The history of Anishinaabe historians

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In my first years of college, I took a class that focused on the intellectual heritage of the Western world. And as I read those works, I started wondering, what history is there of indigenous intellectuals in North America? I was excited to discover that there is actually a fairly long history of Metis and Anishinaabe writers, especially historians.

Probably the most famous Ojibwe historian of the 19th century is William Whipple Warren. The son of an American trader and a mixed-blood Ojibwe woman (the daughter of Michel and Madeline Cadotte, two high profile local figures), he was born at LaPointe in modern Wisconsin and was educated in several schools out east intended for Native American pupils. He is most well-known for his work History of the Ojibway People, written in the 1840s and published in 1885 after his death, in which he synthesized Anishinaabe oral tradition with Western historiographical tradition. Modern Blackfoot/Ojibwe historian Theresa Schenck has edited a version of this work which is a really fascinating look at the Dakota-Ojibwe conflicts of the 1700s and 1800s.

Another major figure is Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, the child of an Irish fur trader and an Ojibwe chief’s daughter, who lived from 1800 to 1842. A prominent figure in Sault Ste. Marie, she wrote poetry in both English and Ojibwe along with traditional stories learned from her mother, some of which was published in a local literary magazine. Her work is particularly important to American literature as a whole because the stories from her mother became the basis for Longfellow’s poem “Hiawatha,” Lonfellow having learned them from Jane’s American husband Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. Henry, an early figure in American anthropology, published a number of his wife’s stories in altered form, and she went largely unknown for years. An excellent book about her life and writings is available, titled The Sound the Stars Make Rushing Through the Sky. More information and some of her writings are available on the book’s website.

A number of early Anishinaabe writers were Christians and missionaries. Peter Jones was a Mississauga Methodist preacher in the early 19th century who devoted his life to spreading the word of Christianity to other indigenous people. On top of his extensive traveling to give speeches advocating assimilation, Jones worked on translating the Bible and numerous prayers into Ojibwe, and wrote a history of the Ojibwe people. George Copway, another Mississauga, converted to Methodism along with his parents at an early age and served as a missionary until being defrocked for embezzlement. He was briefly a celebrity among the East Coast elite for his autobiography and history of the Ojibwe people published in 1850.

Although he was Odawa rather than Ojibwe, another significant Anishinaabe writer was Andrew Blackbird. He attended school for several years, including a stint at Eastern Michigan University, and served as a translator and mediator between local Odawa and Ojibwe people and the US government. In 1887 he published a history of the Odawa and Ojibwe in Michigan as well as a grammar of the languages. Another non-Ojibwe Anishinaabe writer was Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi activist who became quite popular among Chicago elites in the late 1800s. His work included criticisms of the US treatment of Native people along with historical accounts of local history. You can read his “Red Man’s Rebuke” online, which he distributed at the 1893 Chicago World’s Columbian Exposition.

Those are just a few of the historical writers that I know of. Anishinaabe people were some of the earliest Native people to produce English works, likely because of their longtime contact with fur traders and officials. They were significant for producing indigenous perspectives on history early on. Modern Anishinaabe writers such as Anton Treuer, Patty Loew, Erik M. Redix, and Theresa Schenck (among many others) are today continuing to push the boundaries of indigenous history by challenging the biases and methods of historiography and choosing to indigenize them in various ways. In doing so, they are drawing on a long tradition of Anishinaabe historians that came before them.

Indigenous literature for children

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A common question I’ve received on this blog since writing about indigenous people in textbooks comes from parents and teachers: what are good resources on indigenous history suitable for children? Unfortunately I don’t have many recommendations of my own, but I thought I would pass along some links to good places to look for those who want to improve the education kids get on indigenous issues.

One great place to look is the blog of Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo), American Indians in Children’s Literature. She reviews tons of books, and while the number of terrible resources is often overwhelming, she helpfully provides a page where you can find lists of books that are great.

