David Copperfield (1850), the most autobiographical of Charles Dickens’s novels, begins with one of literature’s most famous lines: “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”
Among the questions that Dickens explores in his novel of maturation are these: Will the novel’s protagonist overcome the traumas he experienced as a child, or will these traumas warp his development and personality? Will he conquer his tendency toward passivity and indecisiveness and acquire self-confidence and a capacity for self-assertion and self-direction? And most important of all, in an indifferent, even hostile, environment, where those with wealth, power and social position inevitably abuse and exploit the weak and where pity, compassion, empathy prove to be the exception, not the rule, will the book’s eponymous central character determine his own fate, or will his life course be shaped by others?
When the novel’s narrator asks whether he will be the hero of his own life, he is in fact grappling with an issue, human and historical agency, that has become central to academic scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.
Few words carry as much interpretive weight as “agency.” Agency, of course, refers to individuals’ capacity to make essential life choices, take responsibility for their actions and exercise control over their destiny. It represents a counterweight to the idea that people’s lives and choices are largely colored by institutional, structural and systemic factors and by their gender, class, ethnicity and race.
Within my discipline, history, the concept of agency is invoked to challenge determinism and assumptions of inevitability and oppose the tendency to regard those who live on society’s margins as passive victims. But agency, I would argue, exists along a spectrum and is highly dependent on context. Thus, historians must ask, to what extent have women, the Indigenous, the enslaved, mill workers and a host of other groups, including children, exercised agency at particular historical moments?
Agency can, of course, take various forms. Agency can be individual or collective. It can involve silent withdrawal, acting out, passive or active resistance, or forging alliances. Agency can also entail adopting an alternate value system, sensibilities and way of life.
The concept of agency is central to Pekka Hämäläinen’s major contribution to Native American history, Indigenous Continent, which strives to rewrite the history of early America from an Indigenous perspective. The author’s overarching theme, as you might already know, is that the European conquest of what’s now the United States was not inevitable but was a product of a series of contingencies that could have worked out very differently.
Few aspects of our collective past have been more thoroughly shaped by popular mythology than the history of Native Americans. Quite unconsciously, many Americans have picked up a complex set of mythic images:
- That pre-Columbian North America was a sparsely populated virgin land; in fact, the area north of Mexico probably had seven to 12 million inhabitants.
- That prior to European contact, most of North America’s Indigenous peoples lived in small migratory bands that subsisted through hunting, fishing and gathering wild plants. In reality, most were farmers, and Indigenous societies were rich, diverse and sophisticated.
The most dangerous misconception about Native American history, however, is the easiest to slip into. It is to think of Native Americans as a vanishing people, who were fated for destruction and were the defenseless victims of an acquisitive, land-hungry white population.
As Hämäläinen (and earlier scholars) have shown, this view is a gross distortion of historical reality. Through physical resistance, cultural adaptation and diplomacy, lawsuits and treaty negotiations, Native Americans were active agents who responded actively to threats to their culture and sovereignty. And far from disappearing, Native Americans today have a growing population that retains rich cultural traditions
At each point in history, Native Americans have been dynamic agents of change. Food discovered and domesticated by Native Americans would transform the diets of Europe and Asia. Native Americans also made many crucial—though often neglected—contributions to modern medicine, art, architecture and ecology.
During the thousands of years preceding European contact, the Native American people developed inventive and creative cultures. They cultivated plants for food, dyes, medicines and textiles; domesticated animals; established extensive patterns of trade; built cities; produced monumental architecture; developed intricate systems of religious beliefs; and constructed a wide variety of systems of social and political organization ranging from kin-based bands and tribes to city-states and confederations. Native Americans not only adapted to diverse and demanding environments, the Indigenous population also reshaped natural environments to meet their needs. And after the arrival of Europeans in the New World, Native Americans struggled intently to preserve the essentials of their diverse cultures while adapting to radically changing conditions.
Reflecting the influence of books like Dee Brown’s 1970 bestseller Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, the history of Indigenous America is regarded essentially as tragedy, as a story of declining population, lost homelands, cultural dislocation and persistent poverty and inequality. There is, however, another, more side to this story. This is a story of agency, resistance, resilience, adaptability and cultural persistence in the face of extraordinary challenges and dislocations. This is the story that Hämäläinen tells.
Indigenous Continent is not without its limitations. As The New Yorker’s David Treuer (who is Ojibwe) has pointed out, the book is primarily a military and diplomatic history that is largely organized around the encroachment of white colonists and the United States onto Indigenous homelands. The book says relatively little about the Pacific Northwest or the California coast or about Indigenous relations with the Spanish or French and British Canadians. For all its emphasis on Indigenous agency, it could have said much more about survival strategies, cultural persistence and adaptation.
Then, there is larger issue that Hämäläinen’s discussion of historical agency inevitably raises: What are the forces, economic, ideological and strategic, that drove whites to displace and insofar as possible, decimate, the Indigenous population? After all, it’s not just in what’s now the United States that Indigenous people were ousted, but on the pampas, the outback, the steppes and the veldt. Parallel processes took place elsewhere: to Argentina’s Native Argentines, to Australia’s Aboriginal people, Canada’s First Peoples, to New Zealand’s Maori, to the Russian steppes’ Evenks, Udege, Nanai and Uluchs, to South Africa’s Khoisan. This process was followed in the 20th century by the liquidation of the peasantry.
Here we see the costs of progress, technological change and economic modernization.
As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to think that many of my actions are driven by unconscious impulses that I only recognize after the fact. In retrospect, it’s clear that the expansionist impulse that displaced Indigenous populations was the product not only of strategic considerations (to preempt other European powers from seizing Indigenous lands) or a desire to expand opportunities for whites, or narrow economic self-interest, but out of emerging capitalist dynamics and a market mind-set that emphasized possessive individualism.
Agency, in other words, inevitably exists within political, sociological and ideological contexts that narrow options, restrict choices and limit contingencies. As Karl Marx wrote in 1852 in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already …”
I worry a lot about the lessons that my students take away from the history that I teach. I want to nurture students who feel empowered, but I fear that an excessively critical history can backfire, inducing cynicism and prompting passivity. The challenge that I confront is to show them that historical change is possible, but that it is a product of the complex interaction among certain ongoing demographic and economic processes, competing ideologies, societal, political and institutional constraints and human agency.
History education can be a powerful instrument for liberation. Not only can history free students from myths, illusions, falsehoods and superstitions, it can also demonstrate how, through individual and collective agency, people have, at times, righted wrongs, overcome entrenched inequities and deep-seated social problems, expanded our moral consciousness, instituted lasting reforms, and improved life’s quality and fairness.
Please don’t think of yourself merely as a subject area specialist or a conveyor of essential knowledge and skills. Recognize that you send powerful messages to your students about their ability to shape the future. Help them become the heroes of their own lives.
Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.