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Peoples of Agency or Victim-hood?: Africans and Indians

Are you captain of your fate, master of your destiny?

Are you a victim of your hyphen?

Way back in September, The New York Times had on the front page of its Arts section, an article entitled, “Book Aims to Recast the Native Narrative: A Finnish historian argues against the American trope of the ‘doomed Indian.’”

That provocative title was for the just published book Indigenous Continent: The Epic Contest for North America by Pekka Hämäläinen, University of Oxford. The goal of the book is to transform the story of the four-hundred years war between Europeans and Americans versus Indians from one where the latter are victims to one where they powerful actors who profoundly shaped the course of events.

Hämäläinen’s goal is to re-envision the American grand narrative at least for the early years. According to the article, his “first book, “The Comanche Empire,” offered an exhaustively researched and strikingly new interpretation of the nomadic group that dominated the Southwest from about 1750 to 1850 (and Hollywood westerns for much of the 20th century), but remained relatively unstudied by scholars.”

To do so, he drew on his own books on the Lakota and Comanche including “hoof-pounding accounts of battles on horseback.”

Hämäläinen, notes the importance of Haudenosaunee not for their encounters with Europeans to the east as is typically done but with Indian nations to the west. “The Haudenosaunee launched assaults on neighboring groups, absorbing some but pushing others to the West in what he provocatively calls ‘the first large-scale westward expansion in early American history.’” Hämäläinen, states “Iroquois went to war to make other people Iroquois.”

Hämäläinen,’s previous books on the Comanche and the Lakota included the characterization of those nations as aggressively expansionist power who themselves pushed aside other peoples and often dominated European settlers.

The separate book review in The New York Times on the same book lauds it. The review states “(o)ne of his recurring themes is how limited the Europeans were in their range of action. Essentially, the English, French, and Spanish did nothing without the approval from one or another Native American tribe or confederation.” The Sioux expanded westward with the combination of musket and horse. They became a superpower dominating the Upper Mississippi Valley. The Comanche did the same in the Southwest. Everything changed with the discovery of gold. It brought people, trains, and the rifle which were deadly to the buffalo, the Sioux, and any local people who were in their way.

A precursor appeared in the article “The Shape of Power: Indians, Europeans, and North American Worlds from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century” in Contested Spaces of Early America (2014). In that article, Hämäläien bemoans the atomization of history with tightly focused monographs and the loss of continental vision for curiously one dimensional history. Interestingly, Hämäläien suggests a single master narrative for early American history “is irrevocably in the past.” The implication is that a master narrative for American history folly.

He states that “Indians held sway over much of the continental interior during the so-called colonial era” lasting until the late 19th century. The Apaches and Comanche on the short-grass plains relied on raiding and nomadic mobility to protect them and to expand their territories into regions claimed by Spain. The Comanche, who were not indigenous to the Southwest, relied on overpowering equestrian mobility in a five-decade war with the Apache. The Apache then retreated to into southern Texas and northern Mexico where they were not indigenous either.

The Lakota, too, expanded westward and southwestward. Guns and horses gave them an edge over village farmers and hunter nomads into the plains.

A century before the American Revolution, the Iroquois was the dominant territorial power in the eastern woodlands. Along with the Comanche and Lakota, they carved out vast domains by projecting overwhelming violence.  The famed Covenant Chain with the English “bestowed the Iroquois with unparalleled political clout, which they leveraged on other fronts to pacify their borders and reduce their rivals to security buffers. Their war parties ranged from the Ottawa Valley to the Upper Great Lakes and the Carolina Piedmont. The unity of their multi-ethnic tribal confederacy was maintained through councils.

One should distinguish between French maps extending west of the Mississippi and the reality of multiple confederations and nations boxing France in.

Overall, colonial control was limited to relatively small coastal and riverine outposts. The great interior remained closed to the European settlement. Much of North America remained unknown to Europeans in the 1760s. As late as he 1780s more than three quarters of the continent was outside European/American control. A book reviewer of Lakota America A New History of Indigenous Power wrote “as Meriwether Lewis and William Clark discovered, the Missouri River valley was in actuality Lakota, not United States territory” which is not how their expedition is taught (American Historical Review March 2021:6).

