Colin Calloway is John Kimball, Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Native American Studies at Dartmouth College. This interview is based on his new book, The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation (Oxford University Press, 2018).
JF: What led you to write The Indian World of George Washington?
CG: I, and many other scholars, have been working for years to include Native American history in the history of the United States, not only because indigenous experiences and voices should be part of the national narrative but also because the presence, power, and persistence of Indian nations affected how that narrative unfolded. I decided to write The Indian World of George Washington (rather than a book entitled George Washington and the Indians) because I hoped that demonstrating how Indian people and Indian lands played a central role in the life of the first president would confirm their central role in the early history of the nation he helped to found.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Indian World of George Washington?
CG: As first president, George Washington established important precedents that shaped the direction of US Indian policy and affected the lives of thousands of Indian people. At the same time, Indian people, Indian lands, Indian resistance, and Indian diplomacy shaped the life of George Washington and affected the direction of early American history.
JF: Why do we need to read The Indian World of George Washington?
CG: George Washington is perhaps the most iconic and revered figure in US history, but the purpose of the book is not to debunk him. History, put simply, is the stories we tell about the past. Simple stories may allow us to feel uniformly good about the nation’s past and its heroes, but great nations deserve great histories that recognize complexities, include multiple perspectives, and acknowledge hard truths. Looking closely and honestly at Washington’s dealings with Indian people and Indian lands provides a more ambiguous, but more realistic portrayal of the father of the country as a human being rather than as a demi-god; looking closely at the roles and experiences of Native Americans during his lifetime provides a richer and fuller picture of the world Washington inhabited and of the nation he built.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
CG: Growing up in Britain, I think I was always interested in American history. What struck me as distinctive was the presence of Indian peoples; what struck me as odd was the relative absence of Indian people in most American history books. I suppose this is what led me to think about how differently the history of America looks if Indian people are included as having meaningful roles and impacts rather than scripted appearances and disappearances.
JF: What is your next project?
CG: I am beginning work on a book that will explore the experiences of Indian visitors to early American cities. Indian delegates who came to Philadelphia to negotiate with George Washington, for example, often spent many weeks in the city between negotiations. What did they do, see, and hear, and what did they make of it all?
JF: Thanks, Colin!