Annual Meeting Preview: "The Power of Petite Nations: Small Indian Polities and Grand Narratives of American History"

This session takes place on Friday, April 5, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is solicited by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration.

Chair and Commentator: Michael Witgen, University of Michigan

Small Native Nations and the Development, or Lack Thereof, of French Louisiana
Elizabeth Ellis, New York University

Imperial Anarchy, Indigenous Power: The Susquehannock Indians and the Crisis of English Colonialism
Matthew Kruer, University of Chicago

“[H]ow little it is in our Power to deal with those people”: Dispersal, Mobility, and Power in the Shawnee Diaspora
Laura Spero, McNeil Center for Early American Studies

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The Power of Petite Nations: Small Indian Polities and Grand Narratives of American History

This session is an outgrowth of a generation of scholarship focusing on the shape and significance of Native American power. Pioneers in indigenous history worked assiduously to locate Native agency—to prove they were significant historical actors in their own right, rather than merely an anvil on which colonists hammered out their histories. More recently, historians have moved so far beyond that initial goal that many have advocated shifting the narrative of American history to place Native peoples at the center, not just as significant figures but as central, or even dominant, players. For obvious reasons, this scholarship has focused on large, populous, militarily powerful peoples, for example Comanche, Anishinaabeg, Lakota, and Haudenosaunee (Iroquois). The scholars in this panel wish to take the next step, asking: when and how did small indigenous polities—demographically minor, militarily weak, or politically divided—shape the course of American history? Our goal is both to widen the scope of which Native polities we consider significant on a grand scale, and also to reexamine what we mean by “power” in assessing the impact of Native peoples as historical actors.

The seminal work on the subject of Native power and the shaping of American history is Richard White’s The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (1991). Almost everything written on the subject afterward traverses terrain first mapped by White. Books that have made strong cases for the importance of relatively large and powerful indigenous groups include Kathleen DuVal’s The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (2006); Juliana Barr’s Peace Came in the Form of a Woman (2007); Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire (2008); Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the U.S.-Mexico War (2008); and Michael Witgen’s An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (2011) and articles including “Geographies of Power: Mapping Indian Borders in the ‘Borderlands’ of the Early Southwest” in the 2011 William and Mary Quarterly. For important perspectives on Indians and grand narratives of American history, we invite attendees to consider Daniel K. Richter’s Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (2002), Ned Blackhawk’s Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (2006), and the edited collection Why You Can’t Teach United States History without American Indians (2015).

Matthew Kruer, University of Chicago

Posted: February 1, 2019
Tagged: Previews, OAH Works, Conference