The other central place to look is Oyate, a fantastic organization that reviews and publishes books featuring indigenous people. Their website has a section that reviews books, as well as a resources section including selections from their book How to Tell the Difference: A Guide for Evaluating Children’s Books for Anti-Indian Bias. For teachers, I would also highly recommend Oyate’s book A Broken Flute, an enormous guide that reviews hundreds of books. More than that, it includes essays and poems from indigenous people (including children!) about their experiences with schooling and the effects of poor treatment of indigenous people in literature. It’s well worth taking a look at if you get the chance.

Overall, I would strongly encourage anyone who wants to better educate children or themself to look at Oyate’s post on evaluating books and its additional criteria. These guides will help you develop a sense for what is appropriate and respectful, and what is not.

Three technologies people think pre-contact Native Americans didn’t have (that they actually did)

1. Writing

By this point in time, it’s fairly well-accepted and fairly well-known that Mesoamerican peoples used writing systems, the most famous being Classic Maya writing. Mesoamerica is one of the places where writing developed independently rather than being adopted from neighboring people. Besides the Maya system, there were numerous others: Teotihuacan script (which hasn’t yet been deciphered), Zapotec script (ditto), Mixtec script, Mexica (“Aztec”) script, as well as a number of early scripts that aren’t entirely understood. Mesoamerican peoples created screenfold books on amatl paper. There were at one point a lot of these, but the overwhelming majority were burned by Spaniards. Still, many are still around and they’re well-studied.

What gets defined as writing is highly political, and writing systems in the Americas really deserves its own post, but I’m just going to point out a few systems of communicating information across time and/or space that get ignored because archaeologists have not (yet) deemed them to qualify under the technical category of writing: Ojibwe and other Algonkian people created wiigwaasabakoon, birch bark scrolls that recorded information such as historical stories, songs, medical instructions, recipes, and more–the most well-known are the Midewiwin scrolls that record the stories of the Midewiwin religious society. Mi’kmaq people did something similar, and in the 1600s Catholic priests adapted the system to use preach the Bible. To the west on the plains, there was also a pictorial system used to transcribe history (such as on winter counts), and to send messages.

White Horse's winter count

White Horse’s winter count

There are also a few methods of recording information that seem very far from typical ideas of writing. In Andean South America, groups of knotted cords called khipu were used to record mostly numerical data, but also some non-numerical data. They were essential in the administration of Tawantinsuyu (the Inka empire), and continue to be used in a few rural locations today. In the northeastern woodlands, the Haudenosaunee (and other nearby nations) used woven wampum belts to record historical information. I don’t know a lot of about it, but they were used to pass down information over generations, and were also used to record treaties and even send letters. The wampum tradition is still strong among Haudenosaunee leaders today.

An Inkan khipu

An Inkan khipu

2. Woven cloth

Native Americans wore animal skins. I think I’ve heard that in practically every description of Native peoples I’ve seen. It’s certainly true that animal skins and furs were major players in Native clothing, but often lost in these imagined pictures of deerskin-clad Natives are the truly fantastic textiles that they created. Most clothing in Mesoamerica was made from cotton, and indigenous people in the region are still to this day known for their beautiful, colorful cloth weaving. Pueblo people in the American southwest also made clothing out of cotton. Andean people made clothing out of cotton (on the coasts) and llama wool (in the highlands). All three of these traditions (and in reality, they’re not three traditions but a multitude of different traditions each) continue today.

In the eastern woodlands, especially the southeast, people made cloth out of plant fibers such as nettle, milkweed, dogbane, and various kinds of bark. Buffalo-hair textiles were also common, and on the Atlantic coast people wove cloaks made of turkey feathers (also made in the southwest, I believe). The Mississippians and their descendants used quite a lot of this cloth–though it has been often ignored because textiles don’t survive well in the southern climate–and it continued to be a major method of making clothes until the 1700s when European textiles mostly supplanted the indigenous tradition. Throughout the eastern part of North America a unique kind of weaving was used known as fingerweaving, which is unusual because it doesn’t require a loom and each strand becomes both warp and weft. Fingerweaving produces long thin cloth and was especially used for garters, sashes, straps. It continued to be used and actually increased in popularity after the introduction of European yarn, and it became a major symbol of the Metis nation in the form of the Assomption sash. A lot of Metis people, including myself, continue to practice fingerweaving.

