- Informed Power: Communication in the Early American South by Alejandra Dubcovsky
In this invaluable study, Alejandra Dubcovsky offers an account of transcultural communication networks in a place that was taking shape as both "early" and "southern" for European settler-colonists but that was not experientially or intuitively either of those things for its long-standing indigenous inhabitants. Beginning in La Florida in the 1560s and pausing at a variety of southeastern way stations before concluding with an account of the Yamasee War and its aftershocks through about 1740, Dubcovsky skillfully describes the intricate, ever-shifting interrelationships between how power works (or fails) and how communication works (or fails). Throughout, she reconstructs "everyday articulations of power" and the longer ramifications of that power (3). Aptly, one of the verbs that appears most frequently in the book is "reveal." In both her larger conclusions and her arresting close-ups of indigenous, African, African-American, Spanish, French, and English people in the act of carrying, sharing, manipulating, withholding, and unsuccessfully communicating information, Dubcovsky's book is truly revelatory.
More than anything else, what makes these revelations possible is her seemingly effortless yet incredibly productive work with archives that are not as thin and inanimate as we might have thought. Again and again, her deceptively straightforward research question—how does information exchange work and what do these exchanges reveal?—cracks archival materials open in new ways; again and again, she finds the arguments the archives allow her to make and greatly expands our understanding of native, and always transcultural, early Souths. Her work is reminiscent of Kathleen DuVal's in The Native Ground (2006) in that she not only finds [End Page 577] telling moments in the archives but also deobjectifies the people involved and, particularly, emphasizes not only the importance but also the centrality of indigenous perspectives. Like DuVal, Dubcovsky persuasively emphasizes that Europeans do not introduce change into native communities and systems so much as they enter into an already dynamic, fluid, volatile world.
"Information exchange in the colonial world was not easy," Dubcovsky remarks in something of an understatement. "It was complex for all parties involved to navigate these information exchanges that largely took place through Indian channels and were contingent on native geopolitics" (3). But language barriers and other cultural differences notwithstanding, people in this world wrangled with these differences early and often because they needed to find things out about each other and also needed to glean things from each other. For scholars and other interested parties in the early twenty-first century, "recognizing these varied information strategies and approaches, which are quite often unobserved and unremarked upon, holds the potential to destabilize the image of the colonial world as an underinformed or uninformed place" (3). While constructing an argument that sets out to complicate an "image" of a place (or a culture or period) runs the risks of being more reactive, corrective, and embroiled in rehashing undercooked interpretations than one might really want to be, Dubcovsky quickly turns to her findings and allows them, rather than prior scholars' misperceptions, to drive her book.
She begins not in the sixteenth-century Southeast but with Cahokia, the better "to center the long and layered history of interactions among the composite societies who came to inhabit the colonies of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and parts of Louisiana" (4). Starting with Cahokia allows her to make several crucial points: that the Southeast was connected to circum-Mississippian polities and networks and was not yet being mapped as a discrete region, that North America was networked and transtribal for many centuries before the arrival of Europeans and Africans, and that the model of information exchange she examines is, first and foremost, indigenous. In this light, her opening discussion of the "Commerce Map"—a native rock map carved over three thousand years ago that would have been visible, legible, and powerful to Indians wanting to understand and participate in the complex communication networks flowing into and out from Cahokia—is particularly fascinating. Demographically as well as politically, [End Page 578] economically...