Michael Witgen. An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012. vi + 450 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8122-4365-9.
Reviewed by John Reda (Illinois State University)
Published on H-AmIndian (July, 2014)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe
Confronting the Illusion of Empire
In the past twenty years, historians of America’s colonial and early national periods have shattered the old eastern-centric narrative by looking into North America’s interior and presenting us with new ways of understanding what they call the “middle ground”; the “Native Ground”; the “divided ground”; and now, in the words of Michael Witgen, the “Native New World.” Witgen’s An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America argues that characterizations—in both the past and present—of indigenous peoples in America’s colonial period as conquered or “vanishing” are illusory and ignore the evidence that, at least in the large area stretching from the upper Great Lakes to Hudson’s Bay, Europeans and Euro-Americans played only supporting roles in the creation of a Native New World. This world—dominated by indigenous peoples—sprang from transformations brought about by the arrival of European traders and missionaries and the material goods and ideas they carried with them.
Witgen’s impressive book is ambitious in its attempt both to reorder our fundamental understanding of what was happening between the French and Native Americans during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and to push back the onset of effective U.S. sovereignty in the region to the middle of the nineteenth century. That he largely succeeds with the first and to some extent with the second is testimony to the effective mix of historical, ethnographic, and anthropological perspectives in his approach and to his creative and effective reinterpretation of the accounts provided by French and American traders, missionaries, and imperial officials operating in Anishinaabewaki: the lands occupied by the Algonquian-speaking Native Americans (Anishinaabeg) Witgen places at the heart of his story.
In the prologue, Witgen describes an 1832 meeting between the Anishinaabeg leader Flat Mouth and a delegation of American officials that included the explorer and ethnologist Henry Schoolcraft. Flat Mouth’s rejection of American paternalism and anger at the failure of the United States to honor its treaty obligations is described in contrast to Schoolcraft’s paternalism and sense of cultural superiority. In the nineteenth century, Schoolcraft’s descriptions of such Native Americans as Flat Mouth helped inspire such works as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic, The Song of Hiawatha (1855)—an ode to the “vanishing” Indian—but in the twenty-first century they can be used, as Witgen explains, as a window into the Native American perspective, provided that the reader does not privilege the fantasies of European discovery and conquest on which they were based. Those fantasies placed savage indigenous peoples as subordinates in the story of the creation by civilized Europeans of a New World in the Western Hemisphere.
While Witgen acknowledges that for some places in the Western Hemisphere the European perspective was not entirely fanciful, in Anishaabewaki—deep in the North American interior—a Native New World developed that connected “Native peoples with little or no contact with Europeans to an emerging world market economy” (p. 19). In the Native New World, discovery and conquest were real only in the minds of Europeans, which is not to say they were irrelevant to developments on the ground. The illusions of imperial power and authority that these ideas fueled, in fact, had much to do with the decisions made and actions taken by the French, and with the subsequent descriptions and interpretations of events by the British and Americans that succeeded them, and by historians centuries later.
In part 1 of the book, Witgen reinterprets the first century of French contact with Native Americans to include a more compelling Native American perspective than we are used to seeing, even of late. He describes the world of the Anishinaabeg as having two categories for people: foreigners (meyaagizid) and relatives (inawemaagen). It was possible for people such as French missionaries or traders to move from the first category to the second, usually via a Native American ceremony that the French misinterpreted as formalizing a political and/or military alliance. The ensuing “alliance” was often reported in French accounts as being hierarchal, with the French having added another nation or nations to their North American empire. Among the many problems with this interpretation was the very idea of Native American nations. Witgen explains that rather than being members of anything resembling European nations, Native Americans belonged to much smaller clans (doodem) that were in a perpetual state of flux as far as size, location, purpose, and alliances with other doodem or with Europeans.
The French, meanwhile, held ceremonies of their own, in a direct attempt to assert imperial sovereignty over Native Americans as subjects whose territory was being incorporated into an expanding French Empire. Up to this point, Witgen’s explanation seems little different from Richard White’s middle ground, where cultural misinterpretations often led to workable understandings between Europeans and Native Americans. Witgen, however, pushes further to demonstrate that the French passed quickly from misunderstanding Native Americans to becoming essentially delusional about the nature of their relationships with them. In the Great Lakes, most Native Americans were seasonal migrants with multiple identities and whose doodem could relocate or reconfigure depending on circumstances. One circumstance that served as a catalyst for many such relocations and reconfigurations was the introduction of French goods into the Anishinaabeg’s world. In this light, the expansion of French trade deeper and deeper into the North American interior was less a matter of empire building or even growing French influence over Native Americans and more an opportunity for Native Americans to expand their own complex web of alliances and influence. The Anishinaabeg, argues Witgen, were not on their way to losing autonomy due to their dependence on French goods. In some cases, their autonomy and political power was instead enhanced.
In part 2, Witgen moves the story farther north and west and traces the creation of the Native New World. On the southern banks of Hudson’s Bay, the English—represented initially by two French veterans of the Anishinaabeg trade—sought to gain a foothold in the North American fur trade while the French tried to stymie their English rivals. For Native Americans, access to European goods from another supplier spurred new exchange and kinship relationships and the true beginning of a Native New World. European goods now moved even farther into the North American interior, reaching Native Americans who might never have had any direct contact with a French or English trader. Instead, autonomous Native American groups, with their own imperial alliances and rivalries, increasingly called the shots in a Native New World that Witgen sees as an analogue to the European-dominated Atlantic New World.