Mid-19th century twined bag from Wisconsin, possibly  Ho-Chunk

Mid-19th century twined bag from Wisconsin, possibly Ho-Chunk

Weaving was also prevalent among west coast peoples, though I’m unfortunately less familiar with that area. Woven skirts and hats were one of the most common clothing items among coastal peoples. And then there’s chilkat weaving, which was made from mountain goat hair, dog fur, or cedar bark and made into the incredible designs that the Pacific Northwest nations are famous for. In recent years there has been a major revival movement in the area to keep practicing these forms of textile creation.

Tlingit chilkat weaving from British Columbia, attributed to Anisalaga (Mary Ebbetts Hunt) 1823-1919

Tlingit chilkat weaving from British Columbia, attributed to Anisalaga (Mary Ebbetts Hunt) 1823-1919

3. Metalwork

Copper and gold were both very common in the Americas before Europeans arrived. The gold is well-known in some ways, since that’s what made the Spanish want to invade so badly. Metallurgy in South America had early developed into a complex artform, complete with smelting technology; gold, silver, electrum, bronze, and tumbaga were all used. Initially metalwork was mostly used for decorative purposes to display status, but by the time of the Inkas had become common for utilitarian purposes as well. By 800 CE smelting technology had spread north to Central America and Mesoamerica, where it was particularly specialized in West Mexico. By the time of the Triple Alliance, the Mixtec peoples were known as the best goldworkers in Mesoamerica.

sican knife 850 to 1500 ce

Sican ceremonial knife from Peru

Further north, copper was the metal of choice. It was particularly abundant in the Great Lakes and it was a major part of eastern trade networks even from the earliest times. Copper was initially used for practical use such as knives and fishhooks, but by the time of the Mississippians it had also become popular for decorative depictions of sacred and political images. In addition to its practical usage, it held an important cosmological position for many people in the eastern woodlands, being associated with beings of the upper world such as the Thunderers or of the lower world such as beings called in English “horned serpents” and “underwater panthers.”

mississippian plate

Copper plate from the Etowah site in Georgia

Copper was an important metal in the Pacific Northwest region as well, where much of it seems to have come from sources up in Alaska. Iron from Japanese ships that washed ashore across the Pacific has also been documented both archaeologically and through indigenous oral traditions. There are also suggestions that there may have been trade across the Bering Strait over a long period of time. Early European traders discovered that metals were one of the most highly desired trade goods among the indigenous people there, and worked sheet copper became an important feature of potlatches. Government concern over the “destruction” of valuable copper was in fact a major factor in the banning of potlatches and indigenous ceremonies in the northwest. Traditional designs in metalwork is being revitalized today by many indigenous young people in the region.

The indigenous women miners of the Driftless Area

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Lead mining and the lead rush of the 1820s is a huge part of the cultural narrative of white settlement in southeastern Wisconsin and the nearby parts of Minnesota, Illinois, and Iowa known as the Driftless Area. It’s the quintessential frontier story: white American men discover a mineral resource and flood the area, doing the manly work of mining while they slowly civilize the area for further settlement.

But the idea that there was this untapped mineral waiting to be found by Americans is almost entirely wrong. For nearly a century before that, the lead mines had been worked with increasing intensity–and not just by Indians, but by Indian women specifically.

A colorplate of a Meskwaki family made by Jonathan Carver in 1781

A colorplate of a Meskwaki family made by Jonathan Carver in 1781

Indigenous people had been mining for lead in small quantities for thousands of years, but it was the arrival of the fur trade and especially the firearms it brought that sparked more heavy mining by Ho-Chunk, Sauk, and Meskwaki people–an American trader predicted that in the summer of 1826 the Meskwaki would raise between 600,000 and 800,000 pounds of lead at one of their key mining sites. Having learned to smelt from early fur traders, they used the mines to make lead balls for their guns. This had two benefits: it provided an alternative trade good to furs (which could vary greatly in number and quality depending on the year), and it lessened their need to purchase musketballs from the traders.

