Revisiting Indigenous “Encounters” with Colonialism, Past and Present

Christine Delucia

“All people have a creation story, a narrative that explains their origins, sense of place, and uniqueness,” William Bauer writes in California Through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History. Such narratives are “not inert historical sources and interpretations. Rather they are living understandings of what happened in the past.”[1] The essays in this issue embody this dynamic quality of meaning-making. “Encounters” suggest interactions experienced for the first time, something novel being initiated, formative meetings across difference. Stories about encounters assert beginnings or points of transformation. As the authors here revisit relations among Indigenous people of North America, Africans, Europeans, and others who have come to this continent by choice or by force, they encourage us to rethink foundational matters of power and knowledge that remain timely, indeed urgent, in the twenty-first century.[2]

Historical anniversaries provide occasions for reassessing old narratives, and this issue of The American Historian participates in dialogues and transformations of understanding. Indigenous commentators have engaged critically with anniversaries for many generations, strategically using them to speak fuller, more accurate accounts of the past, and explain why experiences of past peoples continue to reverberate today. In 1992 Indigenous communities and sovereign nations, artists, critics, and scholars mounted responses to the Columbian Quincentenary. Challenging sanitized “New World” mythologies of Euro-colonial ascendancy, they instead focused on the ongoing costs of 1492 and all that followed. Their expressions stressed Indigenous communities’ survival of genocide and trauma and the continuance of identities, sovereignties, and futures.[3] The stakes of these commemorative interventions are not merely intellectual. This was horrifically evident in 2023 when an assailant opened gunfire on a peaceful gathering led by Indigenous people in Tewa Territory regarding proposed reinstallation of a statue honoring Spanish colonizer Juan de Oñate.[4] Violent encounters that harm Indigenous lives, and seek to undermine commitments to thriving and justice, are not artifacts of bygone centuries. They continue today.

With these stakes in view, the incisive reconsiderations of “encounters” in this issue orient us to important terrain for learning. Contributors locate Indigenous lives, experiences, and ways of knowing at the centers of their stories, rather than making Euro-colonial actors and worldviews the focal points or determining factors. They emphasize the dynamism of diverse Indigenous societies who have cared for and governed cherished homelands since time out of mind. These are strong correctives to Eurocentric perspectives that have long attempted to portray Indigenous people at moments of “contact” as static, all the same (monolithic and misnamed “Indians”), or without histories and political structures of their own.[5] As the pieces here show, European colonizers entered complex Indigenous societies and places.[6] Whether they recognized it or not, colonizers sailed, walked, and rode into Indigenous systems developed over thousands of years, including protocols for interacting with communities outside their immediate circles.[7] It was never an inevitability of history that colonizers would make these inroads. At every turn Indigenous people exercised agency, intention, and mindfulness of securing strong futures in determining whether to interact with European colonizers at all—and if so, on what terms.[8]

“Encounters,” the term framing this issue, is worth examining. Read simplistically, it can misleadingly suggest benign mutual exchange and multicultural co-creation. Certainly, there are rich textures to the multi-faceted ways Indigenous people in early America communicated, traveled, inhabited, traded, negotiated, and otherwise interfaced with Euro-colonial people, forming new bonds, affiliations, and possibilities. Yet these interactions were not innocent or symmetrical. As the pieces here emphasize, European colonization campaigns—the invasion—were and are profoundly violent endeavors aimed at subduing, dispossessing, eliminating, or forcibly assimilating Indigenous people and polities.

While they have varied in their specifics, colonial mechanisms operate to transform Indigenous life and land into Euro-colonial wealth and power, as Michael Witgen demonstrates. Looking at the Northwest Territory, he diagnoses settler mentalities of the early U.S. Republic that produced policies and private companies expecting to clear and claim so-called “wilderness”—in actuality, homelands inhabited and stewarded by Indigenous people and sovereign polities. This settler logic, which undergirds so many entrenched U.S. local, regional, and national mythologies, assumed the eventual elimination of Indigenous people and presences. It attempts to relegate Indigeneity into a fading past rather than recognizing continuance into the present. In these contested temporalities, Jean O’Brien argues, “non-Indians actively produced their own modernity by denying modernity to Indians.”[9]

