Tradition and Innovation: Native American Identity and Community in the Old Northwest Territory

AHA Session 43
Friday, January 6, 2012: 9:30 AM-11:30 AM
Chicago Ballroom B (Chicago Marriott Downtown)
Gregory Dowd, University of Michigan

Session Abstract

Native North American history is a very old story of communities and networks. From the very first landfall European colonists led an aggressive assault on the indigenous populations of the Americas. The history of British Colonial America and subsequently the United States is a story driven by an ideology that found little value in the diverse cultures inhabiting these shared lands. By the mid-eighteenth century generations of Native Americans were devastated by warfare, starvation and disease. They were dispossessed of historic homelands and promised new lands by either the British or the United States, only to see those guarantees abandoned again and again. Native American peoples sought new ways to protect their communities in a variety of ways. Some returned to and reinvigorated their most ancient pattern of political and social organization while other leaders and communities sought new innovations that could withstand and compete with British and American expansion policies. All three studies presented here are contained within the Old Northwest Territory and bounded temporally between 1730s and 1840s.

This panel offers three studies of the formation of new communities and networks Native Americans expressed during one of the most tumultuous periods in their history. Stephen Warren presents a study of the Shawnee who returned to the Ohio River valley between 1730-1758 after 60 years of exile as a changed people. How these Shawnee communities organized themselves from the political leadership, to clan and individual relationships challenges standing paradigms in Native American history that overlook the complexity of these communities and networks. Dawn Marsh offers an examination of the rise of nationhood within certain Native American communities in the Northwest Territory as a development of the diplomacy they shared with the British in the French and Indian War and later with the Americans in the post-revolutionary period. New communities were being formed and dismantled in quick succession as settlers pushed their demands for land further west. Several Delaware leaders offered their people new innovations in how their communities might be reorganized with the objective of staying on the lands in Ohio and Indiana guaranteed by treaties. In the third presentation John Bowes focuses on the decades long struggle of the Wyandot, Delaware and Seneca peoples living in the Sandusky, Ohio region to avoid removal. Bowes challenges the assumption that the Indian Removal Act of 1830 was the catalyst for forced removals of these communities, but demonstrates rather that these communities and their leadership had expressed ideas and plans for their people decades before the legislation was enacted. All three presentations stand to shed new light on both an underrepresented period and region in Native American history by highlighting some ways Native Americans expressed their identities through innovative and traditional communities and networks.

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