The Iroquois, Comanche, and Lakota were all the beneficiaries of geography. They were removed from the colonial rim of European without being isolated from it. They all were adaptive of new technologies and to the changes from European settlement.

The purpose here is not to review the entire scholarship of Hämäläien or even to judge it. Instead it is to note it as an alternative voice to the traditional views of Indians as two-dimensional beings, either as victims or as woke. As Hämäläien portrays them, there is a story to be told in the centuries from Pocahontas to Geronimo over control of the land. Although the level of violence has decreased today, we can see that there are many unresolved issues regarding land and the relationship of Indian nations to the American nation.


Reading these articles about Indian agency in the United States made me think of the issue of African agency expressed in “Africa’s Revolutionary Nineteenth Century and the Idea of the ‘Scramble’” by Richard Reed (AHR 126:4, 2021). The article covers the period mainly from the 1870s through World War I in Africa. The “Scramble” refers to the European carving up the continent into colonial possessions that lasted until the 1950s and later. Indeed, many of the headlines about crises in Africa today derive from the artificial boundaries created by European powers roughly 150 years ago. Interestingly, by chance or design, the word “scramble” was just used in a newspaper article about the current African conference in Washington to describe the actions of Russia, China, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and the United States (“Biden Is Bringing Africa’s Leaders to Washington, Hoping to Make Deals,” NYT 12/12/22 print).

Reed’s goal is not to diminish or deny the “brutal efficiency” by the Europeans. Instead his goal is to recognize that Africans themselves already had initiated a partition and thorough going reformation of Africa long before the Europeans intervened. In other words, the Scramble did not occur in a vacuum.

Reed takes his discipline to task. He claims that historians of empire and imperialism rarely converse with their Africanist colleagues. He states that interest in the Scramble has declined markedly while decolonization has become much more fashionable. He provocatively asks why Ethiopia survived the Scramble as an independent state.

In effect, Reed posits that the 1870s-1880s has become a chronological cutoff point for scholars studying Africa. A rupture occurred then that segregated African history prior to the Scramble. He asserts the need to recognize that “the deleterious effects of the slave trade does not preclude acknowledging that African agency was extraordinarily important in shaping the Atlantic world on both sides of the ocean. “ Furthermore, there were a “multitude of African societies and cultures engaged in the slave trade with vigor, leading to some of the most remarkable, enduring, and globally connected political systems anywhere on the continent, or indeed anywhere at all.”

Reed champions what the Africans were achieving on their own independent of and prior to the Scramble. He writes:

In practical terms, the partition can only be understood as an Afro-European affair: African agency was not simply supportive of but essential to empire-building projects designed in European capitals.    

Rather than focus on the traditional idea of European advantage in military technology at the end of the 19th century, Reed suggests “the Scramble was only made possible through a concoction of local alliances and a generous dollop of good fortune.” There was European imperialism and African imperialism. Reed examines the role of different entities within Africa and the growing importance of the Indian Ocean exchange networks.

For Reed, “Africans rather than foreigners were the primary agents of change over a somewhat longer durée than the conventional time frame that the Scramble itself allows.” He thinks “an increasingly presentist interpretation of the continent’s ‘condition’” has led to the African achievements of the dramatic nineteenth century to be overlooked:

The long nineteenth century, a remarkably transformative episode in Africa’s modern history, would in time become lost in transition.

I don’t know what Reed’s standing is within the academic community but he did get his article published in the peer-reviewed journal of the American Historical Association.

By coincidence, I happen to be reading the book Wretched Kush: Ethnic Identities and Boundaries in Egypt’s Nubian Empire by Stuart Tyson Smith. “Wretched” is the identifier the ancient Egyptians routinely used when referring to Nubians. Smith writes about Egyptian imperialism: “This classical model of core dominance and peripheral domination downplays native agency.” What has changed?


Just because bad things happen to a people does not mean they should be defined by their victimhood. I doubt that will happen to Ukrainians. It did not happen to Armenians. It has not happened to Jews who are facing a new round of assaults in the United States.

