- Powerful Currents and Submerged Shoals:Navigating Indigenous Maritime Histories
Narragansett tribal community member Gideon Ammons pursued a dynamic career in global whaling for many years before he returned to his traditional homelands by Narragansett Bay. Ammons, who figures prominently in historian Nancy Shoemaker's recent study of Indigenous whaling, did not cease his active energies upon returning home, nor did his maritime itineraries diminish his commitment to Narragansett lands that were increasingly under threat from colonial dispossessions and appropriations. Ammons emerged as a leading tribal activist during a contentious period as the state of Rhode Island attempted—illegally—to detribalize Narragansetts in the 1880s and dissolve their communal land-holdings. As Shoemaker's careful tracing of Ammons's transits in Native American Whalemen and the World: Indigenous Encounters and the Contingency of Race demonstrates, Native inhabitants of the Northeast were hardly passive bystanders to sociocultural, political, and economic transformations. Instead they navigated these changing historical currents with skill, foresight, adaptability, and care for their families and tribal nations, endeavoring to maintain Indigenous identities, spaces, and sovereignties despite mounting pressures of U.S. settler colonialism and racism.
The biography of the intentionally peripatetic Ammons offers a compelling lens onto the maritime movements of many Native people of the Northeast, and a way of reframing histories of "New England" that have conventionally marginalized Indigenous agency and placemaking. Both Shoemaker and Andrew Lipman, author of The Saltwater Frontier: Indians and the Contest for the American Coast, contend that historians must grapple in fresh ways with [End Page 545] Indigenous maritime connections in order to more accurately perceive the dynamic, contested, and contingent qualities of history, colonialism, and resistance in the American Northeast and beyond. Their projects reckon with how and why Native people went to sea, and the diverse ways in which Indigenous canoeists, captives, diplomats, fishermen, whalemen, and so many others interacted with watery spaces. The monographs present provocative questions about how these off-shore engagements inflected on-shore dynamics of escalating settler colonialism. Perhaps of greatest interest to scholars invested in methodologies from ethnohistory as well as Native American and Indigenous Studies, these books raise to the forefront important issues about how investigators of the past choose to locate voices, experiences, and pathways that the very structures of colonization have rendered unevenly visible or seemingly inaccessible. Reassessing all of these dimensions of Indigenous ocean-going sheds light not only on influential historical processes but also on the continuing presence of Indigenous communities and critical interlocutors in the twenty-first century.
Native Americans' longstanding yet adaptive uses of the ocean during the early era of Euro-American colonization is the topic of Lipman's The Saltwater Frontier. An historian at Barnard College, Lipman concentrates on interactions among Algonquian peoples of the coastal Northeast and those Dutch and English newcomers who possessed intense commercial and territorial designs on Native homelands and environmental resources. Responding to what he portrays as American historical scholarship's tendencies to relegate Indigenous people into a category of "landbound onlookers with little reach beyond their immediate shores," Lipman instead endeavors to center Indigenous and colonial ties with oceanic and coastal spaces: bays, estuaries, islands, and other features of the maritime Northeast and Atlantic World (p. 11). While Lipman may overstate the degree to which scholars have concentrated on terrestrial happenings, he offers an intervention that re-centers watery domains as contested spaces, even borderlands. This ambitious scope and argument may have been a contributing factor to the book's garnering the Bancroft Prize (2016). Pitching this six-chapter project as "concise and provocative rather than magisterial or definitive," Lipman draws on published accounts as well as original research in documentary, archaeological, cartographic, and other sources, integrating these sometimes conflicting information-points into a narrative that shifts between macrohistorical and...