- An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America by Michael Witgen
Michael Witgen's An Infinity of Nations advances a timely reconsideration of seventeenth-century Great Lakes history by posing a deceptively simple question: What if we take seriously the notion of continuous, vital native communities in the region? What does it mean for our understanding of the Canadian and American colonial past to acknowledge "the existence of an intact, and unconquered, Indian social world in the heartland of North America" (3)? Given the recent intensification of research into the native pasts of the Americas, one might be excused for considering the proposal neither new nor earth-shattering. Yet the simplicity of the query belies its potential for radically altering our conceptualization of an early American geopolitical region perhaps relegated too complacently to the category of settled historiographic fact. Since the publication of Richard White's The Middle Ground (1991), we seem content to define this territory (known to the French as the pays d'en haut) as a nonstate world animated by intercultural hybridity and negotiation. In this understanding of the Great Lakes, Europeans asserted imperial power by channeling it through syncretic modes of diplomacy and exchange. As these practices strengthened the French and English grip on the region, the theory goes, the native world fragmented and became dependent on European benevolence for survival.
Witgen's nuanced and native-centered account of the Great Lakes from 1640 to 1701 does nothing less than demand a serious rethinking of the region. Unlike the Eastern Seaboard, where the world system enlarged its reach through an extensive maritime periphery known as the Atlantic world, the area around the pays d'en haut is dominated by riverine and lacustrine ecosystems. It is a hybrid terrestrial and aqueous world with human populations quite distinct from those of the East, where virgin soil epidemics and catastrophic military encounters contributed to the rapid depopulation of native peoples that has defined much of our thinking about how settler colonialism affected the whole of the territory that would [End Page 254] become the United States. Contrary to received wisdom about native depopulation and dependency, An Infinity of Nations effectively argues that the native peoples of the Great Lakes always outnumbered the Europeans during the early modern era, and that their political and cultural power was never much dependent on anyone or anything.
This book suggests, in fact, that the oft-cited "middle ground" was a lot less middling and a lot less grounded than we have been led to believe. Taking the historiography to task for its acquiescence in the "invisibility" of what Witgen calls this "Native New World," he invites us to consider the region from a different set of vantage points, ones centered in the native societies that occupied the Great Lakes for thousands of years. We encounter a fascinating skein of villages, watersheds, and alliances woven together by social logics that, in addition to being improvisational and ad hoc, were profoundly fluid. Here violent encounter was as much the coin of the realm as peaceful exchange. In his recalibration of our understanding, Witgen serves up a picture of a native social world driven by cycles of "trading, raiding, and captive taking" that have no analog in the history of the original thirteen colonies.
In this domain, Europeans indeed found themselves caught in a middle ground, but not one of their own making. Witgen illustrates how, time and again, it was the Europeans who accommodated native political and cultural practice, and who maintained their presence and influence in the region only by virtue of native assent. An Infinity of Nations continually underscores the fact that Europeans functioned primarily as mediators among native nations on the east and west sides of the lakes, and thus derived what tenuous power they had in the area from their status as diplomatic go-betweens.
By highlighting the relative weakness of European imperial power in the Great Lakes region, Witgen's book casts significant doubt on the notion that...