- Three Fires Unity: The Anishnaabeg of the Lake Huron Borderlands
Three Fires Unity, Phil Bellfy’s modestly sized volume, examines several sweeping and interrelated topics, including the past five hundred years of indigenous history in the Lake Huron region, the eighteenth-century emergence of the multitribal political alliance called the Three Fires (or sometimes the Three Council Fires) composed of Ojibwes, Odawas, and Potawatomis, the history of the treaty negotiations of these allies with both the United States and Canada, the resurgence of cross-border Native activism in the 1990s, and the complexities of the political phenomenon of “borders” and “borderlands.”’
The volume opens with a discussion of borders and borderlands. Bellfy notes that for the Native peoples who lived (and whose descendants still live) in the lands surrounding Lake Huron, the [End Page 134] lake was anything but a border. It facilitated travel, provided a generous livelihood, and helped shape the identities and remarkable political philosophies of the Anishinaabeg, the indigenous peoples who would become known to Europeans as Ojibwes, Odawas, and Potawatomis. Indeed, it would be the colonizing actions and colonialist impositions of those Europeans—first the French, then the British, then the English-descended Canadians and Americans—that transformed Lake Huron into a boundary between empires. Once the lake became a barrier rather than an integral part of an environment, the surrounding region was reenvisioned as a borderland, a contested region of shifting power relations among and between nations, both Native and European. Europeans asserted their growing power with acts of appropriation, claiming geographic space as they mapped the region and renamed its lakes and rivers. Most problematically, they renamed and gave new identities to the region’s indigenous peoples and, most importantly, determined which indigenous peoples “belonged” to which “side” of that new construct, the US-Canadian border.
Although Bellfy initially conceptualizes the Lake Huron borderland in ways that locate it within postmodern and postcolonial understandings of the power of social constructions to shape social realities, his main interest is not theorizing the international border. He articulates a second understanding of borderlands, and this conceptualization frames much of the rest of the book. In this second view Bellfy asserts that the Lake Huron borderlands are best understood as an indigenous place, an identifiable and enduring physical locality continuously inhabited by Anishinaabeg people. At present this physical place is composed of a number of counties in the state of Michigan and districts in the province of Ontario that, Bellfy demonstrates, are distinguished by their disproportionately high aboriginal populations. The remainder of the book examines indigenous resistance to the real-world implications of a homeland bisected by an externally imposed division. Native peoples, especially the Anishinaabeg of the Three Fires alliance, not only continued to occupy the region but also continued to assert their political sovereignty over the entirety of the borderlands. Indeed, as Bellfy [End Page 135] reminds us, the imposition of the border was not instantaneous, and several early treaties (among them the Jay Treaty of 1794) recognized aboriginal rights to cross the border as part of such everyday activities as hunting, attending religious ceremonies, or maintaining family ties. Three chapters of historical background review the interactions of Ojibwes, Odawas, and Potawatomis with the region’s several successive colonial regimes from the 1600s to the mid-1800s. They describe Anishinaabeg involvement in colonial wars and detail their political efforts, in the wake of those wars, to assert their continuing sovereignty. Frequently based on older historical works, including those of James Clifton and Richard White, these chapters recount an oft-told tale and are the least satisfying portions of the volume. The focus on Anishinaabeg relations with Europeans has the unfortunate tendency of positioning these allied nations as reacting to European actions rather than as initiating political actions of their own. The more significant points—that the border was more porous than official colonial language made it appear and that Native peoples retained cross-border rights to continue to live, work, and travel throughout the region...