As colonization campaigns intensified and expanded across the continent, they imposed enormous stresses upon Indigenous peoples’ wellbeing. Tai Edwards searingly describes colonial policies and practices of containing, displacing, enslaving, and extracting labor from Indigenous communities, which created devasting conditions where epidemic diseases accelerated and wreaked massive losses. Amid these arduous conditions, Indigenous people continued to actively shape their futures. And they recalled and theorized tumultuous times in ways that informed the next generations’ goals and actions.[10] The harms imposed by settler colonialism intertwined with other structures of violence and repression in “vast early America” and the growing United States, including racial slavery and racial capitalism. As Indigenous, Afro-Indigenous, and African American people navigated shared and also distinct struggles, and built kin and relations in non-colonial ways, they countered these world-threatening conditions with clear commitments to organizing and ensuring more secure futures.[11]

At a larger level, these essays reflect on the importance of storytelling in settings such as classrooms, museums, and public history sites. How do we construct narratives of encounters and determine their beginning- and end-points—and why? Whose experiences and voices are featured, rendered as visible traces on the map, told with nuance and specificity? Whose are flattened, left in the shadows or treated as brief cameos, or omitted altogether? Are the “hard truths of history,” specifically the effects of colonization and attempted genocide, as Amy Lonetree puts it in her analysis of museums, genuinely engaged?[12] In approaching storytelling critically, we can circle anew to European written texts as one among many forms of knowledge production, rather than singular or dominant expressions of truth. Indigenous communities’ oral traditions; connections with ancestral lands, waters, and other-than-human beings; material culture; and the rich archives of written documents that Native people themselves have produced all are crucial contexts.[13] As Alejandra Dubcovsky examines Southeastern Indigenous women’s lives, she shows how their social commitments to protecting community life and strength were frequently sidelined in accounts penned by European colonizer men. It is important to recognize how the very production of such texts was intended to justify and propel colonial interests. And to know that such texts are being repurposed, read “against the grain,” and used to support Indigenous community goals today, such as language revitalization.[14]

Stories can change. And so can storytelling practices. Denise Bossy illuminates the possibilities of digital storytelling grounded in greater respect for Indigenous knowledge sovereignty. In her account of an evolving digital humanities collaboration centered on the Mocama people, she emphasizes the importance of centering contemporary tribal nation partners’ own insights and priorities, and how the multivocal stories that result are stronger and more meaningful. Forms of storytelling like these can be restorative, accountable, and supportive of other approaches to learning and relating.[15]

Amid the growing global COVID pandemic in 2020, Wampanoag communities mobilized to confront colonialist practices of memory around the Mayflower and “first encounters” between English and Native people in the Dawnland. This was not Wampanoag people’s first experience contending with these deeply rooted mythologies. Wampanoag ancestors have dealt with the same issues time and again, including around the annual “Thanksgiving” holiday. Paula Peters, a Mashpee Wampanoag journalist, published an article in the Cape Cod Times exemplifying the importance of reframing “encounters.” Taking up the extraordinary transits of Tisquantum, a Patuxet Wampanoag community member who addressed the 1620 colonizers in English, she unpacked the larger, more accurate story of this meeting. Telling it truthfully, she noted, requires close reckoning with preceding years of English theft and enslavement of Wampanoag people. Tisquantum’s “enigmatic eloquence goes unquestioned and unexplained in many contemporary history texts, thus avoiding a more honest portrayal of him as the kidnapped, lost son of Patuxet, held hostage, spared of the plague, who returned as an orphaned Wampanoag.”[16]

Throughout 2020, other community-led actions, ranging from conferences to museum interventions to on-the-ground movements, also reshaped the social terrain. “Indigenous intellectuals and public historians have refused to settle for the Pilgrim-centered ritual of memory in Plymouth,” Jean M. O’Brien and Lisa Blee wrote in a reflection on this critical memory work. “In fact, Wampanoag intellectuals’ collective work in recent years has resulted in the temporal reconfiguration of settler memory around the 1620 anniversary.”[17] The opportunities and needs to reconfigure memory are clear from the rich pieces in this issue of The American Historian. Together they present clear calls to action for teachers and learners across North America and invite us to re-encounter seemingly familiar topics in more meaningful ways as we look not only to the past, but also to the present and future.

