Thursday, January 17, 2008

Middle Ground

"The the first attempt at delineating the country of the Great Lakes. Based wholly on Indian reports, the map accompanied a work by Samuel de Champlain, Les Voyages de la Nouvelle France, which was published in Paris in 1632." Caption from this site...

Title: The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991)

Author: Richard White, now holding an endowed professorship at Stanford. White is one of the major architects of the new environmental and Western histories (see also William Cronon, Patricia Limerick, Hal Rothman, Ramon Gutierrez). The Western approach embodied in his work re-visions the West as a land where various groups of people interacted, not simply the empty spot where Anglo-Americans exercised their growing dominance, as described in nineteenth-century historian Frederick Jackson Turner's "frontier thesis".

White is also author of
The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change Among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos (1983); "It's Your Misfortune and None of My Own": A History of the American West (1991), which I've never read but always wanted to, and which apparently never uses the word "frontier"; The Organic Machine: The Remaking of the Columbia River (1996), which we read in a Landscape class and which is notably shorter than Middle Ground; and Remembering Ahanagran: A History of Stories (1998).

Tecumseh, portrait uncited anywhere I could find (but I included it because of the prominence of the medal on his chest and the epaulets of his uniform). White wrote in his intro that he initially intended to write a book about Tecumseh's story, but decided that the back-story of Indian interaction with Europeans in the area was all the more interesting.

My short review: White dives into the complex, sometimes deeply confusing territory of the relationships between various Indian groups and the French, English, and American colonizers of the upper Midwest during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and emerges with a coherent narrative of the ways that cultural contact resulted in what he calls "the middle ground."

The book is not really assignable to undergrads, but (or maybe because) its underlying message is that stuff back then was more complex than we think it was. This complexity accounts for the occasional Biblically byzantine prose, describing the successions of various chiefs and French commanding officers. (I was only willing to forgive White the 525-page length of the book because he, quite endearingly, called Middle Ground "the Tristam Shandy of Indian history" in the foreword.) But all of this depth is definitely necessary, and definitely serves his point well: in a land of fragmented Indian groups, contacted by equally fragmented French traders, Jesuits, and travelers, people created a culture based on individual, face-to-face interactions, and it was a much more flexible and mutable one than has been described.

Particularly interesting examples of French and Indian contact/conflict come under the cultural situations of gift-giving, order-giving, murder, and sex. Gifts were used by Indian groups as ways to establish alliance; the French initially resented this, but eventually saw their efficacy; the British never wholeheartedly capitulated to what they saw as "begging Indians" and their empire suffered as a result. The maintenance of authority was understood differently by the Europeans and the Indians - Euros thought that because somebody was a chief, that meant that they could control all of their people, while Indian authority was much more conditional. French people in the country (the pays d'en haut) eventually learned this and worked around it, but their imperial commanders never seemed to understand; and the British saw the Indian lack of hierarchy as an emblem of their less-developed society. Murder was a situation which the Indians dealt with by "raising" or "covering" the dead (ie, giving the bereaved family a slave to replace the lost person, or goods to make up for his/her loss), while the Europeans believed in an eye for an eye. White describes how various instances of murder forced the French and Indians to create solutions which satisfied both sides of the equation, and how the British and American interactions were far less flexible. Finally, sex in the backcountry was an example of the literal "middle ground" - the birth of various metis (half-French, half-Indian) children served to help trade and establish ties between communities of the different nations.

All of this cultural exchange was possible and necessary because the French "needed" the Indians - or at least, they needed the Indians not to kill them, and to trap beaver for them, and not to betray them to the English during imperial wars. Once the British came into power, and once the Americans started colonizing the back-country, this "need" went away and "Indian-hating" became more common. Against this backdrop, the story told by Jill Lepore of the interactions between Indians and English in Massachusetts takes on added poignancy. (Or does it? The story White tells makes it pretty clear that the French weren't inherently more tender-hearted or kind, but simply in dire-r straits, which forced them to interact on a more human level with the Indians...if they had lived in tight quarters with Indians and needed land for domesticated animals and seen no need to patronize Indians to maintain trading relationships, as was the case in MA, they might not have been so open to relating in the way they did.)

"The Black Robe", 1991 movie about a Jesuit priest in the pays d'en haut - haven't seen it yet, but intend to. Check out the praise: "Packs twice the punch of Dances with Wolves."

Reviews of Others: Well, this book won the Francis Parkman Prize and was a Pulitzer nominee, so there's that. In the Journal of American History, Robert Berkhofer Jr (author of The White Man's Indian), wrote that the book was praiseworthy for its synthesis, but worried that White had tried too hard to maintain his narrative scenario by omitting mention of what happened after the end of the War of 1812 (how can this be a "middle ground" if it's constantly shifting westward because of the actions of faraway imperial nations?) Rebecca Kugel, in the American Indian Quarterly, said much more about the patriarchal family relationship between French and Algonquins than I did in the above review (and it's helpful for me to remember that the French saw this relationship as one of authority, while the Algonquins thought a "father" should provide for and mediate between his "children" - and trouble came about when the French violated this compact, which they might not have completely understood). Kugel thought that White might have shortchanged the British and American eras in comparison to the French (what did she want, the Gravity's Rainbow of Indian history?)

Words: "phratry" ("
any of various analogous clans or kinship divisions found in other societies; [esp. in Anthropol.] a descent group or kinship group in some tribal societies); "moiety" ("a half, one of two equal parts"); "stroud" ("a blanket manufactured for barter or sale in trading with the North American Indians" - White writes that the British, for a time, had a trade advantage over the French because of their superior supply of scarlet strouds).

Books to follow up on: Secondary: Greg Dening, Islands and Beaches: Discourse on a Silent Land, Marquesas, 1774-1880 (1980).

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