Comparative Indigenous History of the Americas

Yanna Yannakakis

in Atlantic History

ISBN: 9780199730414
Published online January 2013 | | DOI:
Comparative Indigenous History of the Americas

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  • History of the Americas
  • European History
  • African History
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  • Regional and National History


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The Atlantic world as an organizing concept for the history of the region bounded by Europe, Africa, and the Americas from the age of exploration to the age of revolution that often takes Europe as its starting point and fractures along the lines of the North (British) and South (Iberian) Atlantic. An important critique concerns the degree to which Atlantic history is a repackaging of the narrative of European imperial expansion into the Americas and the political and territorial expropriation of native peoples. At the broadest level the historiography of America’s native peoples tends to be organized along geographic lines—North America (including borderlands), Mesoamerica (Mexico and Central America), and South America (primarily the Andes but with growing interest in Amazonia)—without much explicit reference to the Atlantic world paradigm. However, there are points of interest that stretch across these separate traditions and that resonate with themes in Atlantic history, such as empire, culture contact, flow of ideas, movement of peoples, systems of labor and exchange, construction of racial ideologies, and making of hybrid identities. Undergirding these historical emphases is a shift away from a view of native people as victims in their encounters with Europeans and toward a consideration of them as active historical agents who participated in the making of a “new world,” even if it was on terms that were ultimately unfavorable to them. Emphasis on native agency has arisen from distinct traditions in regionally based literatures. The “new Indian history” (North America), the “new philology” (Mesoamerica), and Marxist historiography of the Andes, all of which emerged in the 1980s, put native people at the center of historical narratives and argued for their indispensability in the making of the societies in which they lived although with very different theoretical and methodological approaches. The trend toward native agency found institutional support in the American Society for Ethnohistory and its journal, Ethnohistory, both established in 1954 to promote interdisciplinary research on the native peoples of the Americas. More recently the society has tried to bridge the divides among scholarship of North America, Mesoamerica, and South America though with limited success. Yet ethnohistorians have clearly succeeded in making indigenous history a central aspect of the history of the Americas and in reorienting the narrative as a whole. Although there is seminal Spanish-, Portuguese-, and French-language literature on native peoples in the Americas, the historiography that is most broadly comparative and that engages most fully with Atlantic world themes is generally published in English. For these reasons and for the sake of a coherent overview, the citations here are confined to English-language historiography.

Article.  16970 words. 

Subjects: History of the Americas ; European History ; African History ; History ; Regional and National History

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