One of the differences is that Ukrainians, Armenians, and Jews are specific peoples. By contrast, Indians and Africans frequently are thought of continentally, meaning you’ve seen one of them you seen them all. Europeans are thought of as individual peoples. They have their own names. They have their own flags. They have their own World Cup teams. They know about their role in the slave trade. This suggests that potentially, African nations can be thought of as separate entities with their own story to tell.

For Indians, the road is much more difficult. Of course, they have their own names. Of course they have their own histories which includes rivalries amongst themselves. The traditional view that their story begins with the arrival of the European is simply untrue. But to make the switch from lumping all Indians together as “”Indigenous” to they are peoples each with their own name and history will be a challenge. To do so requires recognizing that they had agency and should not be defined by victimhood.

New York State Indian Paths through History

Indian Nations in New York (Wikipedia)

The diminished status of local and state history in New York extends to the first human settlers here as well. First contact between the European colonists and the Indian Nation inhabitants famously begins with Henry Hudson sailing the river the river that flows both ways that now bears his name. Over the course of the next two centuries, from the Hudson to the Erie Canal, the Indian Nations played an important role in the history of the colony and the state. By the time James Fenimore Cooper wrote The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757 first published in 1826, that world had vanished: the Canal was completed, New Yorkers had forgotten about the Oneida Nation’s participation in the American Revolution as our allies, and William Johnson had been dead for decades. As one might sing/ask at the end of a musical, “Who will tell their/our story?”

Nearly two centuries later, the Indian Nations are still here. They exist in a vastly different environment and are probably best known for their casinos. They still are viewed as two-dimensional beings although since values have changed sometimes that makes them superior beings as one with nature instead of savages antithetical to civilized beings. Perhaps one day they will become three dimensional and not the victim of stereotypes.

At the annual conference of the Association of Public Historians on New York State (APHNYS) last September in Liverpool, I chose to participate in the field excursion to the nearby Skanonh Lodge Great Law Peace Center. It is part of the Onondaga Nation, the tribe that was at the geographical center of the Haudenosaunee people. Similar centers exist along the Mohawk Valley for other members of the confederation.

During the tour, I asked our tour leader, who is a reader of my posts, about the collaborative efforts with the other facilities. Unfortunately, his reply was negative. Each facility does its own thing.

During past Teacherhostels/Historyhostels, we have visited various sites in the eastern half of the Mohawk Valley related to the Haudenosaunee:

Fenimore Art/Farmers’ Museum
Indian Castle Church
Iroquois Museum
Johnson Hall State Historic Site
Old Fort Johnson
Old Stone Fort
Shrine of Our Lady of Martyrs.

The extension to the western half never materialized. I did scout out the Oriskany Battlefield and Fort Stanwix but never put the pieces together for a program.

Last January, I was an invited guest of the Oneida Nation to participate in workshop at Turning Stone Resort. The purpose of the meeting was to help prepare a grant application to the NEH to produce a documentary on the very Battle of Oriskany. By further coincidence. I previously had been contacted by the Oneida County Historical Society in partnership with the National Park Service which manages the sites of Oriskany and Fort Stanwix (in Rome) about being involved in planning for the 240th anniversary in 2017. I suggested that they along with the New York State site in Little Falls for General Nicholas Herkimer be invited to the Oneida program which they were. Herkimer had bled to death from injuries sustained in the battle. The American general was part of the Palatine settlement in the Mohawk Valley. These Germans too are a forgotten part of American history. By coincidence, the Oneida are popular performers in Germany but the connection with the Palatines in the Mohawk Valley has not been developed.

In a recent newsletter from HISTORIC LEWISTON NEWS, there was an announcement about an upcoming lecture by Neil Patterson, Sr., Tuscarora Council, on “Little Known Facts in Tuscarora History.” The description of the talk is:

Much of the local Tuscarora history has been written by white people, with little or no input from the Tuscaroras.  As in any culture, Native American oral traditions run deep and are sometimes reluctantly shared.

