- The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701
The Iroquois have long been a powerful presence in histories of early America, and for good reason: they were central to colonial diplomacy and a mighty power among Native northeasterners. The image of Iroquoia, of course, has shifted over the years. Early ethnographies painted the Iroquois as bloodthirsty imperialists, vanquishing their neighbors even as other Native groups crumbled under the pressures of contact. Modern historians have largely rejected that characterization. In 1987 a group of scholars collectively concluded—of supposed Iroquois imperialism—that the emperor had no clothes.1 In what remains one of the best known studies of the colonial-era Iroquois, Daniel K. Richter recast the Iroquois as having endured a cascade of "ordeals," both reeling from and adapting to the European presence.2 Matthew Dennis's 1995 study, Cultivating a Landscape of Peace, further dismantled the notion of a war-bent Iroquoia.3 If scholars no longer see an "empire," they remain, several new studies suggest, very drawn to the Iroquois story.4
In his impressive new history, The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701, Jon Parmenter sidesteps the question of whether the Iroquois were imperial (though, in his telling, they don't come across as particularly peaceful) and instead reframes the inquiry. Focusing on the ever-shifting shape of the Iroquois world, he presents Iroquoia as a living geography, growing and reforming through the movements of its people. The book opens with a striking series of maps, entitled "The Changing Shape of Iroquoia, 1600-1701." In the maps dated 1600 and 1641, Iroquoia appears as a narrow sliver of territory oriented from west to east, close to the Finger Lakes. But in 1667, a dramatic shift is apparent: Iroquois geography had opened wide to the west and north, encompassing present-day Lake Ontario in a kind of cockeyed isosceles triangle. And finally, by 1701, Iroquoia had become a great pentagon reaching far north and south. In bold relief, the maps illustrate the central problem of Parmenter's book: how did Iroquoia come to encompass such a wide, shifting expanse of space? How, Parmenter asks, on considering a 1697 map sketched by Onondagas of their vast country, had they "acquired such extensive spatial consciousness?" (ix).
The answer, the book argues, lies with Iroquois mobility. Parmenter rejects methodology employing fixed spaces as "fundamental... units of Iroquois culture," in favor of an understanding of Native peoples in motion (xi). He argues that it is necessary to witness the "highly mobile" Iroquois building relations across vast geographic spaces, "sustained by frequent human movements for political, ceremonial, and economic purposes," in order to comprehend Iroquois history in this period (ix). In a narrative almost as sprawling as seventeenth century Iroquoia itself, Parmenter demonstrates how Iroquois movements created an ever-expanding geography that included increasing numbers of people. In this way, the Iroquois counterbalanced the European colonial presence by continuing to knit new peoples into their world—and reaching out to farther and farther "edges" of their "woods."
The book uses stages of the Edge of the Woods ceremony, a ritual used by Iroquois peoples to welcome visitors to mourning villages, as its organizing rubric. Chapter 1, "On the Journey, 1534-1634," revisits the founding of the famous Iroquois League, which emerged, Parmenter explains, as a product of new Iroquois spatial endeavors arising in the wake of contact with Europeans. Although sixteenth century European artifacts prove that long-distance exchange was well established among Native peoples at contact, writes Parmenter, new postcontact prongs of movement brought about the "political innovation" that eventually led to the formation of the famous league of Five Nations (4-5). In the wake of conflicts over exchange routes and trade, the Five Nations sought to ensure their access to the region's communications and to secure Iroquoia as "vital, central space" (38).
The book demonstrates, notably, that the Iroquois incorporation of captives from other Native nations, a pattern familiar to scholars, brought unprecedented "geographic knowledge" into the Five Nations (57). Expansion begat expansion when captives were...