Jeffrey Ostler is Beekman Professor of Northwest and Pacific History at the University of Oregon. This interview is based on his new book, Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas (Yale University Press, 2019).
JF: What led you to write Surviving Genocide?
JO: After two decades of teaching and writing about Native American history, I realized that we don’t have a comprehensive overview of the impact of U.S. continental expansion on Native nations. There has been a huge outpouring of excellent books in American Indian history since the advent the “new Indian history” in the 1980s (and there was a lot of valuable scholarship before then), and so there is an abundance of information. I thought I could make a contribution by drawing on this huge literature to address important questions: What were the demographic trends for Native nations as they were increasingly affected by the United States and its settler citizens? What were the factors (violence, dispossession, removals) that led to demographic decline and how were Native communities able to counter these factors through economic adaptation, intermarriage, diplomacy, and political action? Was the impact of expansion in the South before the Civil War different from the impact of expansion in the North? If so, why?
Similarly, was the U.S. more violent in the West after the Civil War than in the East before 1860? Because the topic is broad (well over one hundred Native nations in the continental United States from 1776 to 1900), I decided at some point along the way that it would take two volumes to cover. The just-published first volume covers the East and Midwest from the 1770s to the eve of the Civil War. The second volume, which I hope to finish in a few years, will cover the American West from the 1780s, when American traders first began affecting Native people in the Pacific Northwest, to 1900.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Surviving Genocide?
JO: As I wrote the book, I became impressed that Indigenous people in the path of U.S. expansion consistently feared that Americans threatened not only their lands and ways of life but that Americans intended to kill them all to obtain their lands. The book argues that given the actual impact of U.S. expansion on Native communities, fears of genocide were reasonable and also shows how Native people survived massively destructive forces that threatened their very existence.
JF: Why do we need to read Surviving Genocide?
JO: I think most thoughtful Americans are increasingly willing to learn more about what the sociologist Michael Mann termed the “dark side” of American democracy. There is certainly a growing awareness of the role of slavery in the founding and building of the United States from the 1780s to 1860. But there is probably less awareness of how the emergence of democracy depended on the taking of Native lands. According to Thomas Jefferson, a seemingly limitless supply of land in North American would allow the United States to avoid replicating European social conditions in which a small aristocratic class monopolized land, leaving the majority dependent. In America, however, abundant land would allow small farmers political independence. Surviving Genocide shows why and how the United States took the lands of sovereign Native nations and documents the costs of democracy for Native people.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
JO: It happened so long ago, that I can’t quite be sure, but if memory serves, I wanted to study American history to better understand the present (at the time, the Reagan years). My main interest at that time was why democratic movements (like Populism) that challenged economic and political inequality had so often failed. From there, I became more interested in exploring the importance of Indigenous history for U.S. history.
JF: What is your next project?
JO: As I mentioned earlier, my next project is a follow-up volume to Surviving Genocide, which will cover the American West.
JF: Thanks, Jeffrey!