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An Infinity of Nations

How the Native New World Shaped Early North America

Michael Witgen

Publication Year: 2012

"An Infinity of Nations is a bold and altogether original examination of Indian-European relations, indigenous social formation, and European imperialism. Though centered on the western Great Lakes and northwestern interior in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, the book travels far and wide geographically, chronologically, and thematically--to Iroquoia in the East, Hudson Bay in the North, the prairie-plains in the West, and Ohio Country in the South. Witgen also reaches deep into the past to place the events of the late 1600s in a long historical context of evolving indigenous North America, and he takes the story into the early nineteenth century, showing how, as it expanded westward, the United States collided with a long-evolving and fully formed indigenous world. A sophisticated study of a different kind of colonial world where kinship ties, mediation, small gestures, and right words signified and brought power."--Pekka Hämäläinen, author of The Comanche Empire An Infinity of Nations explores the formation and development of a Native New World in North America. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, indigenous peoples controlled the vast majority of the continent while European colonies of the Atlantic World were largely confined to the eastern seaboard. To be sure, Native North America experienced far-reaching and radical change following contact with the peoples, things, and ideas that flowed inland following the creation of European colonies on North American soil. Most of the continent's indigenous peoples, however, were not conquered, assimilated, or even socially incorporated into the settlements and political regimes of this Atlantic New World. Instead, Native peoples forged a New World of their own. This history, the evolution of a distinctly Native New World, is a foundational story that remains largely untold in histories of early America. Through imaginative use of both Native language and European documents, historian Michael Witgen recreates the world of the indigenous peoples who ruled the western interior of North America. The Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples of the Great Lakes and Northern Great Plains dominated the politics and political economy of these interconnected regions, which were pivotal to the fur trade and the emergent world economy. Moving between cycles of alliance and competition, and between peace and violence, the Anishinaabeg and Dakota carved out a place for Native peoples in modern North America, ensuring not only that they would survive as independent and distinct Native peoples but also that they would be a part of the new community of nations who made the New World. Michael Witgen teaches history and American culture at the University of Michigan.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Early American Studies

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

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Prologue: The Long Invisibility of the Native New World

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pp. 1-22

Eshkibagikoonzhe felt anger, betrayal, and a deep sense of disappointment. He sat behind a table in his home at Gaazagaskwaajimekaag (Leech Lake), an immense lake with nearly two hundred miles of shoreline. Five medals, several war clubs, tomahawks, spears, all splashed with red paint, lay on the table before him. ...

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Part I. Discovery

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pp. 23-28

This book begins with a simple premise, that it is possible to write a history of Native North America in the seventeenth century. Of course, any history of Native peoples during this time period must also be a history of the encounter between the indigenous peoples of this continent and the European empires that brought ...

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Chapter 1. Place and Belonging in Native North America

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pp. 29-68

In the spring of 1660 the Anishinaabeg converged on a central location below Gichigamiing (Lake Superior), the largest freshwater lake in North America. They came to a village at another smaller lake, Odaawaa Zaaga’igan (Ottawa Lake, which the French designated as Lac Courte Oreilles). This lake connected two important ...

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Chapter 2. The Rituals of Possession and the Problems of Nation

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pp. 69-108

On June 14, 1671, Simon Francois Daumont le Sieur de St. Lusson claimed the interior of North America for the king of France. He voyaged west from Quebec to the Anishinaabe village that the French originally called Sainte Marie du Sault, under orders from the intendant of New France, and “summoned the surrounding peoples” ...

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Part II. The New World

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pp. 109-115

The New World was born when the Atlantic World empires arrived in the Western Hemisphere. The discovery of North America in the early modern era did not, however, result in the conquest and dispossession of all of Native America. In fact, in North America, conquest, rapid depopulation, and total dispossession ...

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Chapter 3. The Rebirth of Native Power and Identity

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pp. 116-167

By the last decades of the seventeenth century new peoples and things moved between the colonized east coast of North America and the indigenous western interior. The settler colonies on the coast developed as part of a larger Atlantic World. The European powers at the center of this world system claimed the western ...

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Chapter 4. European Interlopers and the Politics of the Native New World

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pp. 168-212

In 1685 the governor of New France, Jacques-René de Brisay Denonville, prepared a memoir on the state of affairs in Canada for the court of Louis XIV. He delivered a dire warning. The English presence at Hudson’s Bay threatened the very existence of the colony. “For if their establishments continue as they have begun in the three ...

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Part III. The Illusion of Empire

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pp. 213-222

Making sense of the relationships between European empires and the Native peoples of the Great Lakes and western interior of North America requires recognition of an important fact. Namely, the Native social formations within these overlapping territories were not, in spite of European claims, the subjects of European ...

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Chapter 5. An Anishinaabe Warrior’s World

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pp. 223-266

The hybrid murder trial/condolence ritual staged by Du Lhut preserved the French alliance in the heart of the Great Lakes, but it did not extend the alliance into the west. In fact, Oumamens successfully co-opted the trial in order to stifle opposition to the Anishinaabe alliance with the Dakota among the doodemag of Anishinaabewaki. ...

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Chapter 6. The Great Peace and Unraveling Alliances

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pp. 267-314

In the summer of 1701 the peoples of Anishinaabewaki gathered at Michilimackinac. They came together for an event that for many would be the most spectacular moment of their lives. A fleet of approximately two hundred canoes set off for New France. The warriors and ogimaag of Anishinaabewaki paddled through the waters ...

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Part IV. Sovereignty: The Making of North America’s New Nations

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pp. 315-321

In the first half of the nineteenth century America was engaged in a national conversation about the place of Indian peoples in the republic. Did they belong in the United States? Could they leave the wilderness behind and make the transition to civil society? James Fenimore Cooper answered these questions in his novel of 1826 ...

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Chapter 7. The Counterfactual History of Indian Assimilation

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pp. 322-358

In the early years of the republic, American political figures saw themselves as the creators of a new New World. This would be the era of republican nations. There was no place in this new and reimagined America for retrograde social formations, whether they be monarchial empires or Indian tribes. Within three decades ...

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Epilogue: Louis Riel, Native Founding Father

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pp. 359-370

During the summer of 2002, I was in Winnipeg, Manitoba, doing research for this book. Taking a break from the archives I decided to take a riverboat tour of the city. Winnipeg is located at the junction of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers, and the trip takes tourists through the heart of the old city, which includes ...

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Glossary of Native Terms

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pp. 371-374

The history of the Native New World needs to be considered in terms of indigenous politics, social categories, and where possible language and meaning. The latter can be problematic. Incorporating the Ojibwe language, Anishinaabemowin, into an English-language text presents a challenge. Until recently this was ...


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pp. 375-426


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pp. 427-446

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pp. 447-450

While writing this book I have benefited from the kindness and support of many people. This support has taken every form imaginable, from financial assistance and intellectual mentoring, to emotional encouragement. Scholarship, at its best, is a collaborative enterprise, and I have been fortunate to spend my time ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812205176
E-ISBN-10: 0812205170
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812243659
Print-ISBN-10: 081224365X

Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Early American Studies