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The Middle Ground: Indian, Empires, and…

The Middle Ground: Indian, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes… (1991)

by Richard White

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Much of American history presents the view of Native Americans as the conquered peoples in a linear story that begins with the landing of Columbus in the Caribbean and ends with the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee. Richard White seeks to reframe that story, at least in the Great Lakes region. To do so, White has created the Middle Ground, the area known by the French as the pays d’en haut or upper country, which he writes of in his work of the same title. While there is a definite sense of place, the titular Middle Ground is much more than a geographic location. White argues that “between 1650 and 1815 (Native Americans and Europeans) constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world” in this region. But it was a cultural, economic, and social middle ground as well as geographic. White used many primary sources for his research, including American, British, Canadian, and French diplomatic archives in addition to a great deal of secondary literature regarding the Native population of the region.
For White, this organization came about as the first (French) explorers and fur traders made their way into the Great lakes region. At this point, even with a deficit in weaponry, the Indian population had the upper hand and could force the Europeans to accept a mutually agreeable relationship. After the American Revolution, this organization began to break down as the Native American power and influence shrank along with the Native population, and the Middle Ground was finished by 1815.
White also has a new interpretation of the organization of the area. For him, the power in the region lay at the village level. Empire and country were far too distant to have much influence in the Middle Ground. It was the individual village leaders that held the power to determine policy, such as it was, as well as diplomatic ties. The area was home to a staggering array of different peoples—different ethnicities, cultures and religions. White explains how, as they came together in the region, they formed multi-ethnic communities, blending languages, cultures, and religions. The result was by no means a homogenous society, but rather one in which each person could see some reflection of their former selves and learned to value those of others.
In telling the story, White did use the more famous inhabitants, such as Daniel Boone and Ottawa war Chief Pontiac, but he also uses the stories of more modest inhabitants as illustrations of his thesis. By using such examples, he was able to show the degree to which his arguments hold true. White spends a great deal of the book at this personal level, and it absolutely helps to illustrate the larger focus of the community. White also does a service by bringing the native peoples front and center, rather than placing them at the periphery. In most of the scholarship before his, Indians existed mainly as mere props to advance the European settlers. In White’s book, they are the ACTORS. They are just as responsible (if not more so, given his argument that the region started from a place of Native strength) for the creation of the Middle Ground as any of the European explorers, missionaries, or traders. Additionally, his intimate portrayals allowed him to illustrate the differences between the two societies. Most notably, he contrasted the limits placed on European women to the greater freedom allowed native women.
Somewhat ironically, according to White, the final failure of the Middle Ground occurred as the Native population came to be seen as a group that needed to be protected (from themselves as much as any other threat). Once the American Revolution and resultant War of 1812 had been concluded, the United States government stopped seeing the natives as a people and started viewing them as a responsibility. The result is the codification of paternalism which led to Native Americans being categorized as “less than” for the better part of two centuries. I’m not sure that the break was that clean and neat in reality, but it does make for a clean ending to White’s wor
( )
  ScoutJ | Mar 31, 2013 |
Slogged my way through The middle ground to finally finish it and post a 977 for the Dewey Decimal Challenge. This was an interesting book, and actually many parts of it read very quickly, provided I was OK with not know exactly who the players were, where the action was, or to some extent what was going on. Which perhaps makes the book sound more cryptic than it was. Other parts were difficult to follow. Extensive footnotes on each page made many of them fairly short and easy to continue page turning.

This was an academic analysis of the relationships between: Indians and Indians (e.g. Algonquins and Iroquois), Indians and French, Indians and British, and Indians and Americans at the local (tribe/village/frontier/forts) through empire scales in the area that became the midwest (both US and Canada) in the Great Lakes region. The depth and breadth of this book is quite impressive. It was also impressively confusing for a neophyte like me not familiar.

What I learned from this was essentially that in between the time of initial colonial contacts and the indiscriminate killing, there was a moment of attempts for trade and commerce and ideas as well as material objects moved back and forth, creating a tenuous situation which the author calls 'The Middle Ground'. This Middle Ground was rooted in ideas and customs for trade, revenge, murder, property, marriage, war, peace, alcohol, religion, etc. Negotiation was the key and nothing was quite permanent in a shifting landscape of motives, understanding, advantage, and power. These themes are examined over time with many examples and stories of leaders some of whom are generally recognizable (e.g. Pontiac, Tecumseh) others completely archaic (to me).

Some good tidbits, but overall this book is difficult to just jump into without at least some familiarity with the subject. Fascinating and well researched but it also knows it is being written for an academic audience and often skimps on the story telling and is heavy on the analysis. ( )
  bfertig | Mar 22, 2010 |
If you've seen the 1992 Michael Mann movie, Last of the Mohicans (featuring Daniel Day Lewis with “rock star hair,” as one reviewer at the time put it), like me you may have been intrigued by the depiction of a “multicultural” society in western New York in the mid-18th century. That is, whites and Indians of that time and place peacefully interacting and even supporting one another as they are engulfed in the conflict of European empires known as the French and Indian War. Certainly there is plenty of Indian-white violence in the film, but it is prompted by the French-British war (and by the blood revenge of the twisted Magua, the Huron-masquerading-as-a-Mohawk), rather than simply by some eternal and unchanging Indian-white hatred (think of all those cowboy and Indian movies you grew up with). Could there, in fact, ever have been a time when Indians and whites were able to construct a “mutually comprehensible world,” based on “accommodation and common meaning”, where Indians and whites did not consider each other as “alien” and “virtually non-human”?

