Interview: Gray Whaley

Gray Whaley’s new book, Oregon and the Collapse of Illahee: U.S. Empire and the Transformation of an Indigenous World, 1792-1859 is part of UNC Press’s collaborative series with three other presses, First Peoples: New Directions in Indigenous Studies. In an interview with the author, the First Peoples blog begins:

The mainstream narrative of the founding of Oregon has been described as American manifest destiny fulfilled, a saga with few alternatives for the expanding nation or the retreating Native peoples. American Indians may have moved from “obstacles to civilization” to tragic heroes in the popular imagination, but the diversity of Native actions and experiences is, nevertheless, obscured by the nationalist epic. . . . [Whaley] brings to the fore a new narrative that uses the framework of empire and colony to reveal a complex history in which Indian people recreated Illahee (homeland in Chinook) even as newcomers redefined the region as Oregon.

Your work is a significant retelling of the history of Oregon’s settlement. How has that been received?
I am not the first historian to assert a framework of colony and empire for the history of American Indians and the American West. I’ve tried to take the concept of American empire, define it, test it, and advance the dialogue. Necessarily, the book makes appropriate criticisms of earlier models of American empire that assert a firm distinction between continental and overseas expansion or that rely on Marxian critiques of capital and western regionalism. I tried to test the applicability of the term empire for the U.S. and then to trace how it took shape along the frontiers of interaction between Native peoples and newcomers.

Outside of academia, I have encountered skepticism because the idea of an American empire threatens some people. My work undermines old-school triumphant narratives that retain a surprising amount of popular support. Among progressives, I more often encounter an accepted, guilt narrative akin with Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I have to say, “wait, there is more to the story and you may not like it.”

Read the full interview with Whaley here.