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Historian’s book wins prestigious award

April 18, 2007

A pioneering study of the critical role that violence played in shaping the United States has won Ned Blackhawk, associate professor of history and American Indian studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, the Organization of American Historians‘ (OAH) Frederick Jackson Turner Award.

The book, “Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West” (Harvard University Press, 2006), looks at the effects of violence on Native peoples and the hand that those communities took in creating the country, especially its western regions.

In pre-reservation days, roughly until the end of the 19th century, Great Basin Indians like Blackhawk’s family increasingly found themselves enmeshed in the politics and ensuing carnage of European expansion. It was commerce, driven in part by slave power, that forged the Spanish colonies, he says.

“Consequently, for many Indians, violence became a necessary survival strategy,” he says. Not surprisingly, then, violent encounters were pretty much part and parcel of everyday life in the Old West.

For the scholar, it also provides “the clearest and, at times, only window” into how Europeans altered the landscape. Indeed, violent encounters themselves frequently changed both topography and boundaries. By way of example, he cites the oldest permanent colony in North America, New Mexico, which often found itself besieged by equestrian Indians.

Representatives of empire-making countries — Spain, France, England, Russia and eventually the United States — rolled over Native populations of the American West in a bitter contest for the control of property and natural resources of the region, justifying colonial greed and aggression on racial and cultural grounds. Blackhawk notes that the collapse in the 1840s of the fur trade, whereby Native peoples had traded with whites, and the ensuing gold and silver rushes in the 19th century lurched Indian communities into the capitalist economies, rendering Native peoples beholden to the European settlers for goods such as food and weapons.

For Blackhawk the study was personal: “In the book’s introduction and epilogue I relate how my own family’s history is tied to the American Great Basin region. Indian history is no mere curiosity or sideshow in the drama of the American past. The two remain interwoven. North America was already inhabited when the Europeans arrived,” he says.

In the last analysis, Blackhawk says that the shaping of what is now New Mexico, Utah, Idaho, Colorado, Nevada and eastern California is much more complicated than previously thought.

“I think it’s extremely important to recognize the depth of our multicultural past. The oldest continuously occupied communities in our nation are Pueblo Indian villages in New Mexico. The earliest explorers on the American continent spoke Spanish, not English. The oldest colonies in North America were also Spanish. The nature of our national past is tied to many Indian as well as imperial powers. Our current debates about nationalism must recognize the numerous communities that have considered America their home,” he says.

Blackhawk has started another book on American history.

“Very few books adequately synthesize our nation’s Indian past, and I’d like to try to offer an interpretative overview of this area, my primary field of specialization,” he says. “I will focus particularly on the fascinating relationships in being both Indian and American. I believe that conjoining those two powerful adjectives — ‘Indian’ and ‘American’ — will yield lasting analytical insights.”

Tentatively titled “America’s Indigenous Nations,” a draft of the book will be ready in the next few years.

The Turner Award is named for the University of Wisconsin professor Frederick Jackson Turner. His highly influential “frontier thesis” stated, “The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward explain American development.” The award carries a $1,000 prize.