Today’s post is part of our series marking the 75th anniversary of the Omohundro Institute by exploring the OI books that have had an impact on a scholar’s life.
by Christine DeLucia
I first encountered Francis Jennings’ scathing The Invasion of America: Indians, Colonialism, and the Cant of Conquest (1975) on September 19, 2008. I know this date not because I have a frighteningly good memory for events a decade past, but because I recently unearthed the syllabus and notes for “Readings in American Indian History” in the sweaty process of relocating my home and office. It was in this graduate seminar in American Studies at Yale University—in the heart of the very New England at which Jennings trained his critique—that I began to think in more concerted ways about the mechanisms of settler colonialism, alternative approaches to Indigenous and early American studies, and the ideological stakes of “doing history.”
Coming across these dog-eared records has been more than a trip down the bibliographic version of memory lane. It’s led me to reflect on the powerfully social forms of reading that we do as scholars and the ways that particular constellations of colleagues (and friends, and activists) shape the meanings of books.
The cover image featured on the paperback version of The Invasion of America that I acquired set the tone for Jennings’ revisionist project. It was a reproduction of a detail of an engraving depicting the May 26, 1637 colonial attack on the Pequot village at Mistick. This massacre, led by colonists John Mason and John Underhill along with Mohegan and Narragansett allies, inflicted enormous casualties and pervasively traumatized Pequot communities but did not destroy the Pequot people. On one side, writing denotes the location of “The Indians houses,” while an inscription on the other marks out “Their Streets.” It represents an Indigenous village caught in a deadly crossfire of English firearms and Native bowmen, where even a protective palisade could not forestall the violent horror. As I read the book and realized that Mistick lies just over 50 miles east of New Haven, Connecticut where I was ensconced in the library, it became ever more clear to me that I was living in a place with deeply contested pasts.
By centering violent, destructive, dispossessive events like the Mistick massacre as foundational to New England histories rather than side-notes or aberrations, Jennings uncompromisingly countered historiographical currents that to date had largely not engaged in robust ways with the nature, extent, and repercussions of colonization in the Northeast. His mode of scholarly interrogation proved influential for subsequent generations of scholars, including an emerging wave of the so-called “New Indian History” practitioners who located Indigenous-colonial relations as utterly formative to early America.
The Invasion of America relentlessly dismantled and demythologized filiopietistic treatments of colonial and especially Puritan New England by preeminent scholars like Perry Miller. Produced shortly before the U.S. bicentennial, a moment of intensive reflections on the origins and meanings of “America,” Jennings’ monograph sharply reconsidered the Puritan inheritance not as a golden period to be venerated, nor as a source of American identity to be simplistically celebrated. Jennings instead was interested in the complex ways that European and particularly English colonizers in eastern North America sought to justify their attempts to conquer and dispossess Native peoples and nations, oftentimes through violent and illegal tactics. He contended that the colonizers armed themselves not only with guns but also with carefully fashioned propaganda and rhetoric in order to legitimize their labors, cloaking violence in lofty proclamations of Protestant righteousness and civility.
From these several strands emerged a harrowing study of colonial land fraud, genocidal targeting of Native communities, deceitful missionary activities, and more. In a characteristically biting analysis of what he deemed “The Deed Game,” for example, Jennings trained his eye on the array of maneuvers and coercive documents that colonists deployed in mounting attempts to wrest land from Native possession, caretaking, and sovereignty. “When taken at face value, they present a rosy picture of upright, fair-minded Euramericans giving value for value in honest business transactions,” he wrote. “Only when surrounding circumstances are taken into account is the fraud revealed” (145).
It is, to say the least, a far cry from the “city upon a hill” paeans that too frequently have permeated New England history making and memorializing. The Invasion of America propelled me further toward my own work on Native and colonial entanglements in the Northeast, and toward commitments to peeling back the layers of mythologizing that have accrued in this small but dynamic part of North America—mythologies that carry serious consequences for tribal communities endeavoring to maintain their own lands, identities, and sovereignties.
In re-reading Jennings’ work in 2018, I am struck as much by its limitations as its insights. For all of Jennings’ attunement to the self-serving machinations of colonizers, his approach to Native Americans themselves tended to recognize little agency or ability to respond effectively to increasingly repressive circumstances. In the face of a colonizing onslaught that was intellectual and ideological as well as material, Native people time and again appeared in his book as passive victims—tragic, but still passive. Jennings concluded The Invasion of America with an examination of King Philip’s War, a major conflict of the late seventeenth-century Northeast. He did so in a manner that left troublingly little room for active Native survivors, or for fuller reckonings with this extraordinary period as an Indigenous resistance movement. “Demoralized and dispirited remnants of formerly large Indian communities sank ever deeper into subjection and debauchery,” he asserted, while characterizing other survivors as vengeful plotters or mere puppets of the French (325).
