- Searching for the Center of the World:Kinship, Exchange, and the Meaning of Home in Eastern Native North America
Native Americans rarely appear in internet memes, but one usefully subversive example of the form, featuring an indigenous American quartet, has been making the rounds for several years. Below a photo of the Apache leader Geronimo and three of his rifle-toting fellow countrymen appears the caption “Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorists since 1492.” The joke lies in the double meaning of the two words “terrorist,” here used to describe fanatical European colonists, and “homeland.” For many, if not most modern Americans, homeland evokes nothing in particular apart from the name of a television show and the unwieldy internal-security bureaucracy Congress threw together after the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. For many Native Americans, the word carries far more emotional weight. An Indian nation’s homeland has usually meant more to its owners than just a living space or a collection of resources: it also serves as a text of a particular people’s history, a vast aide-memoire recording the sacred and human events that occurred there. The Western Apaches, as anthropologist Keith Basso observed during long decades of ethnographic study, used place names from their Arizona homeland as a kind of oral hypertext. Apaches recited place names to one another during in-group conversation, using them to recall shared personal experiences and amusing or heartening stories they had heard from elders. A homeland, like a language, helped provide people with a distinct and unifying identity. Its absence deprived them of their stories and memories, and thus of a vital part of themselves.1 [End Page 203]
Losing one’s homeland has been an all-too-common experience for Native Americans. The nineteenth century, in particular, saw several hundred thousand indigenous people—Choctaws, Nez Perces, Potawatomis, and many others—driven from their homes and sent to distant, unfamiliar reservations. Dispossession proved multiply traumatic for Indians, who lost kinfolk to the stresses of forced migration, lost property that whites forced them to abandon, and lost the “storied landscapes” of home that formed so vital a part of their identity. Yet if Native American history has taught anything to modern scholars, it is that Indians are among the most resilient human beings on the continent. The story of Native North America since European contact has been one not only of loss and trauma, but also of personal and cultural survival. American Indians have, over the past few centuries, learned how to manage and even (in some cases) master European colonists who intruded on their homelands. Meanwhile, many who have lost older homelands have shown how one can transplant kinfolk and rituals and sacred institutions to a new domain, hundreds of miles away, and thereby create a new home.2
Jean Soderlund, in Lenape Country, addresses the first of these two implicit questions: how can indigenous peoples retain control of their natal country in the face of European invasion? Her focal area might look to colonial historians like well-traveled ground: the Contact-era homeland of the Lenape Indians, astride the Delaware River. She surveys this terrain, however, with the aid of powerful new interpretive tools: the documentary and genealogical work of Gunlög Fur and Peter Craig, incorporating Swedish and Finnish colonists’ perspectives, and Robert Grumet’s extensive research on the Lenapes’ ethnic relations, the Munsees. These ensure that her journey through the Delaware Valley yields a persuasive new interpretation of the region’s seventeenth-century history.3
Soderlund identifies the Lenapes as the region’s dominant power until the 1680s. Europeans made eastern Pennsylvania and western New Jersey nominal components of the Atlantic World, but the newcomers’ interactions with the indigenes demonstrated that the country remained (in Kathleen DuVal’s perennially...