Theodore Binnema. Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwest Plains. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001. xvi + 263 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-3361-4.
Reviewed by Carl Zimring (Department of History, Carnegie Mellon University)
Published on H-Environment (August, 2002)
A Place and Its Peoples
A Place and Its Peoples
Theodore Binnema identifies his study of the Northwest Plains prior to the arrival of Lewis and Clark as a human and environmental history of the Northwest Plains. Taken from an environmental history perspective, this fine book represents an excellent example of how to tie the human experience to the limits and opportunities presented by their environment. "The history of the northwest plains is ancient, dynamic, complex and fascinating," he concludes (p. 198), and his slender though impressive synthesis of environmental and social history coveys these attributes.
Binnema begins his study by setting the physical context, discussing the landscape, climate and natural resources of the plains. The landscape is "dominated by apparently lifeless shades of yellow, brown and white. Greenery passes quickly. In both summer and winter the sun and wind are relentless.... The nearly ceaseless wind makes the climate of the northwest plains what it is, subjecting the region to the most sudden weather changes on the globe" (p. 18).
The climate precluded humans from building surpluses with agriculture, making hunting and gathering bands the basis of human organization. The topography of the plains, though it precluded agricultural development, was conducive for large herds of bison, which were able to feed on its grasses year-round. Hunting bison was the primary economic activity of its residents. This activity depended upon seasonal variation as bison moved between the moist and dry areas of the plains throughout the year searching for grasses and water, and the human bands in turn followed the buffalo.
Having established the physical context of his study, Binnema then gives a detailed, nuanced history of the region's tribal groups. He employs a complex methodology involving ethnohistory, drawing upon travelers' accounts as well as the archaeological record of the region to reconstruct the economic and social patterns of life on the northwest plains. He emphasizes the interactions between the bands of the region, the land and each other prior to 1806. Following Richard White's argument that there are limits to using a cultural focus to study Native American life, Binnema links the social interactions on the plains with the limits and opportunities offered by the plains themselves.
Once Binnema establishes the physical context and his model of human interaction, his discussions of trade, diplomacy, disease and warfare strongly convey a sense of place. Binnema's work also follows the historiography of the past three decades in stating the native bands--in contact with Europeans in the late eighteenth century--were active participants in trade rather than passive victims. Intertribal dynamics (bands inhabiting the plains prior to the nineteenth century included Blackfoot, Cree, Assiniboine, Shoshoni, Arapahos, Gros Ventre, Crows, Hidatsas, Salishans and Flatheads) as they competed for resources, fought, cooperated and saw intermarriages across tribal lines represented a rich and complex native social structure. What results is a sophisticated understanding of how these people lived prior to the nineteenth century, as Binnema incorporates discussion of environmental, technological and social factors in explaining the region's history. Sometimes rivals joined to fight common enemies, and complex patterns of cooperation and competition in trade existed. Technological change in weaponry altered bison hunting as bows and arrows gave hunters new advantages. Innovation did not stop at the bow and arrow; the horse and gun brought new advantages to bison hunters after 1700. Between 1770 and 1805, bands using these tools gained power at the expense of those who lacked guns and horses introduced by Europeans (who also brought smallpox). European contact affected the complex social and political order of the bands, though it did not dominate them as bands continued to compete for the resources offered by the plains.
Binnema places the intersection of society and the environment at the center of his study, showing how the physical setting affected interethnic relations, power, trade and warfare. He examines how environmental pressures affected intergroup relations. Evidence suggests that horse herds were killed by the notoriously harsh winters, causing the Cree and Assiniboine bands to replenish their herds continuously through raids on other bands. The Blackfoots' horses were sometimes in such poor condition that the band substituted dogs (p. 141). The Cree and Blackfoot bands warred frequently in the 1780s, then relations between them eased, perhaps due to milder winters reducing the shortage of horses (p. 143). The changing climate, resources and technology available to the bands led to a very dynamic order of political and economic relations.
Common & Contested Ground is an excellent example of a study of the evolving relationship between a place and its peoples, worth reading not only for future studies of indigenous peoples but also for general studies of ethnicity and geography. The prose is clear and concise, and I recommend this book to teachers interested in using a monograph on Native American environmental history in an undergraduate seminar.
. Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
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Carl Zimring. Review of Binnema, Theodore, Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwest Plains.
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