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

By Konkle, Maureen | Journal of the Early Republic, October 1, 2005 | Go to article overview

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


Konkle, Maureen, Journal of the Early Republic


History's Shadow: Native Americans and Historical Consciousness in the Nineteenth Century. By Steven Conn. (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xii, 276. Illustrations. Cloth, $35.00.)

Steven Conn's book serves as an overview of the disciplining of Native peoples in the nineteenth-century United States: he describes how, by the close of the century, knowledge about Native peoples had been confined to anthropology, and Native peoples themselves confined to realm of culture and excluded from history. His narrative account of the movement of knowledge about Indians from the missionaries, travelers, and government officials who produced it in the late eighteenth century to the certified university-ensconced anthropologists who took hold of it in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries is especially useful. But his interpretation of the material falls flat, betraying his lack of expertise in Native history. It's common in literary studies for a scholar to write a book about Indians without sustained experience in the field, less so in history. Conn so scrupulously limits his analysis on the one hand, and rests his arguments on mistaken assumptions about Native history on the other, that the book becomes less than the sum of its parts.

Conn freely admits that he is "no historian of Native America," and that his book is not about the representation of Indians. It is rather, he writes, an intellectual history of those who studied Indians that, he insists, can reveal how that study "shaped the American mind" and more particularly "[defined] American science and social science, and "shaped conceptions of the nation's history" (5). He makes three principal claims: that Native peoples "posed fundamental challenges to the way EuroAmericans understood the world"; that the emergence of natural science rather than the Bible as an explanation for the existence of Native peoples "shaped the transition from a sacred world view to a secular one"; and that the necessity of explaining the existence of Native peoples influenced the changing definitions of history itself (5). Thus, Conn is interested in history as a discipline rather than the history of Native peoples in the United States. He surmises that "intellectual encounters" with Native peoples caused EuroAmericans to separate history from myth and from culture and also "from the realm of the past" (6). Over the nineteenth century, Conn argues, EuroAmericans excluded Native peoples from history itself. The book includes an introductory chapter on images of Indians in nineteenth-century art as exemplifying the transformation of Native peoples from historical figures to representative manifestations of cultures; subsequent chapters on the study of Native languages, archaeology, and anthropology; and a concluding chapter on Native peoples and U.S. historiography in the era.

The most fundamental problem with the book is Conn's insistence that history as a discipline and the history of Native-EuroAmerican relations can be separated such that those "intellectual encounters" have little or nothing to do with political relations. Historians in this book are sincere if ethnocentric people who try very hard to understand Indians; the possibility that they might be part of a larger system of thinking about and managing Native peoples, justifying and maintaining white authority, receives little or no attention. This absence of attention to the politics of knowledge might explain-at least in part-Conn's simply wrong assertion that Native peoples are gradually removed from history over the course of the nineteenth century. Conn observes that in the early nineteenth century, EuroAmerican writers like James Fenimore Cooper "included" Indians in their historical accounts of America, but with the emergence of professional historians of the United States like George Bancroft in the second quarter of the nineteenth century, Indians began to be shifted out of U. …

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