Same Colonization, Different Story

Pekka Hamalainen’s, “Indigenous Continent”

Tom Nickel
5 min readMar 28


It’s all how you tell the story.

Take Davy Crockett, “King of the Wild Frontier.” Walt Disney’s version was drilled into me and most other kids growing up in America in the 1950s. Everyone remembers how it starts:

Born on a mountain top in Tennessee
Greenest state in the land of the free
Raised in the woods so he knew ev’ry tree
Kilt him a b’ar when he was only three

He grows up to be a frontiersman, then goes to Congress, and eventually takes off for Texas.

Did you ever wonder why he left Tennessee to go die at the Alamo? He had businesses in Tennessee. He was a Congressman. Why leave?

Because he was on the wrong side of the Indian Removal Act.

That is, President Andrew Jackson’s, Indian Removal Act of 1830, with Crocket as the only member of his Congressional delegation to vote against it. It cost him his seat.

He give his word an’ he give his hand
That his Injun friends could keep their land
An’ the rest of his life he took the stand
That justice was due every redskin band

You probably don’t remember Verse 7, above (Disney Records). It doesn’t fit the larger story that Indian Removal was just the natural way things had to be.

Maybe there really were Americans at that time who wanted ‘justice’ for the people who already lived here.

What would Justice have looked like?

Indigenous people in North America had been forced into ceding land or outright massacred for over 200 years before Andrew Jackson started removing them the systematic federal way. The judicial precedents established are still cited.

Before any Europeans came to stay there were about 8–10 million people in North America. It was well occupied with some fixed settlements and plenty of mobility. The inhabitants did not perceive a shortage of humans and they were not recruiting.

They were, however, open to trade.

There were about 60 million Europeans (excluding Russia and the Ottoman Empire) when Columbus stumbled on the Americas. Many of them lived in high density fixed dwellings, in close proximity to domesticated animals — so that over many generations, Europeans had very robust immune systems.

They were also open to trade, but they preferred conquest.

Europeans brought goods for trade that actually did interest the people who were already living in the eastern coastal areas of the continent. In addition, they brought germs their own bodies had adapted to handle but no bodies in the America’s had.

Germs became the primary instrument of conquest. Trade was, at first, just an unintentional opportunity to spread germs and kill off local people at alarming rates. As this bioweapon gradually became understood, germ warfare was used intentionally by infecting the trade goods.

Pekka Hamalainen uses the same facts and the same known outcomes to tell a different story in Indigenous Continent than is usually told about North American domination by Europeans.

The role of germ warfare, for example, is not emphasized in the standard tale of how the west was won, not to mention the east and the midwest. And yet how can it be ignored when indigenous communities would routinely lose over 50% of their population in a period of months to smallpox, measles, or common colds while their opponents did not?

Hamalainen does not refer to it as ‘germ warfare’ — that’s my way of telling the story. He just recites case after case of east coast tribes being powerless against smallpox, losing men, women and children while Europeans were not only immune but continually adding to their numbers with new arrivals every year.

And it was not only during the early years of contact. The pattern continued whenever and wherever the new settlers arrived with their disease potential. As late as 1862, smallpox brought from San Francisco to Victoria, British Columbia led to an epidemic that killed 50% of the indigenous population from the Puget Sound to Alaska.

Andrew Jackson’s reputation as an Indian Killer began in the Creek Wars of 1813–14. He fought the same people who fought the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto in 1540 and were so reduced by smallpox that Jackson’s reputation should have an asterisk. By the time he met them at the Battle of Horseshoe Creek, their population was about 1/5 of the pre-1500 level.

It was tremendously weakened communities that Andrew Jackson and many others defeated.

Nevertheless, as Hamalainen points out, three centuries after Columbus, most of North America was still Indigenous Territory.

Sure, the US, which really only controlled a narrow coastal strip at the time of independence, ‘purchased’ Louisiana from France, but other than the City of New Orleans itself, 99% of the inhabitants were indigenous. Tribes completely controlled Louisiana Territory for more than 50 years after it was purchased.

People who already lived in North America held off the best and worst Europeans could throw at them for over 300 years.

Counterintuitively, Hamalainen points to the 1850s and later as the peak of indigenous power. It was a time of nation building in Europe and the strongest tribal confederations at that time — the Comanche and the Lakota— formed nations too. Those nations resisted effectively for decades in the face of major US advantages.

It took about 400 years for Europeans to fully colonize North America. The current nations of Canada, the US, and Mexico have actually dominated the continent for around 150 years and their federal hold on power may be slipping.

In addition, the indigenous people never just went away as Andrew Jackson and others had hoped. Their Nations are alive and there are a lot of them. Their culture and their cultural practices did not go away either and they are looking increasingly attractive to many non-indigenous people.

Pekka Hamalainen is a scholar who specializes in early indigenous history of North America and has published several previous books on the topic.

He is also an advocate with a clearly stated purpose. He does not present indigenous people as either victims or heroes in the face of European colonialization, but as a diverse group of well-organized and resourceful people who resisted well and may not be through yet.

Image by David Denton

I am not a Globalist, a Nationalist, or a Centrist. I find the micro governance principles of Anarcho-Syndicalism attractive but I have no idea how they could be implemented. I understand the corporate form as an artificial intelligence (AI) with imperatives that benefit humans only accidentally.

My heroes are Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and Socrates. The older I get, the less I know, which I demonstrate regularly here on Medium and on Sub-Stack.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos