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Two new Native American histories -- one tragic, one a revelation

Two new Native American histories -- one tragic, one a revelation
Image from the book "Masters of Empire" by Michael A. McDonnell. (David Ives Bushnell Collection / Hill and Wang)

Taken together, two fresh books on American Indian history show us just how far the field has come. From history as romance ("Tragic Encounters") to history as revelation ("Masters of Empire") these books encompass both the failures and successes of efforts to revisit these stories.

Just when you think there isn't any more room for a broad-ranging history of Native Americans from the Colonial period to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, another one shows up, and — like colonists themselves trying to settle the New World — lo and behold, there is room for "Tragic Encounters" by Page Smith.

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Smith seems, on the face of it, to be a perfect guide through the tumultuous days of the early republic. Before his death in 1995, he wrote more than 20 volumes of American history, structuring his significant works around "people's histories." Discovered and published posthumously, "Tragic Encounters" occupies an unusual place in his oeuvre, but it bears his typical style.

Cover of the book "Tragic Encounters" by Page Smith.
Cover of the book "Tragic Encounters" by Page Smith. (Counterpoint Press)

The story, according to Smith, is a centuries-long "tragic encounter," one that, beginning in the 16th century, necessarily pitted Indians against whites. "[T]he fact was that white man and red man were locked in a strange and terrible embrace that degraded the white and ultimately destroyed the Indian's tribal life." Why, one wonders, was this conflict unavoidable? Why was it necessarily so? Smith has a ready if unconvincing answer on the first page: "With few exceptions, the culture of those Indians encountered by settlers from the Old World was based upon a perpetual state of war. Fierce courage in battle and stoic endurance under horrible tortures were the highest ideals of tribal life."

There are problems with his framing: The lives and cultures of Indian people didn't begin with first contact with white settlers, nor did the significance (much less the history) of Indian tribes end with Wounded Knee. Then follow problems of interpretation. Tribes in the East and the Ohio valley might have had good reason to alternately fight and befriend the French, British, Spanish and American powers. Constant war could well be the result of constant encroachment and constant colonization. But not in Smith's analysis.

There are also problems with the language. He writes of the Sioux after a successful attack: "[S]ome of the scalps were fresh ones taken in a raid on their cousins, the Omaha, during which they had destroyed forty lodges, killed 75 warriors, and taken 25 squaws and children prisoners. The latter were a dejected and miserable looking lot.... The Sioux women were handsome...." This is the breezy, excited prose of a romance novel, not the kind of language vested with the power of real research and contextual conclusivity. And to use the word "squaw" is not in any form OK (certainly not in a book by a Bancroft Prize winner) any more than it would be OK to write of Martha Jefferson and her circle as "bitches."

There are, too, unsubstantiated and overly broad generalizations such as "For their part the Indians admired [Andrew] Jackson as a great warrior." All Indians? Or some? And what's the evidence? There might have been a time when this kind of book passed for information,if not real history; when Indians were understood as acting out crude emotions (bravery, savagery, sadness) rather than engaged in a vast political struggle as agents of their own lives. But that time has passed.

Imagine, then, in exasperation, turning to the next book on the stack, Michael A. McDonnell's "Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America." It is thankfully a work of genius.

Cover of the book "Masters of Empire" by Michael A. McDonnell.
Cover of the book "Masters of Empire" by Michael A. McDonnell. (Hill and Wang)

First, the boldness of his thesis: that the tribes of the Great Lakes (Seneca, Mohawk, Huron, Odawa, Ojibwe, Miami, Sauk, Fox, Winnebago and others, but primarily the Odawa) were not wiped off the map after a couple of centuries of bloodshed. Rather, the Odawa at Michilimackinac (the straits between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan) were in control: not only of the fur trade but also of first the French, then the British and later (for a while), the American empires.

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FOR THE RECORD 

Native American histories: In the Dec. 27 Arts & Books section, a review of two new books about Native American history referred to Michilimackinac, home of the Odawa, as the straits between Lake Superior and Lake Michigan. The straits are between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan.

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History has until now had it that Indians were pawns or pieces moved about and wielded by various colonial empires. McDonnell shows us — with painstaking research and incredible insight — that the Odawa and allied Great Lakes tribes dictated the terms of trade, forced the colonists into unadvantageous alliances and created their own empire that still remains. In the course of his analysis, he shows us that the forever war of the Great Lakes was waged by political design: By keeping the balance of power between the French and the British, and later the British and the Americans, the Indians themselves functioned as a kind of swing vote. A little pressure here, a little room there, and they swung the course of history in major ways, including but not limited to the Seven Years War, the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.

Writing of Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763, McDonnell reminds us that "like most revolutions, and like much of the politics of the pays d'en haut [the vast region stretching west of Montreal and New York, past the Great Lakes], the Second Anglo-Indian war was a complex event. Though historians have argued about its causes for many years, it has defied easy generalization. Invariably, local circumstances dictated communal responses. Inter- and intra-Indian politics were as important as Indian-British relations. So, too, were the relationships between Canadians, Métis, Indians, and French. Nowhere was this complexity more obvious than during the tense hours and days following the initial attacks. While most Native Americans could agree that it was time to chastise the haughty British, there was less consensus about exactly how that should be done. For the most part, the goal of the war was not to eliminate the British from the pays d'en haut, but to restore the status quo that existed prior to the Seven Years' War."

The miracle of this book isn't simply these bold and counterintuitive claims but the ways in which McDonnell has mined the archives for evidence to back them up. He has done the hard historical work of poring over treaty records, council meeting records, journals and receipts, and rendered it all in gorgeously understated prose. The facts sing, and the tune is one anyone interested in Colonial North America — and, for that matter, why the United States is what it is today — will want to hear.

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"Masters of Empire" is a master class in how to do history right. If anyone is at all interested in knowing how to "help" Indian people, they would do no better than following McDonnell's example: trying (and succeeding) in seeing our history and our actions as representative of smart, savvy, thinking actors in our own lives. This is an astounding book.

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Tragic Encounters: The People's History of Native Americans

Page Smith
Counterpoint Press: 420 pp., $30

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Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

Michael A. McDonnell
Hill and Wang: 416 pp., $35

Treuer is the author of "Prudence," a novel, and "Rez Life: An Indian's Journey Through Reservation Life."

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