored that which was detrimental to her view of her people.

Silverman’s next criticism drives home this point quite forcefully.

8. Equally problematic are her speculative demonizations of the English…. The English certainly played plenty of “deed games”—and Brooks traces a number of them in exquisite detail—but that fact does not preclude the likelihood that Native people were organizing to resist them militarily. Indeed, I would contend that the two developments were of a piece. Multitribal uprisings like King Philip’s War took place in nearly every other corner of colonial America, as in Kieft’s War, the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, the Yamasee War, and Pontiac’s War. Yet Brooks concludes that New England Natives were uncommonly patient in their suffering while under even greater colonial pressure than their continental peers.

Silverman is fairly blunt in his criticisms of Brooks’s work. Paragraph after paragraph recounts one area after another where he claims her scholarship falls short.

9. Brooks’s understandable bile toward the English leads her to embellish and even misrepresent evidence.  He is referring to her account of the death of Weetamoo in 1676. It was thought to be a drowning whereas Brooks suggests foul play which was covered up. Silverman responds “It is one thing to pose questions to the evidence along these lines, but it is quite another to posit conclusions (however qualified) based on imagination, flawed evidence, and misrepresented evidence.” One shudders to think what would have happened if a grad student in Silverman’s seminar had chosen this incident for a term paper and handed this in. I suspect a student of his would know better.

10. Brooks also mischaracterizes the Native interpreter John Sassamon as part of an unwillingness to grapple with the complicated role of Christian Wampanoags in her story.

In his analysis, Silverman accuses Brooks of misunderstanding the meaning of the word “will” in this context, of the equivalent of blaming the mail deliverer for the bills a person receives, and failing to “grapple with scholarship that argues Wampanoags and Narragansetts sometimes sold land to acquire munitions and goods for diplomatic gifting as part of their organizing of a resistance movement to seize back that very land.” She has failed “to connect the dots” and as a result has concocted a bogus interpretation [my terms, not Silverman’s].

11. Downplaying Native violence, particularly intertribal violence, and emphasizing Native victimhood at the hands of unscrupulous colonists, points Brooks to a fundamentally new and, I would contend, unconvincing telling of the end of King Philip’s War.

Once again, Silverman is harshly critical of the way in which Brooks interprets the evidence. His depiction of her portrayal on the constant failure of Native peace entreaties rests on her false understanding of their actual traditions. The result is a characterization of “the Indigenous actors come off as guileless and remarkably slow to learn. Brooks pays little heed to the resistance fighters’ devastation of several colonial towns in the late spring and early summer of 1676 while they were supposedly waiting to negotiate.” One wonders why no one else in the review and award-granting process realized this or did they decide that the good points outweighed the bad.

12. Equally disappointing is that the historical context of intertribal violence is almost entirely missing from the end of the war.

Here Silverman contends that Brooks had difficulty dealing with the harsher aspects of intertribal violence. In effect, he poses the challenge of what scholars do when the option to demonize white people is removed. According to Silverman, “Brooks mentions in passing” a Mohawk strike force. “[S]he ignores ample documentary evidence” about the actions of the Mohawks raiders. She “downplays the numerous Wampanoags who switched sides late in the war and took up arms against their tribespeople.” Silverman concludes:

One of the uncomfortable, ugly truths about this period was that colonial victories in wars against Indigenous people almost always hinged on recruiting Native people to the colonial side against their beloved kin. Indeed, it was a basic feature of colonialism around the world.

The result is scholarship that produces significant achievements when Brooks “is more careful in handling evidence” than in these examples where she did not. Silverman ends his section of his review of Brooks’s book with: “The book’s serious flaws should not eclipse such breakthrough findings.”

My impression is that if Silverman had been one of the blind readers of Yale University Press, he would have called for revisions to address these 12 points. We will never know what would have happened if he had been. Similarly we will never know what the people who awarded prizes to the book thought about these points either.


Brooks did not participate in this AHR Exchange.

DeLucia’s response focuses on her own book.