This process was highly gendered. The actual creation of ammunition was primarily men’s work, but mining itself was overwhelmingly dominated by women, with only a few elderly men participating. Indigenous women in this area were considered to have domain over the farming fields and the sugar bushes, and the mines may have been an extension of this. Like sugar-making, mining was probably a seasonal activity incorporated into the cyclical yearly activities. Women would dig square holes and dredge up the rock and ore, then broke up the deposits by heating them and dousing them with cold water before smelting the lead in furnaces cut into hillsides.

Evidence suggests that indigenous women may have had very strong proprietary feelings about the mines. As Creole communities of mostly French Canadian and mixed-blood people sprang up in the Driftless Area (such as in Prairie du Chien), only men who married Native women were permitted to even see the lead mines. One man, Julien Dubuque, was unusually granted permission to work the mines after marrying a Meskwaki woman, whose name has unfortunately been lost in the records. The work of Monsieur and Madame Dubuque expanded the mining operations by encouraging a developing Creole community that bought Indian lead in exchange for trade goods. According to Ho-Chunk sources, indigenous miners also sold musketballs to other tribes outside the region.

After the War of 1812, the American military established a more permanent presence in the region. At first, immigrating American men had to follow tradition and marry indigenous women to get involved with mining. But by the late 1820s thousands of white miners and a smaller number of black miners (both free and enslaved) had rushed to the area. The two groups of miners rarely mixed, clashing over gender roles, language, and prejudice. Worse, white men engaged in rowdy behavior, and indigenous women, who had occupied crucial positions in society until now, were abused so frequently that Indian men began to try to police them. In Prairie du Chien, the predominately metis society passed a law prohibiting “white persons skulking” around after dark.

The white miners’ abuse of Indian women, their destruction of indigenous food sources, and their relentless incursions into Indian territory were major issues for indigenous communities by 1830. Meanwhile, changing circumstances meant that women’s production of lead and maple sugar were now more central to indigenous economies than the fur trade, leaving men idle and susceptible to drunkenness and belligerence. These strains, along with longstanding conflicts over certain treaties, contributed to the outbreak of the Black Hawk War in the 1830s.

The war tore apart Indian communities and increased white fear and hatred for Indians, resulting in the policies of removal that were attempted in the next few decades. The Sauk and Meskwaki were removed several times to Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma. Some remained hidden in Iowa until they were allowed to purchase their own land in 1851, which they still own today as the Meskwaki Settlement. The Ho-Chunk were also removed repeatedly, to Minnesota, South Dakota, and Nebraska. Though some still live on the Nebraska reservation today, many Ho-Chunk people refused to leave their Wisconsin homeland, even walking back all the way from Nebraska. Today they have begun to reacquire their land in southeastern Wisconsin.

For more detailed information on this subject, see Economy, Race, and Gender along the Fox-Wisconsin and Rock Riveways, 1737-1832 by Lucy Eldersveld Murphy.

The Two-Sentence View of History

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I’ve been reading a lot of accounts recently that argue indigenous people asserted much more control over many areas of the continent into the 19th century than modern people usually assume (check out The Native Ground by Kathleen DuVal or An Infinity of Nations by Michael Witgen, not to mention Hamalainen’s Comanche Empire) and I got to thinking about the response my post about the teaching of Native history received.

One of the most common responses was along the lines of “Well, Native Americans didn’t contribute much to history anyway, they didn’t do much important, it’s sad but they were basically just wiped away by Europeans.” There is an incredible amount of hindsight bias in that kind of thinking. When you are living in a society in a time where Native people have been very carefully thrust out of view, it is easy to see the dominance of European-descendants as an inevitable, steadily progressing event. Manifest Destiny was always propaganda, and it has done its job beautifully.

