The National Book Award is an American literary prize given out each year by the Nation Book Foundation. Five judging panels made up of writers, literary critics, librarians, and booksellers determine a long list, award finalists, and award winners for a selection of categories.
We recently had the opportunity to catch up with historian Colin G. Calloway, whose book The Indian World of George Washington is a finalist for the Nonfiction National Book Award. In the interview below, Colin discusses the research behind his book, the complicated relationship between George Washington and Native Americans, and his one key takeaway from Washington’s life.
When you were researching Washington, Native Americans, and early American life for this book, what did you learn that was new or surprising to you?
I knew that Washington was an avid speculator in Indian lands, but I was not aware of the lengths to which he went to acquire lands at the expense of former comrades-in-arms.
I knew the broad outlines of the Indian policy Washington formulated, and the destructive assaults he launched in Indian country, but I was not aware of the amount of thought and worry he devoted to trying to treat Indian peoples fairly and honorably, as he understood those terms. His concerns never stood in the way of acquiring Indian land, but I found I could not simply dismiss them as hypocrisy.
Could you describe George Washington’s relationship with Native Americans?
I find it ambivalent. On the one hand, he demonstrates the prejudices of his times, has a lifelong obsession with getting Indian land—either for himself or for his nation—and initiates policies and campaigns that have devastating effects in Indian country. On the other, he struggles with how to reconcile expansion over Indian land with just treatment of Native people. As a result, some Indian people after his death remembered him as “Town Destroyer”; others revered his memory as a president who, in contrast with some of his successors, at least tried to deal justly with Native people.
George Washington’s legacy has led to him being referred to as both the “great father” and the “Town Destroyer.” Could you elaborate on why both these titles are fitting?
The two descriptions seem contradictory but are actually two sides of the same coin. Washington fathered a nation that was built on Indian land. The growth of the nation demanded the dispossession of Indian people. Washington hoped the process could be bloodless and that Indian people would give up their lands for a “fair” price and move away. But if Indians refused and resisted, as they often did, he felt he had no choice but to “extirpate” them and that the expeditions he sent to destroy Indian towns were therefore entirely justified.
After learning more about Washington’s relationship with Native Americans, do you think that readers will think differently of Washington and his legacy as one of our founding fathers?
I hope that readers will not see the book as an attempt to make George Washington look bad, although, obviously, any frank examination of his career as a land speculator and his record on Indian relations reveals a darker side to the first president than that we usually see. I hope instead that readers will have a greater appreciation of the presence and power of Indian nations in the formative era of US history, of the extent to which Washington’s life was interwoven with Native America, and of Washington’s role in developing policies that permanently affected Native America.
If you could impart one key takeaway from Washington’s life, what would it be?
Indian people and Indian lands played a crucial role in shaping the life of the man who shaped the nation.
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