Deloria and O’Brien respond to the comments about NAIS and not the specifics of Silverman’s review of the two books. In hindsight, this shows that the decision to combine the two books may have backfired. By so doing, Silverman detected a pattern which then led to a critique of NAIS. That automatically elevated the conflict from one about the scholarship of an individual to one about the scholarship of all people in the field. As a result, instead of addressing the specifics identified above, it became another episode in the culture wars.

Mt. Pleasant is the only one in the exchange who attempts to refute the accusations made by Silverman. This was not her first encounter with Silverman.

Since DeLucia offers an extended response to Silverman in this forum, I will limit my remarks to the review of Brooks’s study. While I do not bear responsibility for refuting the details of Silverman’s allegation that Brooks “abandoned basic standards for handling evidence to scrub the historical record and . . . infantilize her subjects,” given his misreading and misrepresentation of my own coauthored “Completing the Turn” essay, I spent an afternoon reviewing some of the serious allegations he makes about Our Beloved Kin.

So there is some history here among the participants.

One paragraph addresses the accusation of Brooks’s downplaying intertribal violence particularly involving the Mohawks.

Turning to the index, I quickly noted no less than five references to Mohawk raids.

She takes issue with Silverman’s understanding of Brook’s work.

Rather than downplaying the raid, as Silverman suggests, Brooks is interpreting missionaries’ goals for social, political, and economic transformation—goals that are highly gendered. Just as Brooks is attuned to Mohawk violence and its impact on tribal communities in New England, she is also careful to note and critique the gendered language used by missionaries (which is its own form of violence) in their descriptions of raids between tribal communities and Indian mission towns.

According to Mt. Pleasant, Silverman’s view is too limited and fails to encompass the broader perspective portrayed by Brooks.


In the case of Brooks, the greatest disadvantage is to fail to confront the depth of Indigenous violence and power politics in seventeenth-century New England. True enough, as Mt. Pleasant asserts, Brooks mentions Mohawk raids, but “raids” hardly conveys the terror and loss of life that those attacks inflicted on New England Algonquians. Brooks’s euphemistic framing of this violence as “spreading the Great Law” assuredly does not either….

To illustrate my criticism that Brooks downplays the violence of this attack, I should have used the full line in which Brooks writes that Quaiapen “sent warriors to reassert jurisdiction over them in ‘love’ and kinship, seeking to renew a longstanding commitment and demand the acknowledgement that ‘belonged’ to her within a framework of reciprocal relations.” These are but a few of several examples of Brooks softening or evading key historical issues that risk affronting modern Native people.


I have no additional information about King Philip’s War to add to this discussion. Also I have omitted the topic of Christianity. That is a topic of interest not for this instance alone but as part of a larger subject extending beyond the participants in this war to the broader question of religion such as with the Stockbridge Indians or the Haudenosaunee. As previously mentioned in the first blog, I have been exploring an event in 1685 in Town of Rye where I live. In backtracking the story to Angola, one becomes aware fairly quickly of the importance of Catholicism to the story. By the time of the 1685 incident, the King of Kongo had been Catholic for two centuries, a fairly long time. Thousands of people had been baptized and without any threat or gun held to their head by the Portuguese. It would be interesting to compare the developments in America and Africa during this time period on the role of western religion with Africans and Indians.

On the subject of violence, there is one quite dramatic point of convergence. When I read about the Mohawks as “man eaters” who terrified people, the Imbangala immediately came to mind. This African tribe literally did eat people. They were cannibals. The fierce warriors and their reputation as cannibals augmented their military prowess. As one scholar put it, the Imbangala’s  “reputation for carnage, cruelty, and cannibalism made enemies alike quake in terror.” Sometimes I think a novelist would be better suited to convey the feeling of terror that a people can generate than a scholar.

The Imbangala also provide an excellent way to broach the issue of intertribal violence. The Portuguese changed the game but they did not introduce violence into the Angolan world. In reading about the violence in Africa in the 1500s and 1600s, one also is reminded of the violence in Europe among white people at the same time. The Thirty Years War has an Angolan component as well which is easy to overlook. Despite the religious terminology of the combatants, there was a lot of good old-fashioned violence going on.