Meanwhile, more and more historians and indigenous people at large are making powerful, nuanced demonstrations of how that view is not just a product of hindsight bias but also flatly incorrect for many parts of the continent. Others have shown how the “forgetting” of the impacts of indigenous people is part of a very deliberate political strategy in the creation of the US nation-state.

Yet still both laypeople and academics are skeptical that indigenous people had any impact on the history of the Americas besides in their legacy of disappearing. Why?

I’m starting to think it has to do with what I’m calling “two-sentence history.” Or maybe “textbook history” might work, too. A great deal of people do not seem to believe history matters unless you can explain it to them in about two sentences. Or that history outside of what would be taught in a grade-school textbook is not worth bothering with. A number of people in my earlier post pointed out that even European history is pretty shoddily written in textbooks–which is true, though it still gets a better deal than non-European history. Textbooks have historically been written with particular goals of providing an easy-to-follow and patriotic nation-supporting narrative. It’s not necessarily bad that textbooks are a specialized kind of writing–every kind of writing has some specific purpose. But too many people seem to have the attitude that any history more in-depth than that is pointless.

Note that the holder of the Two-Sentence View doesn’t just want you to be able to explain what happened in two sentences. No, you also have to be able to explain how and why what happened is of tangible relevance to Two-Sentence Viewholder right now. And then add in that what is considered “relevant” is largely determined by the narrative the viewholder was fed whenever they attended school. It’s basically a self-perpetuating cycle, with only the two sentences in their grade-school textbook ever being accepted as valid. Any new views of history are basically impossible to introduce with that sort of mindset.

This is all part of a bigger issue: why study history at all? The importance of history itself, any history, is increasingly challenged in the United States. “Why history” is an enormous question that people more thoughtful than me have answered, and I’m not going to try to do so. But if even mainstream history is being questioned, then the history of those seen as unimportant–such as indigenous people–doesn’t even have a chance.

I am alive!

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Hey folks. I haven’t been very good at keeping this blog up in the past year, and I’m sorry for that. A lot has happened in my life, and I went through some difficult times. I can’t promise that I will be incredibly consistent in the future–I am, after all, still a college student–but I’m going to try and do a little better. If nothing else, I’ll try to at least post reviews of what I’m reading at the moment. I should have a new post up by tomorrow, so look out.

Ancient Maya Craftsmanship

As requested by tumblr user crabbadon.

There were essentially two tiers of craftsmanship in ancient Maya society (by “ancient Maya society” I mean here basically any of the time periods in which Maya society was divided into elite and nonelite classes, basically the pre-classic period to a century or so after initial Spanish colonization).

The first form was the basic level of craftsmanship exhibited by more or less all individual families. Both women and men in your average Maya household made some kinds of crafts, in addition to their subsistence activities, for both their own use and for trading with others: pottery, utensils, and textiles, mostly. In poorer families and more rural locations, they mostly would just make what their own family needed. In larger areas however, families might individually specialize. So you’d have the family that was known for their pottery, and another family that made really beautiful fabric, and people would trade their own goods for others. This kind of economy continues in a similar fashion in modern Maya communities.

There was also, however, a large amount of crafts produced specially for the Maya nobility and royalty. Some of this came in the form of tribute from commoners–pottery in particular would be made by peasant families, then sent off to be painted by more trained artisans. These skilled craftspeople, both men and women, constituted a kind of intermediate class in society, about at the same rank of merchants, being wealthier than the average commoner but not holding any special title. Such families often had an extra building that they used as a workshop in their housing compound.

Often, however, nobles and royals themselves would sponsor artists to come work in their own workshops to produce highly skilled luxury goods. These were often monuments that served as propaganda for the political leaders, or religiously significant items needed for major ceremonies. The nobility kept a tight control over religious artifacts in particular, so that commoners needed to participate in the system of tribute in order to live a successful religious life. The result of this was that Maya crafts tended to be very cohesive in style within particular cities or provinces, creating large regional blocs that could be easily distinguished.

