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Journal of Social History 38.3 (2005) 827-829
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In a departure from traditional accounts of eighteenth-century relations between American Indians and Europeans/Euro-Americans, Nancy Shoemaker focuses not on the differences between these groups, but upon their similarities. Shoemaker examines the written accounts of speeches of American Indians recorded by scribes during treaty negotiations, as well as conversations between American Indians and Europeans recorded by soldiers, travelers, and explorers. The author finds that six topics frequently emerged: land, kings, writing, alliances, gender, and race. Devoting a chapter to each topic, Shoemaker explores the common ideas held by Indians and Europeans about these concepts, as well as the cultural gaps in meaning that often led to misunderstandings. Shoemaker argues "that Indian and European similarities enabled them to see their differences in sharper relief and, over the course of the eighteenth century, constructed new identities that exaggerated the contrasts between them while ignoring what they had in common" (p. 3). Thus, it was the common cognitive ground shared by Indians and Europeans that permitted both groups to create and amplify differences between them.
The first topic Shoemaker addresses is land. Though Indians and Europeans may have differed in how they conceptualized an individual's relationship to land, both understood the idea of territorial sovereignty. Indians, like Europeans, recognized that peoples or nations had claims to territory, marked the boundaries of their own territories, and acknowledged the markers of other groups. Indigenous North American populations and Europeans also shared some fundamental beliefs about governance: both appointed individuals to speak and act for the larger group; both granted such individuals titles, responsibilities, and privileges; and both used visible symbols, such as a crown or calumet, to signify the entire group.
Shoemaker states that "writing ranks as one of the most important European introductions to North America" but implicitly argues against the notion that Indians imbued writing with a kind of mystical power (p. 64). Shoemaker explains Indian interest in and reverence for writing in more pragmatic terms: Indians understood writing as the European method for sealing an agreement and saw written treaties and letters as objects that represented agreements between nations, much like wampum belts or eagle wings. Moreover, Indians, not just Europeans, encouraged the perception that there was a fundamental difference [End Page 827] between Indians and Europeans because one group monopolized speaking, while the other monopolized writing.
Indians and Europeans had a history of creating alliance relationships before their New World encounters and conceived of uneven relationships between alliance members. For example, some alliances were based on the dependency of one group upon another. Europeans and Indians differed, however, in their understandings of just what could constitute an alliance and of what responsibilities an alliance entailed. Land treaties aptly demonstrated this interpretive difference: Indians considered land treaties to be alliances, the beginning of an on-going relationship between Indians and Europeans with reciprocal obligations. Europeans, on the other hand, often viewed land treaties as simple land transfers, a completed transaction requiring no further responsibilities.
Shoemaker argues that Europeans and Indians shared some common ground in thinking about gender: both expected men to participate on governing councils and in battle, not women; and both insulted enemies by calling them women. The discussion of gender, however, might offer an example of a topic in which differences in Indian and European thinking were too glaring to skim over. Shoemaker does note that "the agricultural productivity of Indian women... was the most visible gender difference between eighteenth-century Europeans and Indians" but does not explore the implications of this difference (p. 123). Indian women controlled agricultural production, which also meant that Indian women controlled land use and made important economic contributions to their communities that led to some power in communal decision-making.1 The presence of Indian women working in the fields also influenced how Europeans perceived Indian men. Europeans often described Indian...