By coincidence, after I read the AHR Exchange, an item on one of the history lists I belong to lead to this news article:

Controversial Mohawk statue in Victor has new home

The monument honoring Chief Athasata, who took part in an attack against the Senecas, is now at Ganondagan where it will be displayed with historical context

VICTOR —A controversial metal and stone monument exalting the role of Mohawk Chief Athasata in a punitive 1657 attack against the Seneca nation has been toppled. Ganondagan State Historic Site representatives, and possible descendants of those who lost homes, lives and crops in the attack, were on hand to help bring the memorial down with the help of village public works employees. “The monument which honors Athasata, a Mohawk chief, who joined forces with the French General Denonville to destroy the Seneca village of Ganondagan, is certainly a controversial piece,” said Victor Historian Babette Huber.

“It has always been an affront to me, as a historian, because of its nature,” she said. “It is honoring an enemy of the Seneca Nation in the same place where New York State pays tribute to the capital of the Seneca Nation, Ganondagan, by being the only state historic site devoted to the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy and its message of peace.”

On one hand, this item demonstrates the longevity of oral tradition. On the other hand, it shows both intertribal violence and continuing animosity. The nearby bloody battle at Oriskany during the American Revolution with the Oneida and Seneca on opposite sites is another example.

The Imbangala also substantiate a comment made by Silverman which I repeat here.

One of the uncomfortable, ugly truths about this period was that colonial victories in wars against Indigenous people almost always hinged on recruiting Native people to the colonial side against their beloved kin. Indeed, it was a basic feature of colonialism around the world.

Without the cooperation of the African tribes themselves the Middle Passage at the scale that it occurred would not have been possible. The Imbangala rounded up people for sale from deep in the hinterlands where no white person had ever been. It was the equivalent of bringing people from Buffalo to New York for sale to the British to bring to Barbados. The truth of “sold from Africa” can be jarring to people who prefer “stolen from Africa.”

I have three final conclusions/observations

1. the difference between the scholarship on Africans versus Indians
2. the minimizing of human nature as a factor in scholarship
3. the unbridgeable divisions within the academic community.

In regard to the final point, I refer to the two published letters to the journal in response to this exchange.

[Silverman’s] statement reveals to me an astonishing lack of understanding of how colonialism works and hence a clear absence of empathy for the colonized. Silverman is asserting that whites and Native Americans engaged in violence. Further, he claims, Native people both committed acts of violence and were victimized by violence. In making these assertions, Silverman chooses to completely ignore who the invaders and aggressors were….

This letter-writer then attacks the legitimacy of the “purported” scholar Silverman.

The violence of the white settlers in King Philip’s War was the violence of the white colonizers, the exploiters of the land and the Native peoples. The violent responses by Natives were qualitatively different. They were seeking to defend their lands, their way of life, their very lives. If Silverman does not recognize this distinction, then he is refusing to confront the difference between the colonizer and the colonized. That is an enormous problem for someone who purports to be a scholar of Native American history in colonial New England.

The second letter directs its ire against both the AHR and Silverman, the latter for his ‘hostile polemic” and the former for its decision to publish it. Most of the letter addresses the issues about the NAIS covered in the first blog and I should have included it there. It does not directly address the charges made by Silverman against Brooks. Instead it focuses on the culture wars being waged today (without using that term) where Silverman is on the wrong side. One line was particularly intriguing:

[B]y giving such a prominent place to Silverman’s review, the AHR continued, perhaps unwittingly, to endorse the privileged and elitist conception of history that is driving the discipline’s decline.

One could also make the case that it is identity politics that is driving the discipline’s decline (ignoring the issue of the perceived lack of financial payoff for a history degree). In the present world where everyone is entitled to their own truth and people congregate with people of shared values including in the organizations they join, why would people, meaning students, want to take courses that marginalized or condemned them? The letter-writer claims that

Silverman’s review…serves only to short-circuit meaningful conversations with the diverse communities that the AHA and AHR claim to prioritize reaching.

By contrast, I would say we already are past the point when such conversations are possible. The AHR Exchange exposes that truth in scholarship just as the coronavirus has in politics. It doesn’t matter if Brooks or Silverman is right since they live in two different realities.