I have not seen the highly acclaimed, Tony-award winning, ground breaking, race-bending new musical Hamilton. Not due to lack of trying. I enter the digital lottery nearly every single day on my phone, though if I do somehow win it will mean the most panicked four hours of my life trying to get from Providence to NYC in time for the show. But that’s an aside. What I have done is listened to the soundtrack hundreds of times (not exaggerating), as well as listened to interviews of Lin Manuel Miranda on Another Round–we’re fellow Another Round alums!–and a couple other places.
I truly have had the soundtrack on repeat for months, including right now, except for “Quiet Uptown,” because sad. So, while I haven’t seen the show, I feel like I’ve consumed enough media surrounding the actual production to offer this review–or offer this question, really. But I will add these disclaimers: I have not seen the show. I have not read the HamilTome with insight from Miranda into the writing and production of the show. I have not read the Hamilton book that inspired the show. So, if I’m wrong or there are specifics I don’t know about, feel free to let me know (Or take me with you to see it? Please?).
But, I still feel qualified to ask: Where the heck are the Native people in Hamilton?
For those of you who have maybe been living in a cave for a bit, first of all welcome back, and secondly Hamilton is a broadway musical that follows the life of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton. It’s a lot more exciting than that though. There is rapping and cypher cabinet meetings and duels. And, PLOT TWIST: The entire main cast, besides King George, are people of color.
However, there is not one lyric, one mention, one anything of the peoples whose land this is occurring on, or the ongoing clash of cultures during this time in American history.
There have been other criticisms of the show’s treatment of slavery (Hamilton is painted as a staunch abolitionist which isn’t completely true, and Sally Hemings is mentioned once as Jefferson asks her to open a letter, but it’s not unpacked or dwelled upon at all), and questioning the true subversiveness of having POC play patriarchal white supremacist douchey mc douche faces, among others. But even the most widely cited critique, by historian Lyra Montiero, doesn’t mention Native peoples once (besides Crispus Attucks, who I’ll talk about in a minute).
The thing is, Natives were a huge point of discussion, contention, concern, admiration, emulation, disgust, and more during this time period. Native representational democracies were also large part of the conversation in trying to build the new system of government.
Time for another disclaimer: I am not a historian. Apologies if I mess any of this up. Also shout out to my brilliant Brown student Emma H. (we had three Emmas this past semester!) who wrote one of her papers about this which got me really thinking, and provided a couple of these sources.
We’ll start with what’s widely accepted as the “first death of the Revolutionary War,” Crispus Attucks. Crispus was killed in 1770 during the “Boston Massacre,” and was Wampanoag and Black. So the first life taken for the revolution was a Native guy.
Leading up to the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, Native peoples were present at the Continental Congress–21 Haudenasaunee men attended nearly a month of the congress, and on June 11, 1776, the continental congress gave a speech to the gathered Six Nations members urging them to not take sides in the impending war, calling them “brothers,” and promising a future of peace “as long as the sun shines and waters run.” (LIARS!) But the speech, in full, is actually really interesting. The language is quite poetic, for all the lying. But it speaks of equals, of a partnership. The Native folks even gave John Hancock an Indian name after the speech.
Knowing that such a large contingent of Native people were in the actual space of the Continental Congress so close to declaring independence tells us that the founding fathers were clearly thinking about and weighing the options of how best to deal with their Native neighbors. Native people, too, were obviously thinking through the implications of war between the British and Colonists–they knew it was a battle for Native land as much as a battle for freedom from British rule.
Then we have the Declaration of Independence itself, which I’m fond of pointing out every fourth of July on Twitter, contains the phrase: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”
So despite that “brother” talk, our founders featured in the play thought of black folks as inferior and worthy of enslavement, but also that Native people were “merciless Indian Savages” who engaged in “undistinguished destruction.” Awesome. Wow.
Then there’s the undeniable influence of Iroquois representation governance on the US constitution. Lots of articles about that, I don’t need to belabor the point here. In the Constitution, we have three references to “Indians,” the most notable being the commerce clause: which gives Congress the power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with the Indian tribes.” (tribal sovereignty, what what)
Thomas Jefferson, one of the main characters in the play, also had a long history and relationship with Native peoples, he spent a lot of time growing up as an amateur archaeologist (ie grave robber), and “collected” artifacts from the Lewis and Clark expedition which were later displayed in his Monticello home. He had this dual thing where he thought Natives were noble and “in body and mind equal to the whiteman,” but still called us savages and was the mastermind behind Indian removal (Jackson carried it out, but Jefferson thought of it). He was a major proponent of assimilation (The “civilization project” as he called it) for Natives as well.
