- Imperial Entanglements: Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire
In recent years, few topics in early American history have received closer attention than the complex relationships between European colonists and indigenous peoples. In her study of the powerful and influential Iroquois league, Gail MacLeitch adds to that copious literature by focusing on the economic lives of colonial-era Indians. Like recent works by Joseph Hall (Zamumo’s Gifts: Indian-European Exchange in the Colonial Southeast, 2009) and David Preston (The Texture of Contact: European and Indian Settler Communities on the Frontiers of Iroquoia, 1667–1783, 2009), her book conveys a rich sense of what Preston calls the “texture” of daily interactions between Indians and colonists. In the process, MacLeitch shows how the Iroquois adapted their economy and culture in ways that helped meet new challenges while also preserving important traditions.
The greatest strength of Imperial Entanglements is its rich descriptions of daily life in the bustling and surprisingly diverse frontier economy. Previous scholarship focuses on how the fur trade and the colonial land business weakened Indian autonomy. MacLeitch covers this ground as well, but also shows how the Iroquois responded to such challenges by adapting and diversifying their economic endeavors. Rather than clinging to traditional modes of exchange, rooted in gifting and reciprocity, the Iroquois ventured tentatively into the commercial economy by marketing new kinds of products, renting land to colonists, hiring out their labor, and using currency as a medium of exchange when barter did not suffice. For example, the Iroquois recovered some of their losses in the fur trade by collecting ginseng root, which fetched high prices thanks to the demand for its medicinal properties in China. Rather than helpless victims of encroaching capitalism, the Iroquois were active and market-savvy participants in a global economy.
MacLeitch also discusses how these shifts in economic practices reflected and informed how the Iroquois and their colonial neighbors understood themselves and one another. She stresses that the Iroquois inhabited what Kathleen Brown has called a “gender frontier”: a space where conflicting ideas and expectations about differences between the sexes met and mingled. She devotes similar attention to ideas about ethnicity and race. For both the Iroquois and their British neighbors, these categories were in flux because of both intercultural contact and the broader social transformations that attended colonialism. [End Page 703] Because gender played a critical part in organizing the Iroquois economy, ideas about the roles of men and women, and the relationships between different categories of men and women, shifted along with new economic adaptations. These changes sometimes reflected colonial demands: British Indian superintendent Sir William Johnson was particularly adamant that women not participate in formal councils, even though he owed much of his own power to his marriage to an influential Iroquois woman. But MacLeitch emphasizes that the Iroquois gave in to such demands only partly and haltingly. Much like economic changes, they adopted new ideas and practices only on their own terms.
But while the Iroquois responded creatively to the challenges of colonialism, those challenges nonetheless placed ever greater constraints on Iroquois choices. In its attention to Iroquois economic agency, Imperial Entanglements displays a striking irony: the Iroquois (and countless other indigenous peoples) endured the challenges of colonial expansion by selectively entering into the commercial economy, but the more they did so the more their autonomy eroded. Their creative adaptations helped them weather short-term storms, but they still found themselves defenseless once Anglo-American independence undercut their diplomatic and military leverage. On the other hand, it seems likely that the experience of economic adaptation and diversification in the decades before dispossession aided the Iroquois considerably in the challenging years that followed.
Imperial Entanglements thus raises interesting and important questions about indigenous responses to colonialism and the expanding market economy, but it would have benefitted from a more thorough exploration of such questions. Did the Iroquois strategy of partial economic and cultural adaptation help bring about dependency and dispossession, or did it postpone them? MacLeitch equivocates...