David Silverman, author and history professor at George Washington University, presented to a crowd of 40 Ann Arbor residents and University of Michigan students on how Native Americans used guns to revolutionize their lives in many arenas, from warfare to economic transactions. This is seen in his most recent book, “Thundersticks: Firearms and the Violent Transformation of Native America,”, which served as an attempt to transform how readers understand Native American relationships with guns.

Silverman began the talk by qualifying his diction, stating that he opted to use the word “Indian” instead of “Native American”  because in his experiences, most native peoples have preferred the term Indian. Additionally, he attempted to use true tribal names in his talk, arguing if Native-American history is to be a central part of our education, students must gain more familiarity with those names.

Within his book, Silverman emphasized the multidirectional nature of the “gun frontier,” which contrasts with what is popularly believed by society. Guns did not just move east to west, he said, but instead took many paths in varying directions.

Silverman also argued historians are wrong when they assume American Indians received the worst guns after looking at early stock Indian Firearms. These historians believe that Native Americans chose poor guns or bows and arrows due to the gun’s psychological effect — the terror created by the combustion, flash and smoke of a gun. Silverman argued that hard experience taught Indians that guns were useful in trouncing poorly-armed rivals.

“Indian economic and political influence, including their ability to choose between rival imperial and colonial powers, consistently enabled them to get the very best of European firearms technology, manufactured to their taste,” Silverman asserted.

With these guns, Silverman explained, they terrorized each other. Colonial demands for Indian slaves spurred the rise of militant slaving nations. Raiding villages for slaves created an environment where Indians could capture slaves to obtain arms or become enslaved themselves.

“Differential access to guns became a key determinant in the rise of some native peoples, and the vulnerability of others — to captivity, to enslavement, to dispossession, horse-raiding or death,” he said. “The result was a serial eruption for regional arms races throughout Native America.”

Silverman further explained that the centrality of guns to American-Indian warfare changed gender norms by making them symbols of manhood. Any man who wanted social esteem had to prove himself as a warrior and hunter. As the arms market increased, this process included being a capable gunman as well. American-Indian women never used guns because of the cultural tenet that women gave and sustained life but never took it.

“Indians turned firearms into a constituent part of how they reckoned gender,” Silverman said. 

Silverman then turned to an example from his book to expain though Native Americans grew dependent on guns from Europe, this dependence never prevented them from rising up against colonial forces. When Britain gained French land in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, Sir Jeffery Amherst, the British general in charge of the lands, wanted to discontinue the arms diplomacy instituted by the French and show the Indians that they were now under English control.

This diplomacy involved giving American-Indian groups firearms and ammunition in return for their support. As a result, American Indians came to think of firearms as an indispensable part of their independence. Native Americans attacked the British forces violently, and it was not until the British showered them with ammunition and guns that American Indians supported the British.

“Pontiac’s war, like so many other earlier Indian-Colonial conflicts, was being decided by Indians supporting the colonial cause for their own purposes, including supplies of arms,” he said.

LSA freshman Baibhav Panda attended the lecture as part of an extra-credit assignment for a class, which focuses on the way Native Americans have been represented throughout history. Panda said his professor advised him to look at the way Silverman used primary sources.

“He combined both contextual evidence from that point in history with the Native-American perspective to show how things were for the Native Americans,” he said.

LSA senior Dylan Nelson, a History and Native American Studies student, said he thought the talk was important to reframing how we understand the colonization of the United States.

“It helps us flip the narrative of colonial history, where it was not as if the moment that European Colonial Powers got here they controlled this space,” Nelson said.  “They were collaborating and negotiating with native peoples for hundreds of years before they established any sort of hegemony.”

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