By Alan Trachtenberg
A century ago, U.S. policy aimed to sever the tribal allegiances of Native Americans, limit their ancient liberties, and coercively prepare them for citizenship. At the same time, millions of new immigrants sought their freedom by means of that same citizenship. Alan Trachtenberg argues that the two developments were, inevitably, juxtaposed: Indians and immigrants together preoccupied the public imagination, and together changed the idea of what it meant to be American.
In Shades of Hiawatha, Trachtenberg eloquently suggests that we must re-create America's tribal creation story in new ways if we are to reaffirm its beckoning promise of universal liberty.
From Publishers Weekly
What does it mean to be an American? How was "Americanness" first conceived? In this fascinating study, Trachtenberg (Reading American Photographs) investigates the construction of the "American" by linking the experience of Native Americans in the late 19th century to the experiences of Eastern Europeans in the early 20th century. Ironically, the earliest Americans—the Indians—were first displaced from their own land—making them un-American—and then were offered the opportunity to become Americans by repurchasing that land and conforming to American values such as the ownership of private property. The overly mythologized image of Hiawatha, Trachtenberg argues, crystallizes the ways that American writers and American society made Indians almost invisible. In a similar way, the earliest European immigrants experienced a displacement from their own lands and a requirement to embrace American social and political values in order to become American citizens. In an exceptional final chapter, Trachtenberg juxtaposes the writings of Luther Standing Bear and Hart Crane to show how deeply the idea of being American was contested even in the early 20th century and to call for the inclusion of Native American identity in the ongoing struggle to define what it means to be an American. Although some of these ideas are not new, Trachtenberg's historical depth and lively prose make them extremely vivid.
The Shades of Hiawatha title is appropriate. The book is kind of about how Song to Hiawatha filtered into the public consciousness and helped defined who and what was considered American. The six chapters are kind of disjointed, but Trachtenberg tries to link things back to the play and what it represents.
I'm not sure he develops any deep or meaningful thesis--at least not one that I can summarize. But he explores some little-known areas of Native history, including the origins of Song of Hiawatha and the Wanamaker Expeditions. His writing is interesting enough that I give the book an 8.0 of 10, which is good for this kind of material.