Some examples of Maya craftsmanship:

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ceramics from Tikal, 300-400 BC

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stela 11 from Kaminaljuyu, 200-50 BC

An Outline of Kaskaskia History

This blog post was written for tumblr user howoddnichole, who requested some information about Kaskaskia history. Most of the information comes from Richard White’s The Middle Ground, Wayne C. Temple’s Indian Villages of the Illinois Country, and the Peoria Tribal webpage

The Kaskaskia people were one of the primary tribes of the Inoka (Illinois) Confederacy of the 1600s and onwards. They were one of the Algonquian peoples attacked by the Haudenosaunee in the 1600s Beaver Wars, forcing them to take refuge in Wisconsin and Illinois. In the mid-1600s, refugees from a variety of tribes lived in multitribal villages, and it was probably around then that people of similar languages formed the Inoka Confederacy, with large numbers residing at a place called Starved Rock. The conditions people lived in were hard, as corn often failed and hunters competed intensely for game.

In 1680, the Haudenosaunee started another wave of attacks, destroying the Kaskaskia Great Village. This sparked an initial Algonquian-French alliance, and the French began to maintain posts at Starved Rock, where a large number of Kaskaskia resided. Along with them came large numbers of missionaries. Among the people of the Inoka Confederacy, young women in particular were attracted to Christianity and the cult of the Virgin Mary. In some ways, it had a similar function to a women’s religious society by providing them with a source of validation for power. Other women married French coureurs de bois, creating formal trade relationships through marriage, which ultimately led to the French essentially freaking out about miscegenation and removing all their western posts.

In 1694, a Frenchman named Michel Accault tried to get married to a devout Christian Kaskaskia woman who was also the daughter of a chief, Aramepinchieue. Her father wanted the marriage to happen to strengthen the trade ties, but Aramepinchieue refused, drawing on both Kaskaskia ideas of sexual sovereignty and Catholic notions of piety. Her father ejected her from his house and tried to stop the church services; she and fifty women persisted, defying the male authorities. Eventually they compromised, and the two were married and Aramepinchieue’s father agreed to let the priests in, resulting in the Kaskaskias becoming almost universally Catholic, at least in name, by 1711.

The Inoka confederacy was also engaged in long-term war with the Meskwaki nation, and they allied with the French to nearly destroy the Meskwaki in the 1730s. It may have been due to these wars and disease that during the 1700s the population of the Inoka declined significantly. The Kaskaskia resettled from Starved Rock to the place where the Kaskaskia River meets the Mississippi, where they continued to intermarry with Frenchmen. Their relationship with the movement led by Pontiac in the 1760s was touchy, and ended with Pontiac being killed by some Peoria for an attack he made on an Inoka chief.

By the time of the American Revolution, the Kaskaskia had mostly relocated to the Mississippi, but a group of them, along with other Indians, allied with the British and moved into the Ohio country to attack the Americans to prevent their entrance into the area. By the late 1700s, the Inoka confederacy’s population was devastated, and the United States negotiated a treaty with them at Vincennes in 1803 in which the Kaskaskia ceded their territory in Illinois Country and received two reservations.

In 1832, the remaining Kaskaskia signed a treaty leaving Illinois and Missouri to settle with Peoria, Piankeshaw, and Wea in Kansas, with whom they officially formed the Confederated Peoria tribe in 1854. After the Civil War, most signed the Omnibus Treaty to relocate to Indian Territory, while some remained and became US citizens. The Dawes Act of 1898 divided the Peoria’s land into allotments and dissolved the traditional government; this was reinstated with the Oklahoma Indian Welfare Act of 1939. In 1959, the Peoria tribe was terminated, and achieved federal recognition once again in 1978.

Indigenous slavery in the American Southeast

It is fairly well-accepted that American slavery of the 19th century developed from three distinct traditions of slavery that were mutated into a new, racialized, institutionalized form: European indentured servitude, West African slavery, and southeastern Native American slave trading. Of these, the last is probably the least well-known, despite it being essential to understanding how slavery as it’s popularly known became such an economic force in the southeast. So this is a brief overview of southeastern slavery before 1800.