Author

Christine DeLucia is Associate Professor of History at Williams College, located in Stockbridge-Munsee Community homelands.  She is author of Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast (2018).

Notes

[1] William J. Bauer, Jr., Chap. 1, “Creating,” in California Through Native Eyes: Reclaiming History (2016), 10.

[2] Julian Brave NoiseCat, “How to Survive an Apocalypse and Keep Dreaming: As Native people, we have inherited an audacious vision,” The Nation, June 2, 2020, https://www.thenation.com/article/society/native-american-postapocalypse.

[3] Anya Montiel, “After Columbus: In 1992, Native artists and curators marked the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas with exhibitions highlighting a legacy of resistance to colonization,” Art in America (Oct. 2017), 86-91; Ned Blackhawk, “Look How Far We’ve Come: How American Indian History Changed the Study of American History in the 1990s,” OAH Magazine of History, 19 (Nov. 2005), 13-17.

[4] The Red Nation, “Press Release: The Red Nation Account of Thursday’s Shooting,” Oct. 1, 2023, https://therednation.org/press-release-the-red-nation-account-of-thursdays-shooting; see also Samuel Gilbert, “Protests Target Spanish Colonial Statues that ‘celebrate genocide’ in US West,” The Guardian, June 24, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/jun/24/protests-target-spanish-colonial-statues-new-mexico; Simon Romero, “Why New Mexico’s 1680 Pueblo Revolt Is Echoing in 2020 Protests,” The New York Times, Sept. 27, 2020.

[5] Neal Salisbury, “The Indians’ Old World: Native Americans and the Coming of the Europeans,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 53 (July 1996), 435-458.

[6] For examples of works centering Indigenous vantages on “discovery” and “encounters,” see Gabrielle Tayac, “The story of Jamestown through the eyes of a Native American,” McClatchy Newspapers, June 8, 2007, https://www.mcclatchydc.com/news/nation-world/national/article24463288.html; “The Coming of the Europeans,” in Dorothy Davids et al., A Brief History of the Mohican Nation Stockbridge-Munsee Band (2004), 2-3; Salish-Pend d’Oreille Culture Committee and Elders Cultural Advisory Council, Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, The Salish People and the Lewis and Clark Expedition (2019); Nick Estes, Chap. 2, “Origins,” in Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline (2019), 67-88; Paul Tosa and Octavius Seowtewa, “Pueblo Perspectives on Movement and Becoming,” in The Continuous Path: Pueblo Movement and the Archaeology of Becoming, eds. Samuel Duwe and Robert W. Preucel (2018), 254-259.

[7] On relations among Indigenous communities, see Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (2008); Kealani Cook, Return to Kahiki: Native Hawaiians in Oceania (2018); Chadwick Allen, TransIndigenous: Methodologies for Global Native Literary Studies (2012); Elizabeth N. Ellis, The Great Power of Small Nations: Indigenous Diplomacy in the Gulf South (2023).

[8] David A. Chang, The World and All the Things Upon It: Native Hawaiian Geographies of Exploration (2016); Joshua L. Reid, The Sea Is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs (2018).

[9] Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (2010), xxiii; on Indigenous and settler temporalities see also Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (2004); Katrina M. Phillips, Staging Indigeneity: Salvage Tourism and the Performance of Native American History (2021).

[10] Joseph R. Aguilar and Robert W. Preucel, Chap. 13, “Sacred Mesas: Pueblo Time, Space, and History in the Aftermath of the Pueblo Revolt of 1680,” in The Death of Prehistory, eds. Peter R. Schmidt and Stephen A. Mrozowski (2013); Tsim D. Schneider, The Archaeology of Refuge and Recourse: Coast Miwok Resilience and Indigenous Hinterlands in Colonial California (2022); see also Deborah A. Miranda, “The End of the World: Missionization, 1776-1836,” in Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir (2013), 1-36; OsiyoTV, “Cherokee Almanac: The Emissaries of Peace,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMyC-vKmjuU; Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, “Nation to Nation,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gNll8ZWQPkI; Coll Thrush, Indigenous London: Native Travellers at the Heart of Empire (2016); Chrystal Mars Baker, “Stolen Lands and Stolen People…On the Path to Resilience,” Tomaquag Museum, March 25, 2002, on Away From Home/Stolen Relations exhibition, https://www.tomaquagmuseum.org/belongingsblog/2022/3/25/away-from-homestolen-relations-exhibit.

