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Reconsidering Empire: Current Interpretations of Native American Agency during Colonization
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Reconsidering Empire:
Current Interpretations of Native American Agency during Colonization
The Comanche Empire. By Pekka Hämäläinen (New Haven, Yale, 2008).
To Live Upon Hope: Mohicans and Missionaries in the Eighteenth Century Northeast. By Rachel Wheeler. (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2008).
Violence over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West. By Ned Blackhawk (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2006).

"The usual conventions of writing about Indians were as unhelpful as unmodified ideas about imperialism, world systems, or savagery."

-Richard White, The Middle Ground (1991), xiv.

Among the research into the history of North America of interest to readers of The Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History are studies analyzing American Indian agency in the teeth of empire—how they endured colonization, adapted to new relations of power, and reconstructed colonial knowledge to find meaning and pursue their own purposes. Each of the works under review addresses such themes. Each contributes significantly to under-attended topics through careful study of local archives. They apply appropriately-adapted theory to develop fresh arguments about the relations of power between imperial and indigenous agency and should therefore make useful reading for scholars in Native American Studies and Colonial/Postcolonial Studies.

The three works under review proceed not only from different archival sources but from different theoretical frameworks as well. Comanche Empire centers on trade and world systems theory, Violence over the Land emphasizes violence and the State, and To Live Upon Hope focuses on discourse and practice in Christian missions. Each of these approaches has benefits and collectively these works—in dialogue with prominent work in Colonial/Postcolonial Studies—enable a discussion of the continuing search for a narrative to upend the older emphasis on European agency and Native American assimilation. Ultimately, these works suggest that a historiographic return to Native Americans will restore the full and complex agency of Indians in the history of North America and will require understanding the varied and contested power dynamics of imperialism and colonization.

Interpretively, Pekka Hämäläinen's The Comanche Empire is certainly the most ambitiously revisionist in this regard, suggesting as he does that the Comanche built their own empire on the plains. Ten years ago Hämäläinen argued in a successful article for the Western Historical Quarterly that the Comanche developed a "Western Comanche Trade Center" that complemented the trade center among the Mandans, Hidatsas, and Arikaras in the Upper-Missouri, which John C. Ewers had identified in a classic 1954 article. In this follow-up volume (which recently won the Bancroft Prize) Hämäläinen builds on these earlier positions in this book and the extended argument is provocative and persuasive in many instances.1

Hämäläinen sees a Comanche Empire that reversed "the conventional imperial trajectory" by subduing and exploiting "near and distant [European] colonial outposts (3)." Though they did not produce a "European-style imperial system" the Comanches "created a deeply hierarchical and integrated intersocietal order that was unmistakably imperial in shape, scope, and substance (3-4)." Forming an organized but stateless imperial trading system, he argues that "their aim was not to conquer and colonize, but to coexist, control, and exploit (4-5)."

Hämäläinen interprets ample evidence of Comanche imperialism through world systems theory and the work of followers and critics of Immanuel Wallerstein.2 This helps structure Hämäläinen's argument that the Comanches were the midwives of capitalism in the Southwest portion of today's United States during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, building an empire by dominating trade from 1750-1850 through audacity, aggressiveness, innovation, and organization.

Hämäläinen's book has many persuasive moments, but three central chapters that flesh-out the internal decisions and structures that made a Comanche Empire possible make the book an important read for any researcher interested in Indigenous North America, the West, or colonization. In chapters five, six, and seven, Hämäläinen turns from a general narrative to a discussion and analysis of how Comanche choices ("agency," if you will) built empire. He looks at "foreign policy" and internal status and gender politics, showing...