Indigenous Traditions of Slavery

The period from 900 to 1700 CE in the southeast is known as the Mississippian period. During this time, people lived primarily in provinces composed of towns that paid tribute to a mico, or chief, who inherited his position through the maternal line. Power was established through deeds of war, so provinces frequently fought with one another. As a part of this, captives were often taken, although frequently in earlier times even women and children were killed rather than taken captive. These war captives were given to wealthy people in the provinces for workers. Being a slave was defined by being not a part of the kinship system, which was essential to society. Lacking kinship connections, slaves were isolated. However, by adoption or marriage they could become part of a clan and thus leave their state of slavery by entering the kinship system.

This was the state that the Southeast was in when Hernan De Soto visited it with his army. During the years after his visit, Mississippian society began to disintegrate for reasons that aren’t totally understood. De Soto, whose army was used by some micos to attack other chiefdoms, may have destabilized relationships between provinces, or disease may have spread in the aftermath. Internal pressures likely played a part. Regardless of why, the fact is that by the 1600s, people in the Southeast were living far more spread out, often on more isolated farmsteads. Though clan, kinship, and micos continued to be important, their role was different than it had previously been.

The Indian Slave Trade

It was the entrance of the English trading system beginning around 1650 that sparked the creation of intensive slave trading in the south. The English needed workers for their plantations in the southeast and in the Caribbean, and Native people desired European goods both for an advantage in war and for prestige in their community. In order to acquire these goods, several Native communities began to focus heavily on raiding for captives to sell to the English. In the north, the Haudenosaunee were the most feared raiders; in the south the Occaneechis and Westos became major slave traders. Later more interior groups such as the Chickasaw would take over.

Between the constant slave raids and disease, huge changes occurred in the Southeastern world, with entire societies devastated from the population loss. This wasn’t a minor thing, it was a region-encompassing issue that affected the lives of practically every indigenous person. In the wake of this, new confederations appeared, both to engage in the slave trade and to protect from it: the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee, Catawba, and others emerged with new political systems. These groups fiercely defended their claims to large tracts of land in the interior, keeping Europeans on the coast.

The Decline of the Indian Slave Trade

By the 1700s, there was a demographic crisis in the Southeast, and Europeans had begun important enslaved Africans at a significantly higher rate to keep up with their needed labor power. Multiple groups began to develop racialized senses of self at this time. Natives in the east frequently espoused the idea that the Creator had made three races–White, Red, and Black–and had given each their own place as a way to defend their right to their land. However, as slavery of Africans became more institutionalized and Native elites became more acculturated, this same rhetoric was used to assert that Black people were inherently enslavable.

Despite this, Indian and Black people continued to work as slaves in fairly significant numbers alongside each other up until the Removals of the 1830s, while Native people also continued to own Black slaves until emancipation three decades later. For Europeans, one of the original concerns that led to focusing on slavery of Africans rather than Indians was the fact that escaping from slavery was much easier when one had a community to escape to. The close intertwining of Black and Indian communities thus threatened the system of slavery as a whole. In addition, the land owned by Indian people was highly desired by white colonists. The forced removal of Indian people opened space for larger plantations and severed the ease with which enslaved people could escape. (Which isn’t to say that Black people were necessarily treated well in Native communities–the later the period, the more Native communities in the southeast had developed and adopted anti-Black attitudes. “Running away to Indian Territory” continued to be remembered as a path to freedom all the way into the 20th century, though.) It was this process that allowed the creation of the massive plantations of the 1800s.

The ways that slavery and colonization of Native American lands are intertwined are only starting to be examined relatively recently, due to the removal of Native people from the east and their subsequent erasure from eastern history, and the general lack of study of Black-Indian relations. Both of these things are major gaps in the popular understanding of American history that need to be rectified.

