History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century

History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century

History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century

History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century


Who were the Native Americans? Where did they come from and how long ago? Did they have a history, and would they have a future? Questions such as these dominated intellectual life in the United States during the nineteenth century. And for many Americans, such questions about the original inhabitants of their homeland inspired a flurry of historical investigation, scientific inquiry, and heated political debate.

History's Shadow traces the struggle of Americans trying to understand the people who originally occupied the continent claimed as their own. Steven Conn considers how the question of the Indian compelled Americans to abandon older explanatory frameworks for sovereignty like the Bible and classical literature and instead develop new ones. Through their engagement with Native American language and culture, American intellectuals helped shape and define the emerging fields of archaeology, ethnology, linguistics, and art. But more important, the questions posed by the presence of the Indian in the United States forced Americans to confront the meaning of history itself, both that of Native Americans and their own: how it should be studied, what drove its processes, and where it might ultimately lead. The encounter with Native Americans, Conn argues, helped give rise to a distinctly American historical consciousness.

A work of enormous scope and intellect, History's Shadow will speak to anyone interested in Native Americans and their profound influence on our cultural imagination.

" History's Shadow is an intelligent and comprehensive look at the place of Native Americans in Euro-American's intellectual history.... Examining literature, painting, photography, ethnology, and anthropology, Conn mines the written record to discover how non-Native Americans thought about Indians." - Joy S. Kasson, Los Angeles Times


I regret with you, the want of zeal among our countrymen for collecting mate
rials concerning the history of these people.


In 1903, W. E. B. DuBois wrote, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line,” and thus penned perhaps the most enduring pronouncement on the state of America ever made. By the time DuBois wrote, America's racial “problem” had become, on a host of levels, a matter of black and white. The color line, in DuBois's view, separated white from black. The contours of that line shaped the very essence of what America was in its soul, and the erasure of that line became DuBois's life work.

DuBois's famous statement needs to be seen as a prophecy—a remarkably prescient one at that—and as a summing up. We have become so accustomed to thinking of DuBois as a prophet of the key issues surrounding race in the twentieth century that it has been easy to forget that he came to maturity as much in the twilight of the nineteenth century as in the dawn of the twentieth. Among the developments he witnessed in the waning of Victorian America was the disappearance of a third race from the national consciousness. DuBois may have seen the world in black and white when he wrote in 1903, but when he was born in 1868, the nation's racial dynamic came in three colors: black, white, and red.

By the turn of the twentieth century, DuBois was already the nation's most profound thinker on matters of race. Yet it is not at all clear that he spent much time thinking about that third race. As his biographer David Levering Lewis remarks, DuBois recognized that in the United States there formally existed only two races—Asians had been “excluded” while Native Americans had become “invisible.” Invisible because by the time DuBois made his prediction about the color line the frontier had been “closed” for . . .

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