- Iroquois Home Front
This book is part of a bumper crop of recent scholarship on the Iroquois in the eighteenth century. It is tempting to ascribe this output to the 250th anniversary of the Seven Years' War, which has been the occasion for academic conferences and public programs on both sides of the Atlantic that have renewed interest in Iroquois relations with the British Empire, but Iroquois scholarship has always chugged along at a steady pace. This productivity is indicative of both the prominence of the Iroquois in early American history and the rich textual record left behind by their interaction with Sir William Johnson, who served as the British Crown's Superintendent of Indian Affairs from 1755 until his death in 1774. It is often said of the rock group Velvet Underground that not many people bought their records, but everyone who did started a band. So it seems true that anyone who has ever cracked open a volume of the Papers of Sir William Johnson has written a dissertation.1
Like many scholars before her, Gail D. MacLeitch has mined the Papers of Sir William Johnson deeply in writing this study of the Iroquois during the era of the Seven Years' War. The war itself, however, serves only as a backdrop for her analysis of the impact that engagement with British power had on Iroquois economic production, gender relations, and self-identity. This is a story, in other words, told from within Iroquoia, looking outward as colonial neighbors and imperial officials drew Iroquois men and women more deeply into a web of interdependent relationships. MacLeitch succeeds in bringing a new perspective to a familiar era, illuminating the subtle and sometimes abrupt ways in which the Iroquois adjusted their internal affairs to new geopolitical realities. In a sense, this is a book about the Iroquois home front during a time of imperial war.
MacLeith's central assertion is that "asymmetrical forms of cultural borrowing and exchange facilitated the aggrandizement of British imperial and colonial forces in North America at the same time that they weakened the position of the Iroquois" (p. 2). Behind this awkwardly phrased thesis lurks [End Page 211] an important insight: the Iroquois and their European neighbors created a hybrid world together, but the benefits and costs of that exchange were not evenly distributed. British imperial power expanded in the Great Lakes region with the complicity of the Iroquois, whose economic and political autonomy was undermined in the process, ultimately turning them "from a sovereign people to de facto clients of the British Empire" (p. 5). MacLeitch devotes the balance of the book to explaining the forces behind that transformation, focusing especially on economic exchange, gender relations, and ethnic and racial identity formation.
The first of these transformative forces was the market economy that turned the labor and natural resources of the Iroquois into commodities. Of course, the Iroquois had participated in the Atlantic fur trade since the early seventeenth century, and at the outbreak of the Seven Years' War they were hardly neophytes to the ways of colonial capitalism. But, MacLeitch argues, the war quickened the erosion of their economic independence by cutting off some economic activities and opening others. The Anglo-French war disrupted the fur trade and traditional subsistence activities related to farming, hunting, and fishing. Iroquois men found new forms of employment as wage laborers, serving as scouts or irregular forces along the Canada-New York borderland or as stevedores hauling supplies at portages like the Oneida Carrying Place on the route between Albany and Oswego. Other aspects of this expanding wage economy included cash payments Iroquois men and women received from Johnson and other colonial entrepreneurs for gathering ginseng, selling native-made handicrafts, or for leasing and selling farmland. All of these types of exchange predated the Seven Years' War, but the war altered their significance in the domestic economy of the Iroquois by militarizing the New York frontier. The influx of British soldiers created new demands for Iroquois...