The recent ascendency of American Indian history has reconfigured the framework of American history and confirmed the enduring historiographical truth that narratives of the past undergo constant revision. New paradigms, temporalities, methods, as well as Indigenous actors have emerged, not only recentering the narrative of America and its history but also questioning its previous forms and habits. Native American history has moved, in short, from the margins to the center of national as well as global historical inquiry and has fueled, as well as been fueled by, the interdisciplinary rise of Indigenous and settler colonial studies.
Translating such scholarly transformations into navigable syllabi, coherent lectures, and effective assignments remains a challenge. Staying conversant in the deepening historiographies of Native North America is daunting; trying to enter into, let alone engage, the myriad of fast-paced debates ranging across this burgeoning field can be equally imposing. From Alaska to the Caribbean and from Greenland to Polynesia, Native American history ranges far and wide with unparalleled depth and time.
Recognizing that accounts of America's past have overwhelmingly begun with Europeans provides a path of entry into the contested discursive terrain that characterizes our continent's past. That American historians once framed their history in such exclusionary form enables us now, in the twenty-first century, to see our nation's intellectual history in more capacious and sobering terms. Such recognition similarly invites us to attempt to reconcile those current visions with others, particularly those that either relegate Native peoples outside the boundaries of American history or include Indigenous peoples in problematic and biased form. From such assessment, one might conclude that a defining feature of twenty-first-century American historiography so far has been an unprecedented confrontation, if not reckoning, with America's Indigenous past. (1)
Of all the areas of American history that now stands transformed due to Indigenous history, the study of the Columbian encounter has generated some of the most seismic recalibrations. Studies of demography, the environment, literary history, linguistics, archaeology, and Spanish colonization, among others, have helped to dislodge English colonization from the bedrock of North American history, exploding U.S. history not only in time and space but also conceptually and methodologically. (2)
For those coming to the field with varying levels of familiarity, such insights have also established an enduring pedagogical heuristic—the Columbian Exchange—one whose flexibility and durability remain among its defining features. Drawing from the demographer Alfred Crosby's classic study, such analyses have garnered mass public appeal in the works of scholars such as Jared Diamond, Jack Weatherford, and Charles Mann, among others. The paradigm of the Columbian Exchange has in many ways become the interpretive sediment for the post–1492 world, one whose connective tissue links borderlands, early American, environmental, Atlantic world, and Native American histories, while often bridging precolonial African, early modern European, and international history. (3)
The idea of the Columbian Exchange is of course nothing new. For centuries, narratives of Christopher Columbus's voyages fueled interpretive debates and wild speculation. What Crosby and other historical demographers established beyond debate are the sobering, mind-shattering biological implications arising from the Columbian encounter. In terms not only of population losses in the Americas but also resource contributions to global economies and demographics, the Columbian Exchange inaugurated the modern world system. Its impacts upon Asian crop rotations, European economies and migratory streams, African diets, and above all Native American demography had previously been unrecognized.
Over time, such insights have combined with other historiographical currents to emphasize the essential contributions of Native peoples to the making of global societies and also the dialectic and mutually constitutive nature of such processes. The Native American holocaust and the rise of European empires now increasingly remain conjoined subjects. The “darker side of the Renaissance” deepens century-old European metaphors of renewal and rebirth with death, disease, as well as enslavement across Native American homelands and the emergent Atlantic world. (4)
For those teaching such subjects, emphasizing the structural as well as individual dimensions to these processes enables students to see the global within the local, to grasp the most massive of transformations within select biographies. For example, far from being lone, intrepid, or singular individuals—to be either celebrated or demonized—Columbus and subsequent Spanish explorers now appear as actors in a much less coherent as well as a less celebratory pageant, an unfolding tragedy of still undetermined proportions. And, while painfully diseased and impacted, Native communities and leaders remain central participants within an emergent colonial maelstrom, survivors for whom the stakes of colonial encounters supersede those of European settlers.
If demographics, epidemics, and mineral flows characterize one dimension of the Columbian Exchange, linguistic and literary histories have helped to frame another. Partly due to the prodigious nature of exploration reports, missionary activities, and the challenges of colonial governance, scholars have richly probed a nearly infinite range of historical subjects emerging in the post-Columbian world. From the changing social histories of Native language speakers to the emergence of polyglot maroon communities, scholars have established a growing, transnational literary history that often transcends “national” fields of study, such as English or Spanish.
Tzvetan Todorov's The Conquest of America remains one of the most self-consciously literary interpretations of the Columbian encounter, and teaching it provides instructive insights as well as limits into current approaches to understanding the post–1492 world. Todorov revisits the violent ethnocentricism of Columbus and early Spanish conquistadors. Partly a modern addition to the centuries old “black legend” of European repudiations of Spain's mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, Todorov's project aims to identify the first decades of Spanish colonization as the ur-colonial encounter, an unprecedented cultural, moral, and intellectual crucible. (5)
Resonating across many postwar philosophical circles grappling with the genocidal truths of World War II, Todorov locates the makings of a European “culture of genocide” in the Columbian encounter and within the moral transformations from late medieval Christian theology to post-Columbian imperial subjectivity. For Columbus, religious imperatives above all fueled and legitimated the violent expansion of Christendom, outweighing individual material as well as monarchical ambitions. For Todorov, not only did subsequent Spanish conquistadors, most notably Hernán Cortés, develop more economically centered, proto-capitalist ideals of resource extraction that transcended such religiosity, but they also represented the makings of “modern” imperial governance where economic and individual ambitions to exploit Indigenous and enslaved peoples triumphed over religious and cultural goals.
