- Natchez Country: Indians, Colonists, and the Landscapes of Race in French Louisiana by George Edward Milne
In this latest addition to the University of Georgia Press series Early American Places, George Edward Milne provides a lively reinterpretation of Natchez and French relations. The book starts with two Sun peoples. In the late seventeenth century, French subjects of the Sun King (Louis XIV) began migrating to Louisiana, where they encountered the Théoloëls, or the People of the Sun, as the Natchez called themselves. Initially, each group “recognize[d] aspects of their own culture in the other’s way of life” (p. 16). Villages and families structured politics and society. Paramount leaders built consensus through theatrical spectacles, religious rituals, and symbolic landscapes to rule ranked communities that included elites, workers, slaves, and immigrants. The [End Page 655] Natchez Suns who led the powerful Grand Village at first misperceived the French as one of many subordinate groups.
Despite superficial similarities, differences between the French and the Théoloëls quickly emerged in a series of conflicts that scholar John R. Swanton once termed the First, Second, and Third Natchez Wars. Although Milne joins those who have questioned this militaristic terminology, events like the “Natchez Hostage Crisis” (similar to Swanton’s First War) provide a recurrent theme of violent conflict in Milne’s narrative. A sensationalist introduction begins with the Natchez proudly displaying a row of French heads to Choctaw visitors, and the book concludes with the destruction of the Natchez Grand Village (Swanton’s Third War). Milne theorizes that the enslavement and dispersal of the Natchez from their homelands after the war led to the construction of a new racial ideology.
Building on Nancy Shoemaker’s argument that Indians made themselves “red,” Milne pinpoints the origins of a pan-Indian racialist thinking to Natchez leaders who “use[d] the term ‘red men’ to unite those villagers who had previously been reluctant to fight against the colony” (p. 11). While French transcriptions of Natchez speeches certainly included the phrase “red men,” did this usage really equate to the formation of a new “red racial category” at that time (p. 11)? The Natchez used red paint as a marker of difference before French contact. Some Natchez had French fathers, and African slaves fled to indigenous villages to join the Natchez resistance. Moreover, the Natchez continued to use other terms of self-identification such as “Théoloëls” and “nacion.” All suggest a more complex understanding of race and identity that scholars will want to further explore.
The most interesting and innovative contribution of Natchez Country: Indians, Colonists, and the Landscapes of Race in French Louisiana comes from Milne’s cartographic analysis. In addition to interpreting original maps, Milne has created his own spatial representations to illustrate changing landscapes as French and indigenous groups introduced new villages, concessions, forts, homesteads, cabins, and fields that increasingly violated common areas, while outlying villages cultivated competing ties with Chickasaws and British groups. Milne also uses maps to show that the French maintained tight control over slave quarters. Some Natchez people feared that they, too, might come to be ruled by the Code Noir, which contributed to the development of distinctive racial categories in Louisiana. Although this study employs a unique methodological approach that considers both race and place, Natchez Country does not explore the equally important disease environment. My questions aside, Milne has produced a succinct account of two Sun peoples that raises provocative ideas as it goes beyond traditional imperial perspectives.