Ned Blackhawk, Yale’s first Native American professor, shortlisted for the non-fiction National Book Award
The shortlisted book, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples And The Unmaking of U.S. History,” which is, in part, dedicated to Yale’s Native American Cultural Center, argues for the centrality of Native Americans in the retelling of American history.
Howard R. Lamar Professor of History and American Studies Ned Blackhawk’s (Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone) fourth book, “The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples And The Unmaking of U.S. History,” was shortlisted on Oct. 3 for the National Book Award in nonfiction.
A latitudinous narrative of U.S. history spanning five centuries, “The Rediscovery of America” argues for the centrality of an agent-focused Indigenous history in understanding the evolution of modern America. The book begins with the Spanish colonial conquests in the Americas throughout the 15th century that precipitated Indigenous-foreign relations and proves the enduring impact of Native Americans on the country’s history. Comprised of 12 chapters, the book concludes with a focus on the rising tide of 20th-century reservation activism that reversed terminative policies against Native Americans during the Cold War.
Before its official publication by Yale University Press in April, Blackhawk included “The Rediscovery of America” in the syllabus of his course “Introduction to American Indian History” and gave students an advanced copy of the book. Students enrolled in the course told the News that reading the book was empowering and a gateway to understanding the historical agency of Native Americans.
“Professor Blackhawk positions Native history as something central to American history, that you cannot separate the two,” Sunni Parisien ’25 (Anishinaabe) told the News. “The lens is flipped — too often in history, settlers affect Native people, but in this book, he argues that Native people instead affected settlers.”
Avery Maples ’26 (Cherokee), wrote to the News that Blackhawk’s “reframing of colonial American history from a more accurate perspective makes [her] more proud to be Cherokee,” leaving her with a “greater appreciation for the sacrifices, strife, perseverance, and endless hope of Native people.”
The first half of Blackhawk’s book examines the subjects of U.S. colonial history, prior to American independence, and the second half examines the history of federal Indian relations after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution. Blackhawk told the News that he included pre-Revolutionary era history in his book as part of an intentionally sweeping timeline, to challenge the notion that European colonization of America was a predetermined success.
“A lot of the most important findings are in the first part, this earlier period of time, when the history of the continent was yet to be fully determined,” said Blackhawk. “The United States was never predetermined, despite what some might call ‘manifest destiny’ — it was never clearly the outcome of American expansion.”
Rather than relying primarily on written narratives, “The Rediscovery of America” engages with multimedia, drawing from oral storytelling and arts as a way to retell history in the Indigenous tradition.
Several students the News spoke with noted that focusing on Indigenous artistry as a historical resource felt like an important opportunity to engage in the rich methodology of Indigenous history.
“I remember reading, and focusing on for our class exam, about the wampum in the Iroquois Confederacy — how wampum and art were used to document treaties and political agreements. The book was full of oral histories, and other Indigenous methods of history, that aren’t often legitimized by Western academia,” Lex Schultz ’24 (Cherokee) told the News.
Although Blackhawk formally began writing “The Rediscovery of America” in 2018, during his term as a visiting senior scholar at the University of Pennsylvania’s McNeil Center for Early American Studies, he said that the seeds of the book were planted far before then.
Prior to putting pen to paper, Blackhawk told the News that the book’s principal ideas were longstanding, realized in other essays, lectures and seminars.
“The book took many forms, so it doesn’t have a very clear start date,” said Blackhawk. “But I knew I wanted to write this book 15 or 20 years ago — even before I made tenure.”
Still, 15 years after his hiring and tenureship offer at Yale in June 2008, Blackhawk remains the first and only tenured Native American in the University’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences.
Native students the News spoke with described Blackhawk’s contributions to Yale’s Indigenous community as nothing short of prolific: he was a longtime advocate of a cultural center for Native students and helped found the Native American Cultural Center in 2013 under University President Peter Salovey. Schultz noted that Blackhawk’s efforts to build the NACC “from the ground up” are a testament to his dedication to an on-campus Native community that has grown in the past decade.
In 2022, the Ethnicity, Race and Migration program hired two new ladder faculty — Assistant Professor of Native and Indigenous Studies Hi‘ilei Hobart and Assistant Professor in ER&M Tarren Andrews. Along with Professor of Environmental Studies and Yale School of the Environment Kealoha Freidenburg (Kanaka Maoli), their hiring contributed to a total of four Indigenous faculty at Yale College, and 14 at the University as a whole, according to NACC Dean Matthew Makomenaw (Odawa tribe).
Students the News interviewed also credited the recent increase in hiring positions for Indigenous faculty to Blackhawk’s advocacy.
In light of Hobart and Andrews’ recent hiring, Jordan Sahly ’24 (Eastern Shoshone) wrote to the News that “Professor Blackhawk deserves immense credit for the path he’s paved, the space he’s helped create on campus for Native students and academics, and the leadership he’s maintained on our journey towards increasing Indigenous professorship and representation on campus.”
Recognizing the Native community that emerged out of Yale, in the first page of “The Rediscovery of America,” Blackhawk dedicates his book, in part, to the NACC, “with gratitude.”
Indigenous faculty and students have shared gratitude to Blackhawk for spearheading Native studies, culture and overall presence at Yale as the University’s first Native American faculty member.
“Because of [Blackhawk] we don’t just have programs that are culture or history-based — but we also have faculty writing books, students of Blackhawk getting fellowships in law school,” Makomenaw told the News. “We’re not just a community of culture, but we are a community of scholars.”
During his time at Yale, Blackhawk has established two fellowships: the first for Native American students to attend the Western History Association’s annual conference, and the second for doctoral students working on American Indian Studies dissertations at the University. In 2021 he co-founded the Sovereignty Project with his wife, Maggie Blackhawk. The project, a partnership between NYU Law and Yale University, aims to support the sovereignty of Native nations and federal Indian policy.
Blackhawk’s academic and community contributions have been a source of inspiration for current Native students, several of whom told the News they hope to continue his Native scholastic efforts for future students at Yale.
“The book makes me think about how I can open the door, or provide more access to Indigenous opportunities to the students who come after me — in a way that Professor Blackhawk has really made his purpose here at Yale,” said Parisien.
Blackhawk said that the impetus of his book has been to provide the next generation of Native students with an empowered retelling of their history.
Blackhawk said that in order to “rediscover America,” students and teachers alike need to “unmake the paradigms of received knowledge” whose definitions of American history depend on Native exclusion.
The National Book Award ceremony will take place on Nov. 15.