Moreover, for Todorov, essential tactics of global colonialism emerged within this post-Columbian era. The initial enslavement of Arawak and Taíno peoples in the Caribbean prefigured subsequent forms of Atlantic slavery; the wide-scale, senseless attacks on Indigenous peoples across the Caribbean and Mesoamerica commenced the first chapters of genocide in the Americas; and, notably, the manipulation of signs and purported superiority of European communication structured the Spanish conquest. For Todorov, alphabetism more so than metal weaponry keyed Cortés's triumph, a semiotic dominance that confirmed the cultural, religious, and racial superiority of Europe. Spain's evolving knowledge of its expanding imperial sphere and its ability to transmit information across and within its growing realm enabled a knowable and controllable empire. (See Figures 1, ;2, and ;3.)
Todorov's vision of knowledge production and control as central attributes of the Columbian Exchange reflected a linguistic turn in philosophical circles, a commitment to textual interpretations as opposed to archival investigations. And, while numerous scholars have continued to profitably explore such discursive practices, those investigating specific Native communities undergoing the monumental transformations European expansion wrought have identified continuities in Indigenous social organization, forms of Indigenous literacy, as well as transatlantic influences between Native peoples and Europeans. (6)
As with many emergent historiographies, strong arguments but, at times, limited empiricism characterized some of the early works of the Columbian Exchange. Crosby and demographers debated, often wildly, the range of Native American population losses; Todorov and others examined the semiotic and textual implications and did so with often problematic assumptions about Native American literacy; and numerous scholars continued to ask similar, if disconnected, questions about the ultimate meanings of this most influential subject.
By the time of the Columbian quincentenary in 1992, 1492 had yet to robustly enter into the U.S. historiographical vernacular. Twenty years after, historians continue to work to adjust its insights with the more familiar subfields of U.S. history. Such tasks of synthesis and incorporation will continue, and such efforts may move slowly, especially as dominant cultural ideas about Native American historical marginality or invisibility pervade so many realms of North American popular culture. (7)
Several ongoing avenues of research provide valuable insights as well as connections with other streams of Native American historiography. Notably, numerous scholars have probed archival records about, as well as produced by, Native peoples across imperial realms, interpreting the decisions, actions, and struggles confronting Indigenous peoples within the colonial sphere. Many similarly work to expand the parameters of what constitutes a potential archive and have creatively triangulated oral histories and ethnographic and archaeological findings with colonial source materials. Scholars now work assiduously to detail the social history of Native peoples within the post–Columbian world and also labor to broaden the terms of colonial records. Both streams of investigation challenge and reorientate the often totalizing vision of the Columbian Exchange offered by Crosby and Todorov, where Indigenous peoples rarely act or determine the course of colonial encounters and where structures of European influence seemingly confirm implicit assumptions about historical inevitability.
Indigenous people powerfully shaped the emergent colonial sphere as well as maintained forms of authority, knowledge, and sociality throughout the colonial era. In central Mexico, Nahuatl-speaking communities utilized Spanish courts to adjudicate their grievances, blended Spanish and Nahuatl into new documentary, textual practices, and maintained forms of communal organization and governance known as the altepetl for centuries. Despite the burning of Indigenous archives and texts by Spanish religious leaders, scholars now probe the surviving codices produced by Mesoamerican societies while others learn the philology of the emergent Nahautl, Mixtec, and Zapotec writing systems, among others. Such investigations fundamentally challenge Todorov's assertions about the supremacy of European semiotic systems as well as the long-standing historiographic assumption that Europeans encountered Native peoples who lacked both history and writing. (8)
In North America, similar investigations have illustrated continuities in pre-Columbian documentary practices, social organizations, and Indigenous governance, collectively portraying a continent that remained well under the control of Indigenous peoples into the nineteenth century. While powerfully reshaped by European diseases, economies, and technologies, Native peoples controlled North America's interior, often determining the nature as well as limits of colonial influence outside of the immediate areas of European settlement. The Iroquois Confederacy in the Northeast, the Algonquian-speaking alliances of the Great Lakes, and the equestrian powers across the Plains are just a few examples of enduring Indigenous powers. Spanish as well as later French explorers, for example, had traveled the western tributaries of the Mississippi River as early as the 1500s and famously battled each other (with their Native auxiliaries) in 1720 near the Loup River in present-day Nebraska. As the historian Michael Witgen has similarly emphasized in the western Great Lakes, such centuries of imperial encounter are by no means equivalent with imperial control, as much of North America remained geographically chartered by Europeans, but unincorporated territories, regions governed and controlled by Native peoples well into the nineteenth century. (9) (See Figure 4.)
To revisit and teach the Columbian Exchange requires attention to such enduring forms of Indigenous authority. While unprecedentedly devastated by waves of European pathogens, land expropriations, warfare, and religious impositions, Indigenous communities across America's many colonial spheres adapted to the challenges of colonialism's onslaught by drawing upon familiar as well as new logics. Just as American foods, minerals, and land fueled the emergent Atlantic world, so too did Indigenous communities shape the contours of imperial expansion. Particularly in North America, forms of Indigenous autonomy continued throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, influencing the evolving structures of settler colonial governance. As the American nation-state inherited the imperial lands and claims of England, Spain, France, and eventually Russia, its interactions would be framed by the imperial and Indigenous conventions established in the colonial era. Treaties and federal patterns of diplomacy bound the new nation with the continent's oldest confederations and peoples. (10) (See Figure 5.)