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Firsting and Lasting

Writing Indians out of Existence in New England

2010
Author:

Jean M. O’Brien

Firsting and Lasting

Tracing the origins of the persistent myth of the vanishing Indian

Firsting and Lasting argues that local histories became a primary means by which European Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, Jean M. O’Brien explores how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness.

Driven by a creative reading of hundreds of local histories, Jean M. O’Brien's Firsting and Lasting reinvigorates the old question of the ‘vanishing Indian’ in surprising ways, taking readers into the contradictions surrounding race and modernity, and offering an ur-history of the politics of tribal termination, dual citizenship, and cultural politics. It is a tour de force from one of our very best ethnohistorians.

Philip J. Deloria, University of Michigan

Across nineteenth-century New England, antiquarians and community leaders wrote hundreds of local histories about the founding and growth of their cities and towns. Ranging from pamphlets to multivolume treatments, these narratives shared a preoccupation with establishing the region as the cradle of an Anglo-Saxon nation and the center of a modern American culture. They also insisted, often in mournful tones, that New England’s original inhabitants, the Indians, had become extinct, even though many Indians still lived in the very towns being chronicled.

In Firsting and Lasting, Jean M. O’Brien argues that local histories became a primary means by which European Americans asserted their own modernity while denying it to Indian peoples. Erasing and then memorializing Indian peoples also served a more pragmatic colonial goal: refuting Indian claims to land and rights. Drawing on more than six hundred local histories from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island written between 1820 and 1880, as well as censuses, monuments, and accounts of historical pageants and commemorations, O’Brien explores how these narratives inculcated the myth of Indian extinction, a myth that has stubbornly remained in the American consciousness.

In order to convince themselves that the Indians had vanished despite their continued presence, O’Brien finds that local historians and their readers embraced notions of racial purity rooted in the century’s scientific racism and saw living Indians as “mixed” and therefore no longer truly Indian. Adaptation to modern life on the part of Indian peoples was used as further evidence of their demise. Indians did not—and have not—accepted this effacement, and O’Brien details how Indians have resisted their erasure through narratives of their own. These debates and the rich and surprising history uncovered in O’Brien’s work continue to have a profound influence on discourses about race and indigenous rights.

Firsting and Lasting

Jean M. O’Brien (White Earth Ojibwe) is professor of history at the University of Minnesota, where she is also affiliated with American Indian studies and American studies. She is the author of Dispossession by Degrees: Indian Land and Identity in Natick, Massachusetts, 1650–1790.

Firsting and Lasting

Driven by a creative reading of hundreds of local histories, Jean M. O’Brien's Firsting and Lasting reinvigorates the old question of the ‘vanishing Indian’ in surprising ways, taking readers into the contradictions surrounding race and modernity, and offering an ur-history of the politics of tribal termination, dual citizenship, and cultural politics. It is a tour de force from one of our very best ethnohistorians.

Philip J. Deloria, University of Michigan

Firsting and Lasting is a crucial contribution to Native American studies, critical race theory, and the historiography of colonialism and its ideological legacy in New England. O’Brien’s meticulous genealogy of the ‘master narrative of Indian extinction’ that pervades nineteenth-century local histories—and persists to this day—is essential to the analysis of contemporary debates concerning the recognition and rights of Native peoples in the region.

Amy E. Den Ouden, University of Massachusetts, Boston

This deeply researched and well-written study provides an essential archival base for more theoretical studies of representation—those that have already been written and those to come. In the hands of O’Brien, local histories become rich, deep, and essential resources for understanding the people of the United States and the national narratives they set about creating.

Biography

O’Brien’s study of local histories is particularly useful ... because the genre has such consequences for indigenous peoples’ current recognition struggles throughout the world, especially poignant in New England.

New England Quarterly

Firsting and Lasting importantly addresses not only how New Englanders constructed their views of Native American peoples, but also the ways in which those views continue to hinder non-Native people’s current imaginations.

Journal of American Studies

Throughout Firsting and Lasting, O’Brien’s masterful exegesis of the popular nineteenth- century practice of “writing Indians out of existence”— a practice entailing the dissemination and normalizing of racist conceptualizations of Indianness that persist today— is a major, and much- needed, contribution to current debates about federal acknowledgment, Indian identity, and indigenous rights.

Wicazo Sa Review

Jean M. O’Brien’s new book, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England, is a truly valuable contribution not only to American Indian history but to our understanding of historical constructions about Indians in(side) and out(side) of American history.

American Indian Quarterly

The book is well written, meticulously researched, and enjoyable to read.

Journal of American History