Stephen Warren. The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014. Maps. 336 pp. $39.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4696-1173-0.
Reviewed by Joshua J. Jeffers (Indiana University-Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI) )
Published on H-Ohio (February, 2015)
Commissioned by Jon S. Miller (The University of Akron)
In this thoroughly researched and engagingly written study, Stephen Warren examines Shawnee history from its Fort Ancient origins through more than a century of migrations across the Eastern Woodlands. In doing so, he illustrates the axiom once observed by anthropologist Raymond DeMallie, “culture and culture change are, in effect, the same phenomenon.” By explaining how one of the most place-bound cultures in the world became one of the most transient, Warren demonstrates how Shawnees made “movement and dispersal integral components of their culture” and were able to hold onto their language and culture despite sacrificing their homeland as they adapted to the demands of a colonial world (p. 24). This research thus challenges the pervasive tendency in historiography to assume that Native cultures are distinctly tied to specific places and that migration inevitably means loss, as well as the assumption that Native migrations represented eccentric, random, and ill-planned wanderings or haphazard fleeing from settler colonial intrusions. Warren seeks to explain “the purpose and consequences of [Shawnee] migrations,” and how they “reimagined themselves as they migrated from, and returned to, the Middle Ohio Valley” (pp. 18, 20). In doing so, he challenges the idea that Shawnees had to be either a coherent tribe that was shattered by colonial forces or a coalescent community created in response to colonial forces by illustrating that they were indeed both.
Warren also rightly argues that “historians have overplayed the schism between precontact and early American worlds” (p. 30). He criticizes historian James Merrell’s characterization of early contact, what Warren labels the “new world thesis,” arguing that such a paradigm suggests that Native societies lost or abandoned precontact identities as a result of contact (p. 55). Instead, he argues, through an innovative intertwining of documentary, ethnographic, and archaeological evidence, that the village-based traditions and identities of the precontact period persevered well into the “historic” period. Yet, Warren then goes on to describe the emergence of Shawnee society as deriving from a profound break during the proto-contact period. “Between 1630 and 1680,” he writes, “Fort Ancient peoples abandoned villages that had been inhabited for more than twenty generations, [and] suddenly shifted from a deep attachment to place to a series of epic migrations" (p. 13). Migration became the means by which villagers adapted to the “seismic consequences of colonialism,” and “out-migration from the Middle Ohio Valley transformed the Fort Ancient Tradition” (pp. 58, 59). While this may at first glance seem like a contradiction, it is not. It is part of Warren’s central claim that such an either/or understanding of Native societies and the changes wrought by colonialism leads us ultimately to rely on faulty or unwieldy binaries, such as that between the pre- and post-contact periods, between ethnogenesis and cultural coalescence, and between coherent tribes and wandering nomads. As he makes clear, Shawnees represent a direct challenge to the underlying assumptions of all of these binaries.
Warren calls for Native histories that “reach beyond homogenous notions of identity” so that they might better understand the pluralistic world that Native societies inhabited, the ways in which colonialism accelerated that pluralism, and the resulting realities on the ground (p. 20). Thus, he advocates a village-based rather than tribal or geographical approach to Native history. Within this framework, he labels Shawnee peoples “parochial cosmopolitans” in reference to their ability to simultaneously adapt to changing colonial circumstances while maintaining an attachment to a village-based way of life (p. 25). He demonstrates, for example, that “prehistoric alliances and trade networks informed Shawnee migrations,” even as slavery and warfare tore at their parochial loyalties, and they became more cosmopolitan, moving hundreds of miles from their homeland and developing new economies and rituals, which then served to continually invigorate both local village loyalties and a broader Shawnee culture (p. 78). During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Shawnee bands turned up in places as varied as the Middle Savannah River near present-day Augusta, Georgia, where they served as middlemen in the slave trade; the grand Village of Kaskaskia, where they formed alliances among the Illinois Confederacy; and the Susquehanna River Valley, where they lived among the Susquehannock survivors of Bacon’s Rebellion. The common feature of such places is that they were violent borderlands between Native and European societies where daily life was precarious but also presented opportunity. As Europeans extended their grasp, writes Warren, “Shawnees became very effective opportunists” (p. 81). Straddling the expanding world of the Atlantic slave trade and European empire and the fractured world of precontact alliances, homelands, and histories, Shawnees increasingly utilized their abilities to serve as slave hunters, mercenaries, and defensive buffers as a means of cultural survival, traveling “vast distances to take advantage of these multi-ethnic gathering places” (p. 15). By illustrating that violent borderlands could be places of opportunity, Warren challenges some of the primary assumptions about Native responses to colonialism and locates considerable agency in village leaders, as Shawnees migrated to these zones of conflict and strategic centers of trade and war where Indians and Europeans needed each other and Shawnees could exploit social, political, or economic niches. Moreover, by pursuing the opportunities offered by these places of intersection, Shawnees “helped to reorder and reimagine colonial worlds,” and by the middle of the eighteenth century, their migrations and reinventions had made Shawnee society highly adaptive and committed to village-based loyalties and rituals rather than to a specific landscape (p. 81).