Stanford historian Richard White describes such a world (the quotes are his), in the Great Lakes region in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in this book. Published in 1991, The Middle Ground was a major contribution to a then-new but still growing body of historical research that gives us a much fuller picture of life in early America, especially the role and influence of Indians. As White puts it, “The story told in this book...is about a search for accommodation and common meaning.... It tells how Europeans and Indians met and regarded each other as alien, as other, as virtually nonhuman. It tells how, over the next two centuries, they constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world in the region around the Great Lakes the French called the pays d'en haut.... [I]n this world the older worlds of the Algonquians and of various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and exchange. But finally, the narrative tells of the breakdown of accommodation and common meanings and the re-creation of the Indians as alien, as exotic, as other.”

White asserts that “on the middle ground diverse peoples adjust their differences through what amounts to a process of creative, and often expedient, misunderstandings.” A good example is the conflicting French and Algonquian ideas about commercial exchange. Where the French sought profit, the Indians were seeking an exchange based on satisfying needs and building personal relationships. The French gradually came to understand that the giving of gifts was essential not only to developing relationships, but also to exerting influence within Indian society. Though some French (and later, British) officials thought of this simply as Indian extortion, in fact the process was essential to maintaining the authority of Algonquian chiefs whose influence rested solely on their own ability to redistribute these gifts and, thus, satisfy the needs of their people.

The French also reluctantly assumed the role of mediators among the Indians, a role in which they were cast by Indians who found the French “father” useful in settling disputes among his Indian “children.” Especially important was resolution of blood revenge when warfare led to deaths. In one of the final scenes of The Last of the Mohicans, the wise Huron sachem (played by the modern-day Indian activist Dennis Banks) resolves the conflict between heroic Hawkeye and evil Magua over the fate of three British captives – Maj. Heyward and the two daughters of dead Col. Munro – by decreeing that one daughter should go with Magua, to partially replace his lost family, the other daughter should be burned alive to atone for the dead, and the major returned to the British to lessen their anger. Things don't exactly work out that way, thanks to Hawkeye, but it wasn't a bad depiction of how such conflicts were often handled in the pays d'en haut, whether the mediators were French, British, or Indian.

Interestingly, the portrayal of the sachem as final arbiter (whose decision Magua strongly condemns but nevertheless obeys) is a familiar one but probably not very realistic – White demonstrates that few, if any, chiefs, Indian or white, exercised that kind of absolute authority. More often, chiefs were listened to only as long as the people of their community chose to do so; they had no independent authority to compel or punish, a fact that Europeans, coming from monarchical societies, found hard to understand. In fact, the British, after they drove the French out of Canada in the 1760s, were less successful in exerting influence in the middle ground precisely because of their unwillingness to recognize the contingent nature of authority there and to play the roles that would have enabled them to obtain and wield it. And the Americans, once land-hungry, Indian-hating backwoodsmen from the original colonies began pouring into the Ohio country in the 1780s and 1790s, were even less successful. They ultimately destroyed the middle ground when their success in militarily subduing the Indians led them to adopt what White calls “the politics of benevolence,” which reduced Indians to an interesting but marginal people whose only choice was assimilation or oblivion.

Rather than narrative history, White's work is really an ethnographic survey of a vital, evolving culture that, nonetheless, eventually disappeared. He uses the memoirs and reports of contemporary French, British and American officials, soldiers and traders to elucidate his descriptions of middle ground society. His interpretations of what the Indians were trying to tell whites (dutifully recorded by white scribes) are often very different from what the Europeans or Americans at the time thought they were hearing. White's assertion about the role that the “process of creative, and often expedient, misunderstandings” played in creating the middle ground is illustrated time and again. It's a sobering and tragic story, in the end. Like Hawkeye, Cora, and Chingachgook at the end of the movie, many Indian inhabitants of the Great Lakes region headed further west after the breakdown of the middle ground, in an ultimately fruitless effort to escape from powerful whites no longer interested in accommodation and finding common meaning. ( )
2 vote walbat | Feb 18, 2009 |
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Full title (1991): The middle ground : Indians, empires, and republics in the Great Lakes region, 1650-1815.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0521424607, Paperback)

This book seeks to step outside the simple stories of Indian/white relations--stories of conquest and assimilation and stories of cultural persistence. It is, instead, about a search for accommodation and common meaning. It tells how Europeans and Indians met, regarding each other as alien, as virtually nonhuman, and how between 1650 and 1815 they constructed a common, mutually comprehensible world in the region around the Great Lakes that the French called the "Pays d'en haut". Here the older worlds of the Algonquins and various Europeans overlapped, and their mixture created new systems of meaning and of exchange. Finally, the book tells of the breakdown of accommodation and common meanings and the recreation of the Indians as alien and exotic. The process of accommodation described in this book takes place in a middle ground, a place in between cultures and peoples, and in between empires and non-state villages. On the middle ground people try to persuade others who are different than themselves by appealing to what they perceive to be the values and practices of those others. From the creative misunderstandings that result, there arise shared meanings and new practices.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:20:16 -0400)

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