With lines like this, Jennings proffered a declension narrative that has far more in common with Euro-colonial antiquarianism than the historian might have acknowledged. It is a type of “vanishing,” or erasive discourse, that leading Native American and Indigenous Studies scholars like Jean O’Brien have cogently countered in works like Firsting and Lasting. Moreover, Northeastern tribal communities and nations themselves have for generations forcefully pushed and spoken back against attempts to deny their own continuance and thriving into the present. From Aquinnah Wampanoag to Mohegan to Mashantucket Pequot to Penobscot, Native historians, critics, intellectuals, educators, artists, and others have rejected conclusions of the sort that Jennings used to wrap up his account of “conquest.”
Now onto the social dimension of reading The Invasion of America. I think it is a great gift of graduate school that it helps us encounter ideas not in a vacuum or as isolated readers, but in collective settings where our understandings of the printed arguments and interventions can be enriched and transformed by the minds of others. The members of our 2008 “American Indian History” graduate seminar didn’t discuss Jennings’ passage about Indigenous “remnants” directly, as far as I recall. But I am sure that none would endorse such claims of Indigenous decline and disappearance. Indeed, it’s important for me to recognize these members directly because our intense intellectual conversations inflected my thinking on Jennings and the host of other historians who we took up. By naming them and their work, I can highlight albeit briefly just how far the field of Native American and Indigenous Studies (NAIS) has diverged from the types of critical history set forth by figures like Jennings, even as NAIS is also in conversation with that work.
Alyssa Mt. Pleasant (Tuscarora), now a Transnational Studies faculty member at the University at Buffalo (SUNY) and Program Director for the Native American Scholars Initiative at the American Philosophical Society, was the seminar’s professor. She works on Haudenosaunee regrouping and community rebuilding “after the whirlwind” of the American Revolution, on historical methods that are ethically attuned and community-connected, and on enhancing capacities for NAIS work among new generations of scholars. Classmates included Melanie Yazzie (Diné), currently a Native American Studies faculty member at the University of New Mexico, whose work and activism encompasses Indigenous social movements, biopolitics, Indigenous feminisms, queer Indigenous studies, settler colonialism, and more; and Khalil Anthony Johnson, Jr., presently an African American Studies faculty member at Wesleyan University, whose research examines intertwined Native American and African American relationships around education and social movements over several centuries.
This was an extraordinary group with whom to think, at pivotal moments in all of our intellectual trajectories. None of these colleagues approach Indigenous people and polities as victims of history. They are agents, intellectuals, and creators of change in their own right. Nor are these colleagues indebted to Euro-American scholars like Jennings for devising vocabularies of anti-colonial critique and resistance. To the contrary, they explicitly locate longstanding, intergenerational Indigenous oppositions to colonialist incursions, and deploy concepts arising from Indigenous communities, languages, and knowledge systems themselves to shape their arguments. As a collective, we had the opportunity in that seminar to labor together through swirling historiographical currents. We found touchstones that usefully moved us forward while also recognizing profound silences, erasures, and blinkers. And perhaps most important, we grappled together with the need to continue cultivating new critical toolkits that will further not just scholarship but also social change in the world.
This kind of intellectual vibrancy and exchange was a highlight of graduate school. There were many challenges and low points, of course. These included running up against dispiriting ways that ongoing structural forms of settler colonialism in the academy itself operate against the very decolonizing goals that we were so fired up about within the seminar classroom’s walls. But academia itself is now changing. Pathways and support are growing for precisely the kinds of engaged scholarship that we were valuing a decade ago, and I am heartened by these continuing transformations.
For my own part, interacting with work like Jennings’ as well as subsequent studies such as Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, which is likewise interested in language as a shaping force of race, identity, and colonialism, prodded me to develop articles and eventually a dissertation that complicated and pushed back against narrow conceptions of Indigenous declension. In a strong sense my first book picks up where Jennings’ leaves off. It takes up Northeastern Indigenous survivance, adaptation, and reconnection in the long wake of King Philip’s War, and looks anew at how that era has shaped Native and colonial interactions right into the twenty-first century. I was particularly gratified to publish Memory Lands in Yale University Press’s Henry Roe Cloud Series on American Indians and Modernity, a list that explicitly foregrounds how Native people and nations endure into the present and future.
I hope that my own writing carries forward the fiery spirit of critique and urgency that animated Jennings in 1975. And I know it is not the exclusive or final word on any of these histories, which are still dynamically unfolding. It’s a contribution to a conversation that continues in many locations, including among tribal communities themselves as well as academic settings.
Christine DeLucia is an Associate Professor of History at Mount Holyoke College and will join the History faculty at Williams College in 2019.
Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998)
Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010)
Christine M. DeLucia, Memory Lands: King Philip’s War and the Place of Violence in the Northeast (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018)
Lisa Brooks, Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018)
Neal Salisbury, ed., The Sovereignty and Goodness of God: with related documents, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2018)