Reassessing the “Middle Ground”: New Approaches to Indigenous History in the American Interior

AHA Session 115
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Nassau East (New York Hilton, Second Floor)
Susan Sleeper-Smith, Michigan State University

Session Abstract

It has now been almost three decades since Richard White published his breakthrough study of Euro-Indigenous relations in the Pays d’en Haut. Studying interactions from early French exploration in the seventeenth century through waves of British and U.S. colonization into the early nineteenth century, White argued that misunderstanding and mutual weakness fostered a “middle ground” of cross-cultural interaction in the Great Lakes Country of North America. While the concept of the middle ground has been formative to generations of scholars, the past several decades have seen significant advances in our understandings of Native-European relations in the Great Lakes and Illinois Country. Incorporating gender, spatiality, ecology, ethnohistory, archeology, and other perspectives, historians have offered new insights into the history of Euro-Indigenous encounter, both augmenting and revising our understandings of a “middle ground” in the heart of North America. This panel brings together many of these innovative methodologies and approaches to reassess the state of Indigenous history in the Great Lakes and Illinois Country.

Factoring understandings of Indigenous power and agency into the equation of cross-cultural relations, the panelists collectively reconsider the dynamics of encounter. Jacob Lee examines how recent archeological evidence has recast our understandings of Native middle America during the era of early contact, overturning many of the assumptions of Native weakness inherent in “the middle ground.” Meanwhile, Robert Morrissey offers new insights into how the environmental factors of the region influenced the rise and fall of Indigenous powers. John Nelson studies the distinct local landscapes of encounter, demonstrating how the maritime geography of the Great Lakes waterways directly impacted the terms of encounter between various Native peoples and European newcomers. Karen Marrero incorporates understandings French-Indigenous family networks to reexamine the violent events and legacies of the Fox Wars and the persistence of a middle ground in the Detroit region. Susan Sleeper-Smith, a renowned scholar of Native American history, will chair the panel and facilitate a productive conversation. The varying approaches of the papers highlight the diverse approaches necessary to understand the complex nature of Native-European relations in the Great Lakes region.

Together, the papers offer a reconsideration of how Native peoples understood and interacted with one another and European newcomers in the distinct North American interior. The panelists present a wide array of interpretations in hopes of sparking a rich discussion of the middle ground’s legacy and utility in modern scholarship. At the same time, the four papers pose new frameworks for understanding Native-European interactions in the Great Lakes and Illinois Country and suggest future directions for the wider fields of Indigenous and early American history.

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