The work of Keith Basso, Peter Nabakov, and others have emphasized the intimate relationship between people and landscape among Native societies. Warren’s work highlights that the Shawnee as well as other Eastern Woodlands societies did not exhibit the same sort of man-land relationships that Basso found among the Western Apache. Warren seems to fear that such a close association between sacred geography and cultural identity might mean that geographical dislocation is the equivalent of culture death. Thus, through the example of the Shawnee, he challenges the notion that American Indian religions “emanate from the land itself” (p. 23). Contrary to many Native societies west of the Mississippi, many Eastern Woodlands societies have endured a number of dislocations since the time of early contact and thus lack direct associations with a homeland that spans the precontact and colonial periods. As a result, they are seen as lacking any connections to the precontact world and by extension, any legitimate claim to a homeland. Such beliefs continue to affect Native societies by, for example, denying them the right to advocate for their ancestors (p. 31).
Just as Shawnees straddled two worlds, Warren’s research stands astride a distinctive historical time and place where the disciplines of history and archaeology meet. Part of what makes the study so significant is that Warren successfully puts these fields of inquiry into negotiation and derives from it a deeper, more nuanced understanding of both this historical period and the actions and motivations of Shawnees. Through his analysis of Shawnee ethnogenesis and opportunism, Warren offers a detailed historical context for the repopulation of the Ohio Valley during the eighteenth century. Land hunger and the decline of both the slave trade and the fur trade “drove a wedge between Native and European residents of colonial-era borderlands” (p. 155). As Shawnees and their neighbors declined in importance along colonial borderlands, they moved west back to the Ohio homelands of their ancestors, where a “new racial consciousness” emerged among Native villagers, whose experiences of movement and reinvention had engendered a new understanding of the relationship between Natives and newcomers that increasingly tended toward pan-Indian expressions of unity.
Warren presents a new framework for historians to interpret the history of Eastern Woodlands peoples, the Ohio Valley, and Native-newcomer relations. The village-centered approach that he employs represents an emerging methodology for understanding Eastern Woodlands societies and, as Warren demonstrates, offers an effective means of bringing together historical and archaeological research. Warren challenges scholars to reconceptualize our understanding of the responses and adaptations of Eastern Woodlands peoples to the realities of colonialism and, by extension, of the context in which we think about Native-newcomer relations and the history of removal. One fear is that this history might provide ammunition for the, in my experience all too common, popular claim that removal was not particularly damaging for Native peoples and that Native societies actually got a “good deal.” I guess this is the risk one must take in the pursuit of historical understanding. Regardless, this is first-rate scholarship, and Warren’s important contribution to the history of the Shawnees, the Ohio Valley, and the adaptation of village life to colonial realities will doubtless be an important point of departure for Ohio Valley, Eastern Woodland, and trans-Appalachian scholarship for years to come.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-ohio.
Joshua J. Jeffers. Review of Warren, Stephen, The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America.
H-Ohio, H-Net Reviews.
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