- Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America by Michael A. McDonnell
With this monograph, Michael McDonnell joins a growing list of historians who have taken up Daniel Richter’s challenge to reinterpret American history by “facing east from Indian Country.” While the narrative unfolds along a familiar timeline stretching from the early 1600s to Removal, McDonnell gives a new spin to the story by recounting it from an unusual vantage point: that of the Anishinabe Odawa who lived around the straits of Michilimackinac. As a strategic gateway connecting Lakes Huron and Michigan, the region has long been of scholarly interest but no one, until now, had published a detailed ethno-history of its Odawa residents. Although he draws on familiar sources, McDonnell has nonetheless produced a work that is fresh, engaging, and provocative. His book is groundbreaking in that Native Americans are not just actors in a world changing to the beat of colonial drums, as is often the case in Native American History. His Odawa are [End Page 96] actually prime movers in American history and their actions “often changed the course of North American events” (327). McDonnell traces, for instance, the outbreak of the Seven Years War to an Anishinabe raid on a Pickawillany, a Miami village, two years before the Battle of Jumonville Glen in 1754.
In his quest to re-assert the centrality of the Odawa in defining historical moments, one could accuse McDonnell of over-reaching by engaging, at times, in rather speculative exercises. But overall, by flipping the frame of reference around and focusing “on one people and one place over the long durée,” the author cleverly destabilizes the traditional master narrative by periodizing known events according to a new historical logic (6). As such, the French and Indian War unfolds in the broader context of the First Anglo-Indian War (1752–1758), a conflict initiated by and for Native Americans with Michili-mackinac––not Quebec City––as ground zero. Far from being peons in a larger imperial contest, the Anishinabeg and their allies only fought alongside the French––and later the English––as long as their interests converged. “The Odawa,” McDonnell remarks, “were able to exploit European imperialism when it came and they did so mostly for their own purposes” (15). Without indigenous support, imperial powers vacillated. In order to keep a foothold in the region, the French, British, and Americans had therefore to adapt their imperial designs to meet the expectations of their hosts, making the Odawa “Masters of Empire.” Interestingly, the Anishinabeg’s influence emanated from the fact that Europeans––and not Native Americans as the story usually goes––were dependent on the locals.
Readers familiar with Richard White’s The Middle Ground will discover here a compelling counter-argument to his seminal work. Since its publication in 1991, White’s depiction of European-Indian relations in the Great Lakes region from 1650 to 1815 has had a profound historiographical impact. While scholars initially applied his model indiscriminately to other times and places, more recently, historians have highlighted its shortcomings. McDonnell’s study draws from these more recent works. Echoing Heidi Bohaker’s argument, for instance, the author rejects White’s claim that, after 1650, the Anishinabeg were refugees from Iroquois war parties. Nor did they live in a shattered world or owe their political cohesiveness to French diplomatic endeavors. Instead, they lived in a world “in flux… not in a state of collapse” where the extension of kinship networks, more than French mediation, played a central role to foster political integration among the region’s inhabitants, Indians and Europeans alike. In the colonial Great Lakes region, therefore, “the French could only follow, not lead” (91). This statement stands in sharp contrast to White’s argument that the middle ground, this zone of inter-cultural accommodation, was possible because French and Indians had similar power and none could dictate to the other. As McDonnell points out however, this perspective only reflects distortions in the records. By over-privileging ethno-historic...