The speaker is from the Sand Turtle Clan and a member of the governing Tuscarora Council.  He worked as a consultant during the construction of the new Tuscarora Nation House. He has been the coordinator of the Tuscarora Nation Picnic & Field Days for over 30 years.  In 2009, he began a four-year collaboration with the Historical Association of Lewiston and the Village and Town of Lewiston to complete the Tuscarora Heroes Monument in time to commemorate the 200th Anniversary of the heroic actions by Nation in saving the lives of local Lewiston settlers.

So here we have an example of another new facility on behalf of one of the Haudenosaunee nations.

I have not been to Ganondagan, the Seneca site near Rochester.

I am not familiar with the Seneca-Iroquois National Museum in Salamanca.

The places mentioned here are not meant to be exhaustive. They suggest the geographic range of possibilities in constructing a Haudenosaunee Path through History in the event anyone should want to do so. The list does not include museums in New York City and Albany which also tell the story.

I would be remiss in this post if I did not mention the North Country. Besides the Fort William Henry, we had the opportunity in a Teacherhostel/Historyhostel to hear Rick Salazar, an Abenaki storyteller, talk with us on Mount Defiance near Fort Ticonderoga.  As he was talking a storm moved across Lake Champlain. It was possible to see the comparatively sharp lines between the storm and the sunlight as it traversed the lake. There were moments when we could see sunlight on either side of the storm. It was truly a wondrous sight as it quickly passed. The scene provided a perfect venue to hear about the Abenaki culture. Naturally, I claimed to have arranged for this special effect as part of the program and for no additional charge. I don’t think anyone believed me.

Finally, the Iroquois and the Women’s Right movement were part of the discussion in the plenary address of Sally Roesch Wagner at the second Women’s Suffrage Centennial Conference. In response to my recent post on that conference, Doug George-Kanentiio, a member of the Mohawk Nation, author of Iroquois Culture and Commentary, and vice president of the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge, sent me an article from the Washington Post on that subject. Doug periodically sends me emails in response to my blogs. One was an educator’s guide to the Sullivan-Clinton campaign prepared by Robert Spiegelman. I confess that I don’t know what the status is in the new k-12 social studies guidelines for teaching that campaign. But just as 2017 marks the 240th anniversary of the Battle of Oriskany so 2019 will mark the 240th anniversary of the Sullivan-Clinton campaign. These are opportunities to create culturally enriching programs that bring people to the actual locations of where people in history lived and events occurred and to hear about them in mentally-challenging ways which stimulate thinking.

I regret not having visited the Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge in Syracuse when I attended the APHNYS conference in nearby Liverpool. According to its website:

The Hiawatha Institute for Indigenous Knowledge (HIIK) was established on February 19, 2011. The Institute is the fulfillment of a dream first envisioned by the Oneida leader Shenandoah 200 years ago: his wish was to provide a place of learning where the essence of Native knowledge would be shared with the world in a school of higher learning.

A group of contemporary scholars, educators and community leaders have renewed the vision. The group consisted of delegates from the member nations of the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations Iroquois) Confederacy…They were there to do what they could to preserve the culture and traditions of the Haudenosaunee as distinct Native peoples while making available specific instances of our ancestral knowledge to anyone who has a desire to live in harmony with the earth by protecting the rights of those yet to be born onto the seventh generation. Named after one of the creators of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy over 800 years ago, the HIIK will work in partnership with Syracuse University to offer degrees…from a distinct Native perspective in an inclusive curriculum designed by aboriginal knowledge keepers and unique among all institutions of higher learning in North America.

As you can see from this post so far, there are a lot of opportunities and a lot of pieces to be put together to create Haudenosaunee Paths through History. Back then Palatines, Dutch, French, and English weren’t just white people, they were different tribes and nations in their own right; the same applies to the various Indian Nations that are lumped together today. The story of William Johnson attempting to keep the peace among a vast multitude of differentiated peoples is part of the story of New York and American history. The story of James Fenimore Cooper writing when New York had become the Empire State and Johnson’s world was barely a memory also is part of the story of New York and American history. While no venue exists to bring the players together, while there is no leadership from the state, and while there is no funding, one still can envision the possibilities of creating Haudenosaunee Paths through History despite the obstacles to doing so.