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Reviewed by:
  • Contested Spaces of Early America ed. by Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman
  • Carla Gerona (bio)

Borderlands, Western hemisphere, Maps, Native Americans

Contested Spaces of Early America. Edited by Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman. (Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014. Pp. 444. Cloth, $49.95.)

Juliana Barr and Edward Countryman’s edited volume, Contested Spaces of Early America, explores different ways of doing early American history, and more particularly, borderlands history. This field remained on the margins for many years, apart from Latin American and United States history, but as the volume’s title suggests, borderlands historians are extending their influence beyond the Spanish southwest. Much credit for this historiographical shift goes to the late David J. Weber, to whom the volume is dedicated. This collection clearly illustrates Weber’s ongoing influence, bringing together former colleagues, fellows, and students. [End Page 309] More than that, the assemblage provides a distinct (if fractured) picture of where the borderlands field is headed.

As their central motif, editors Barr and Countryman argue that in early America ‘‘people who had been total strangers met, mingled, and clashed, creating colonial societies unlike any that the world had seen to that time’’ (2). To highlight this messy landscape, the volume’s twelve essays range in time, place, and approach: from the earliest Iberian entries to later Anglo–American filibusters; from the Rio de la Plata to the Northern Plains; from environmental studies to art history. Despite this unusually wide scope, the essays hold together because each one, in its own original way, explores the spaces where indigenous American societies came into contact with European colonial ones in places where control was contested and few could claim a monopoly on power.

In their introductory essay, Barr and Countryman begin with the idea that ‘‘a really good map of the colonial situation of the early western hemisphere would show a set of sometimes fluid, sometimes unbending fields of force, all of them dealing with the issue of space.’’ But there can be no such ‘‘ideal map’’ (2). For Europeans, cartography served as an imperialistic tool to erase Indian claims and delineate European titles. Such was the case in Antonio Pereira’s 1545 map that featured Spanish, Portuguese, and French flags to proclaim America as ‘‘a world of competing European nations already divvying up rights’’ (4). Indigenous peoples had their own maps, many of which inscribed symbols on landscapes, but these no longer exist. At least initially, these maps had a different purpose: Instead of separating territories, they connected groups. A Chickasaw who drew a map in 1723 used circles and lines ‘‘not to indicate boundaries in the European fashion but rather to show paths that connected Native and European peoples to one another in a huge web’’ (11). Barr and Countryman conclude that European mappers’ depictions of nation–states and empires did not exist, and history should reflect this view.

The second essay, Pekka Hämäläinen’s ‘‘The Shapes of Power,’’ also shows a contested America, but seeks to make sense of the chaos—to, in a sense, create an ideal map. Claiming that ‘‘today’s scholarship produces so much new history that we do not quite know where to put it all,’’ Hämäläinen proceeds to contain early American stories around the theme of power (31). Using his gift for challenging presuppositions, Hämäläinen shows that there is more to the concept of power than guns, germs, and steel. Kinship networks, cultural knowledge, and diplomatic [End Page 310] capacities also empowered societies, and were readily available to Native Americans. While ‘‘unipolar’’ European societies competed with each other, exploited subjected Indians, and formed alliances with more distant Native Americans, the more prevalent ‘‘unipolar’’ Native American Confederacies became increasingly assertive, prosperous, and heterogeneous as they extended their influence. In ‘‘multipolar’’ places different peoples—European and Indian—tried to gain power, and ‘‘intergroup relations became grounded in violence’’ (60). The rarest ‘‘apolar’’ places included the ‘‘middle ground’’ of the Great Lakes, as well as the Spanish and Pueblo region of the upper Rio Grande, places that turned to ‘‘mutual reinvention’’ because no one group had enough power to gain control. This early...


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pp. 309-312
Launched on MUSE
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