If you want to learn more about indigenous slavery in the United States, I recommend reading:

  • From Chicaza to Chickashaw by Robbie Ethridge
  • Mapping the Mississippian Shatter Zone edited by Sheri M. Shuck-Hall and Robbie Ethridge
  • The Indian Slave Trade by Alan Gallay
  • Slavery in Indian Country by Christina Snyder

Reading recommendations for the indigenous history newbie

There’s an unfortunate lack of books that a) comprehensively cover Native American history, b) do so in a way that is respectful of Native people, c) illustrate why Native American history is important, and d) are actually readable and accessible by the general public. But I’ve attempted to cobble together some kind of list of recommendation, aimed at people who are interested in learning more about Native history but don’t really know where to start, with a heavy emphasis on why and how Native American history is important on a world scale, since that seems to be something many people need clarified.

1491 by Charles Mann. I would pretty much call this the number one must-read book on Native American history for the non-specialist. This book does a lot of things all in one: it directly addresses the assumptions that are made about Native history, it covers the history of the study of Native history and how it’s impacted those assumptions, and it covers an incredible range of indigenous history itself. There’s a great analysis of the political situation of Tisquantum and the northeastern communities, there’s Maya history, there’s Inka history, there’s a great section on the Amazon that was entirely new to me. It’s not a perfect book, but it’s probably the best out there right now for a general overview.

1493 by Charles Mann. Okay, I have not actually finished reading this yet–in fact I really only just started. But I’ve heard good things. Whereas 1491’s main focus is precolumbian history, 1493 is mostly about the world-altering effects that occurred as a result of the Western hemisphere and Eastern hemisphere coming into contact. Based on what I’ve read so far, I’m not as big a fan of it as 1491, but it’s still probably worth a read.

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen. This focuses specifically on the failures of textbooks and grade school education about United States history, focusing on treatment of Native American and African American history in particular. Your mileage may vary on the textbooks cited; my experience in school was better than a lot of them but it doesn’t change the fact that they are all textbook that were and are in use. The thrust of his argument is that the way the narrative of American history is taught in most schools is not just damaging, but that it is also boring. In addition to this critique though, there’s just a plain lot of really great historical details on various eras of US history that most people don’t know about because they’re not deemed fitting for the narrative. Highly recommended.

Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the World. This isn’t exactly something you can sit down and read start to finish, but I would definitely recommend checking it out and flipping through it if you can find a copy. It’s an incredible answer to the idea that Native Americans lacked technology, and although it’s necessarily a brief overview, there are sources provided at the end of each entry if you want to look into a particular topic further.

Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World by Jack Weatherford. I have a lot more reservations about this than the other books listed here, and I’m still not convinced that there isn’t a better book out there that does the same kind of stuff this one does. But I haven’t found it yet, and I just read this one, so it’s going on the list.  This book is really frustrating in that it does a bad job of treating Native people as people with full-fledged agency and motivation, but it is a pretty good overview for the unfamiliar of the extent to which Native Americans shaped the course of world history. I include it because a lot of people commenting seem to be of the opinion that Native American history isn’t as important because it had no impact other than being dominated. This book says otherwise.

The Earth Shall Weep by James Wilson. It’s been a while since I read this, but it’s a general overview of indigenous history in the territory of the modern United States from about 1500 to 1900. It does a nice job of showing how archaeology, written records, and oral traditions can be combined to tell a story, and it’s a very good place to start getting a general grounding in Native history in the United States, as it covers most regions of the country at least briefly.

You should note that none of these are by Native authors. This frustrates me, but I can’t think of any books by indigenous authors that cover this kind of broad territory off the top of my head, though I’ll definitely do some digging. There are a variety of reasons, such as the fact that Native historians tend to either focus on their specific nation’s history or to be engaged in very theoretical work on indigenous history, the fact that much of Native-written history is intended for Native audiences rather than non-Natives, and the depressing fact that non-Natives are very, very frequently taken as authorities on Native history over Native people themselves. Not to mention how the academic system discourages Native people from getting involved in history. If anyone can think of something along these lines, please let me know, and of course do put other recommendations in the comments if you know them. Hopefully this can be of use to some people who don’t know where to start!

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