When French traders, most of them unlicensed, moved beyond the Great Lakes toward the northern plains to open trade with the Dakota, the situation became even more complicated. Trade with the Dakota meant that the French were now doing business with the enemies of their Anishinaabeg “children,” with violence among Native Americans or between Native Americans and the French often the result. Witgen is at his most persuasive here in showing that the writings of French missionaries and traders, such as Daniel Du Lhut, were fundamentally dishonest in their descriptions of an expanding French Empire. Du Lhut knew that French relationships with Native Americans in the West were entirely dependent on the ability of French traders to provide a steady supply of trade goods—something that was already becoming a problem by the early 1700s. He also knew that any influence the French wielded in the West stemmed from their ability to mediate between Native American groups who wished to change their status with each other from meyaagizid to inawemaagen—or the reverse. The French were now scrambling for a place within the Native New World.
Part 3 of the book describes the last decades of France’s official presence in North America. For many years, colonial histories pointed to the treaty generally referred to as the Great Peace of 1701 as the high-water mark of France’s North American empire. Held in Montreal, the conference included Native American representatives from as far away as the western shores of Lake Superior. It was here that the Iroquois famously adopted their policy of neutrality toward imperial rivals England and France, and combined with the contemporaneous establishment of French settlements along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi River, and at Detroit, the arc of French Empire, if nothing else, looked impressive on the maps studied by officials in Paris, London, and Madrid. In the past several years, however, historians have begun to note the thinness of the French presence along much of this arc of empire. Witgen goes further, arguing that the Great Peace, while an impressive diplomatic achievement, only serves to underscore the illusory nature of the entire idea of a colonial French Empire. He explains that the 1696 closing of the licensed fur trade by imperial officials (due to a glut of furs) exacerbated the existing instability in the region—and undermined any semblance of French authority—as unlicensed traders competed for Native American customers with little regard for France’s strategic interests. To make matters worse, the diplomatic success achieved in 1701 backfired in the West where the relative neglect of France’s Anishinaabeg allies resulted in increased violence involving the Dakota and Mesquackie (Fox).
The real story, according to Witgen, is that while European goods had been the catalyst for the creation of a Native New World—and remained vitally important commodities—Europeans were peripheral to that world. What mattered was that goods somehow continued to reach those living in the Native New World. In the West, Native Americans were not in a demographic decline, nor were they surrendering their autonomy due to a tragic dependence on European goods. Instead, they were demographically dominant and had become legitimate players in the Atlantic world economy. Their growing demand for goods, meanwhile, was met by suppliers—both French and British—whose interior posts were more jumping-off points for traders than strongholds representing imperial power and authority.
While the British victory in the Seven Years’ War certainly marked a turning point in colonial North American history, Witgen argues, little changed in the Native New World. “When the French transferred their claim of possession in the Great Lakes to the British how much did it matter? What they gave their rivals was a few posts where the British would, like the French, garrison a few soldiers and struggle to manage relations with Native peoples who outnumbered them, and who largely ignored their laws and customs. In other words, the British did not gain sovereign possession of the Great Lakes, they simply inherited the illusion of empire” (p. 217). In the end, the French had become expendable pawns within the Native New World. The idea that the French could do business—and exert authority—over a progressively larger and demographically diverse area becomes almost ludicrous in Witgen’s telling. If trade and diplomacy were intrinsically linked for Native Americans, it was almost by definition impossible to be allies and trade partners with everyone.
Part 4 of Infinity of Nations carries the story of the Native New World through the end of the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. North of an international border that remained a work in progress the British realistically focused more on maintaining their role as the primary supplier to the Native New World while to the south the United States spoke loudly about Indians needing to exit a “state of nature” if they aspired to citizen status. In the Native New World, meanwhile, the Dakota were expanding onto the Great Plains, seeking the horses and buffalo they were using—along with furs—to acquire European goods and Anishinaabeg allies. It is not until the third decade of the nineteenth century that Witgen sees in the series of treaties between the United States and the Anishinaabeg the seeds of the eventual subordination of the Native New World. The process would take several decades and would not involve the cultural extinction of Native Americans, at least not in Anishaabewaki.
In the epilogue, we meet the métis resistance leader Louis Riel, who led the Red River Rebellion of 1869-70 that resulted in the creation of the modern province of Manitoba. Witgen’s characterization of Riel as representing the métis link between the European and Native New Worlds comes across as something of a stretch but still a useful trope by which to preface the brief, but thought-provoking discussion of race that ends the book.
For historians working in any number of fields, An Infinity of Nations presents a challenge to move beyond an acknowledgement of Native American agency in the colonial era of North American history to a consideration of a Native American New World as a fundamental challenge to the national narratives of both the United States and Canada. What do we make of the idea that “the possession of large portions of Native North America by the empires of Europe never occurred” (p. 28)? The answer to that question, as well as to the many others raised in this provocative book, can only serve to further enliven the ongoing reappraisal of early North American history.
. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991); Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); and Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006).
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John Reda. Review of Witgen, Michael, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America.
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