Journal of the History of Sexuality 10.3&4 (2001) 577-579
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Indian Marriage in Early New England
Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England. By Ann Marie Plane. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. 288. $39.95 (cloth).
Most scholars' vision of marriage in early New England probably involves straitlaced Puritans condemning adultery or, perhaps, Anne Bradstreet's odes to her husband. In Colonial Intimacies, Ann Plane shows us an entirely different side to marriage by exploring how it both reflected and constituted the colonial project in early New England. Consisting primarily of six brief chapters written in an engaging style, Colonial Intimacies asks how "the intimacies of native sexual and domestic life proved inextricably intertwined with the establishment, rise, and maintenance of English colonial authority" (p. 5). Plane answers this question by focusing on southeastern New England from ca. 1620 to 1770. Her sources range across multiple genres, from Roger Williams's well-trod and indispensable Key into the Language of America, to reconstructions of less well known court cases, such as that of the Christianized native, Sarah Ahhaton, which Plane uses to begin and end her book. In this book, Plane helps the reader to imagine the vast changes taking place in marital relations among indigenous and colonizing New Englanders.
Employing a primarily thematic organization, Plane begins by examining precontact Native American marital customs and by exploring how the English used marriage practices to bolster the colonial process of defining Indianness against Englishness. Next, she focuses on the challenges to native marriages posed by Christian conversion, showing how native customs became redefined as sinful. In a fascinating chapter on the plural systems of law that attempted to segregate native and English concerns, she asks how a developing legal culture affected the meanings of marriage for Indian women and men. Giving us glimpses into cases of interracial sexual contact, adultery, and rape, Plane explores the policing of the sexual terms of marital relations. She also addresses the relation of marriage to reproduction and household organization, especially as Native Americans came increasingly to fill the role of servants in Anglo-American households. Plane's final chapter shows the political and economic weight carried by the meaning(s) of marriage in a colonial setting. She traces the disputes over the lineage of the Narragansett sachemdom of the Ninegret family, showing how particular forms of marriage gained legal standing through a malleable set of customs, laws, and beliefs. With careful attention to legal forms and clearly explained reconstructions of complex marital practices, Plane shows how "Indians had to define and explain themselves to outsiders, in the outsiders' own terms" (p. 177).
Throughout the book, Plane convincingly details the ways that marriage was not a static inheritance of rigid European ideals. She shows how [End Page 577] the fluidity of meaning given to Native American marriages meant that particular marital "traditions" could be mobilized at opportune moments. Besides Plane's sophisticated analysis of the construction of marriage in a colonial context, one of the book's best attributes is its attention to individual lives. Stories of the lives of countless (and formerly often uncounted) Native American women and men form the backbone of this book. Where other scholars have largely reported on European views of Indians' sexuality, Plane deftly teases out Narragansett perspectives on marriage, polygyny, and other intimate relationships, all the while showing how difficult it can be to reconstruct Indian lives from Anglo-American documents. Colonial Intimacies shows how Native Americans adopted, contested, manipulated, and reimagined English notions in multiple forums.
Although the book is largely a thematic study, Plane also explores the transformation of Indians from a culturally distinctive group to a culturally dispossessed one, as colonial class and racial formation pushed Native Americans into untenable and undesirable social positions. Throughout, she avoids unproductive binaries of assimilation-resistance, preferring instead simply to suggest the multiple ways that we might want to read a given incident or set of documents. When her evidence is less than conclusive, Plane willingly presents multiple...