[11] On colonization’s intertwining with racial slavery, and experiences of African-American and Afro-Indigenous people, see Kyle T. Mays, “Afro-Indigenous Relations in a Reimagined Future,” Ancestors Know Who We Are, National Museum of the American Indian, https://americanindian.si.edu/ancestors-know/reflections/afro-indigenous-relations-in-a-reimagined-future/; Tiya Miles, Chap 1, “The Straits of Slavery (1760-1770),” in The Dawn of Detroit: A Chronicle of Slavery and Freedom in the City of the Straits (2017); Leila K. Blackbird, “A Gendered Frontier: Métissage and Indigenous Enslavement in Eighteenth-Century Basse-Louisiane,” Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 56 (Winter 2023), 205-212.

[12] Michael Wilcox, “Marketing conquest and the vanishing Indian: An Indigenous response to Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse,” Journal of Social Archaeology, 10 (no. 1, 2010), 92-117; Philip J. Deloria, “Indigenous/American Pasts and Futures,” The Journal of American History, 109 (Sept. 2022), 255-270, esp. “The Narrative Politics of American History,” 256-257; Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (2012), esp. 119-122.

[13] Jean M. O’Brien, Chap. 1, “Historical Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies: Touching on the Past, Looking to the Future,” Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies, eds. Chris Anderson and O’Brien (2017), 15-21; Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup, “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies: Completing the Turn,” The William and Mary Quarterly, 53 (April 2018), 407-444; Scott Manning Stevens, “Tomahawk: Materiality and Depictions of the Haudenosaunee,” Early American Literature, 53 (no. 2, 2018), 475-511; Annette Kolodny, “‘This Long Looked For Event’: Retrieving Early Contact History from Penobscot Oral Traditions,” Native American and Indigenous Studies, 2 (Spring 2015), 90-123.

[14] Lisa Brooks, Chap. 1, “Namumpum, ‘Our Beloved Kinswoman,’ Saunkskwa of Pocasset: Bonds, Acts, Deeds,” in Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (2018), 27-71; Âs Nutayuneân: We Still Live Here, prod. Anne Makepeace, 2011.

[15] I have been grateful to learn, in my current location, from digital storytelling developed by the Stockbridge-Munsee Community and grounded in community priorities in their homelands; see “The Long Journey Home: The Return of New York’s Papscanee Island to the Stockbridge-Munsee Community,” StoryMap digital resource about Land Back in collaboration with Open Space Institute, https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/4b5d61785b064ff49ceff158e05e89fb; “Footprints of Our Ancestors: Mohican History Walking Tour of Main Street Stockbridge,” https://www.nativeamericantrail.org/stockbridge-walking-tour/.

[16] Paula Peters, “A Man without a tribe: The true story of Squanto,” Cape Cod Times, Nov. 19, 2020, https://www.capecodtimes.com/in-depth/news/2020/11/19/tisquantum-squanto-wampanoag-translator-true-story/6261368002/#:~:text=While%20Squanto%20avoided%20the%20Great,sold%20into%20slavery%20in%20Spain.

[17] Lisa Blee and Jean M. O’Brien, “Decentering 1620,” Early American Literature, 56 (no. 1, 2021), 159-171; Kisha James, “My grandfather founded the National Day of Mourning to dispel the myth of Thanksgiving. I’m carrying on his legacy,” The Lily, Nov. 24, 2021, https://www.thelily.com/my-grandfather-founded-the-national-day-of-mourning-to-dispel-the-myth-of-thanksgiving-im-carrying-on-his-legacy; Here It Began: 2020 Hindsight or Foresight Indigenous History Conference, https://www.bridgew.edu/event/indigenous-history-conference; “‘Our’ Story: 400 Years of Wampanoag History,” https://www.plymouth400inc.org/our-story-exhibit-wampanoag-history.