The Native Reconstruction Project

Uncovering the history of Reconstruction in Indian Country

What is Native Reconstruction?

A Definition by Dr. Alexandra E. Stern

Part of an intergenerational body of work utilizing what Elliott West termed a “Greater Reconstruction” perspective that unites the histories of the trans-Mississippi West, the Civil War, and Reconstruction, Native Reconstruction scholarship uncovers the history of Reconstruction in Indian Country.

Traditionally the history of the Reconstruction has meant a specific geography (the former Confederate states of the South) and time period (1863/65 – 1877). Applying a continental perspective to the history of race-making and nineteenth century state-building, Greater Reconstruction has offered an expanded vision of the mid-nineteenth century in which the West is a region of equal consequence in a narrative so long dominated by North versus South. In West’s formulation, the concept, which encompasses the period between the Mexican American War (1846) and the Compromise of 1877, unites North, South, and West on the basis of three shared questions of the mid-nineteenth century: how to govern a large and diverse republic, what was the central government’s relationship to the nation’s parts, and how could citizenship be expanded to include new groups. The concept’s three core issues demonstrate the ways in which regional histories of the nineteenth century have been pursuing similar questions. Greater Reconstruction therefore does not disrupt the core of Reconstruction scholarship but simply asks us “to extend our thinking through both space and time.”

Now almost twenty years old, West’s framework has been essential in drawing attention to the expansion of federal authority across the nineteenth century.  Historians who have adopted the Greater Reconstruction framework have expanded the geography and periodization of the traditional view of Reconstruction and ushered in a new generation of work that has once and for all challenged the belief that Eric Foner’s excellent Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution would be the last word on the topic. This expanded view of Reconstruction has also helped uncover what West called the “darker side to e pluribus unum” and forced historians to consider simultaneously liberating and coercive means utilized to bring non-white groups into the national fold.

The ongoing division between southern and western history has obscured the deep connections between the political reforms of the Civil War and Reconstruction and Native America, connections that nineteenth-century Americans well understood and frequently discussed. The government used Indian policy to remake federal power in the mid-nineteenth century and to forge a unified nation-state that included rebellious southern and western peoples. Highlightening the relationship to domestic reforms in the South and expansionist policy in the West after 1865, the concept of Native Reconstruction relocates Native nations and the coercion at the heart of their relationship with the federal government in the history of Reconstruction.  Reconstruction reforms not only took place in Indian Country, but they were also developed, tested, and reimagined in western and Native spaces. Native Reconstruction also helps articulate the importance of Native American history and policy to more traditional narratives about nineteenth-century state-building. 

Not just a southern story, Reconstruction was a series of mid-nineteenth century political reforms  defined by ideological commitments rather than by geography or chronology. Although united in principle, Reconstruction in practice was a messy, inconsistent, and contested process, which played out differently in the South and West. The Civil War and Reconstruction history of Indian Country highlights the many contradictions of the age: the growth of federal power and eclipse of alternative sovereignties, the extension of equality and erosion of other longstanding rights, and the ways in which similarly intended policies could liberate some while dispossessing others. While fraught with complexity, the experience of Native peoples and nations does not overturn the traditional history of Reconstruction, which rightly celebrates emancipation and the expansion of citizenship rights for the formerly enslaved. Instead, it clarifies the goals and outcomes of that unfinished revolution, while also highlighting some of its forgotten costs. If historians hope to fully understand the successes and failures of Reconstruction and the modern American nation-state it gave us, Native American people, nations, and history must be part of their work.

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OAH 2022 "The New Native Reconstruction" Transcript Now Available