Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Uncomfortable History

Grappling with Western misdeeds does not require us turn indigenous tribes into pious exemplars of moral instruction.


A review of Indigenous Continent by Pekka Hämäläinen, 592 pages, Liveright (September 2022)

The Freudian concept known as “reaction formation” refers to a psychological defense mechanism against guilt. It occurs when an individual responds to a shame-inducing instinct with an overcorrection. Much of modern American history appears to be in the grip of reaction formation. Mortification at the developed West’s historical misdeeds has produced a utopian narrative of indigenous worlds typified by matriarchy, cooperation, pacifism, and gender fluidity. That no such world ever existed is beside the point; much of history is narrated to suit the proclivities of the audience, not to tell the truth about what actually happened.

This seems to be specifically true for our understanding of American Indian history. The violent migration of Europeans to the New World was very much like violent migrations throughout history and across cultures, most likely including successive waves of North American Indians (though the history there is murky). Yet instead of understanding these events in the context of larger historical patterns, the Indian Wars are cast as a morality tale in the manner of Howard Zinn, in which the actions of the European settlers are represented as uniquely reprehensible. This fantasy may be an inversion of past jingoistic and racist caricatures of American Indians as “savages,” but it is not more historically accurate.

I thought about this a lot as I read Pekka Hämäläinen’s fascinating and controversial new history of North American Indians, Indigenous Continent. Told largely from the perspective of the natives, Hämäläinen covers the centuries from the arrival of Europeans in North America through to the final subjugation of the last tribes in the late 19th century. It’s a gripping history, but watching the author attempt to come to terms with the history he is telling also makes for fascinating psychological analysis.

Hämäläinen is clearly sympathetic to the Indians. Indeed, the Europeans in his story tend to be portrayed as dirty, bumbling idiots who are repeatedly outwitted until, well, they’re not. Hämäläinen leans into this interpretation a bit much, and as a psychologist, I was as intrigued by how he grapples with history as much as the historical evidence. His sympathy for the Indians is evidently in tension with his unwillingness to distort the facts. For this, I admire him, since history is often distorted to suit the needs of political and academic elites of any given period. But the author’s attempts to square the historical facts with the moral lessons he hopes to impart leads him into contradiction and incoherence.


Leave a Reply