He also had a major interest in Native languages, and the year he became president (1800, also featured prominently in the play), he was deeply at work on dictionaries and grammar guides for several languages, and had to postpone his work until 1808. He apparently had over 50 dictionaries, including some from the Lewis and Clark expedition, which were lost into the Potomac when trying to move his belongings back to Monticello. Sadface.
(Shout out to this website for all the great info above, if you want a more in depth read on the relationships between Jefferson, Franklin, and Paine and Native communities read it!)
George Washington also had a long history with Native peoples, was acquaintances with a Haudenosaunee leader, who gave him the name “Conotocaurious” (Hanadahguyus), which means “town destroyer” or “devourer of villages.” It was originally a reference to Washington’s great-grandpa who quelled a Native uprising (massacred Native people), and was given the name, but then George lived up to his name in 1779 (still in the time frame of the play), when he ordered the Sullivan Expedition to destroy 40 Haudenosaunee villages who had sided with the British. Again, so much for that “brotherhood” talk.
You may know that Hamilton himself lent his name and support to (the school now known as) Hamilton College in NY, but what you may not know is the school founded in 1793 was originally called the “Hamilton-Oneida Academy.” Oneida, as in the Oneida Nation. It was started by a missionary, had assimilationist views, and very few Oneidas actually attended, but it apparently had a big opening ceremony with lots of fanfare and lots of Native presence, and Hamilton was a founding trustee (and, I mean, his name was on it.). He also overall advocated peace with the neighboring tribes, but also supported the military campaigns against them, so who knows.
I mean, there’s so much more. These are just a few basic points. So where are any references to these relationships in the play?
Some of you frequent readers might be saying, but Dr. K, didn’t you tell JK Rowling that she should have just left Natives out if she knew nothing about them and couldn’t do the research to represent them respectfully? How is this different? If Lin-Manuel didn’t feel confident writing about Natives, shouldn’t he have left them out, per your logic???
Oh snarky fake person based on real twitter people, let me explain: There is a small difference between a fictional, magical wizarding world, and the actual real life history of the United States of America.
Hope that clears that up.
What could Hamilton have done to remedy this? Honestly, I wouldn’t have expected a Native main character, unless a historian can think of one that would have worked (let me know!). But just some acknowledgement throughout the lyrics that Natives exist, that this brand new United States is on Native land, and that African slavery is not the only racial injustice being perpetuated in the “New World.”
The reality is Native people are erased in nearly every representation in popular culture, so I wouldn’t have expected any different. But these moments add up, the erasure is real, both in contemporary society and historically, and has real implications. I, as a Native person who has been through 22 years of school, learned a ton reading up for this post (all those embedded links are really helpful for more info)–and that’s sad. We aren’t taught the history of Indigenous peoples in any real or meaningful way, and creators of media aren’t expected to engage with Native peoples in any real or meaningful way either. But we should be taught, and there should be an expectation that Native peoples be included and respected–you are on Native land, after all. We are still here, and are still a part of this United States of America you plopped on top of us without our consent, and deserve to be recognized. Especially in a show about our Nation’s history.
So to conclude I’ll channel my fave character Angelica Schuyler and say,
“You want a revolution? I want a revelation! We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal, and when I meet
Thomas JeffersonLin Manuel Miranda I’m gonna persuade him to include womenNatives in the sequel. (Work!)”
I’ve been putting off writing this for a long time, because it’s sticky. Mostly, because I love the music and think the play deserves all the accolades it is receiving, and don’t want to take away from that. I also often struggle to find the line of criticizing work from POC, while not expecting other POC to be responsible for the labor of representing all people of color, and not getting into the politics of “but we had it worse!” So know that I’m aware of those complications, and tried to toe that line here. I’ve literally had this post in the drafts folder for months, mostly because I’ve gotten so much joy out of the Hamilton soundtrack that I felt hypocritical writing about it–but I was tweeting about James Baldwin the other day and remembered my fave quote, “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you do not see.” So Lin-Manuel, this is out of love. In a non-creepy way. Swear.
If any actual historians want to weigh in with other facts or historic figures that should have been included, let me know!
(Thanks to Emma H., Eve who gave me insight from actually seeing the show–lucky!, and Chris B., who sent me the first FB message pointing this out months ago that made me facepalm and say “oh, @#$%.”.)
PS- I resisted putting in like 10,000 Hamilton references and puns in this post so be grateful. Just snuck in a couple. haha.