- “A People of Persistence”The Evolving Historiography of Indigenous Midwests
In his introduction to the edited volume Enduring Nations: Native Americans in the Midwest (2008), R. David Edmunds describes Native Americans living in the Midwest region as “a people of persistence,” who “played a major role in the history of the region and the American nation.”1 Despite their importance, Native Americans residing in the Midwest—especially those in the Great Lakes region—traditionally have not received as much scholarly attention as those located in the West or on the East Coast.2 Over the last two decades, however, historians have started to address this imbalance, and scholarship on midwestern Native Americans has increased exponentially. Collectively, these new studies illustrate the importance of Native American men and women to the development of the Midwest, and to American history in general, from pre-contact to the present-day. Recent articles, monographs, and edited volumes cover a multitude of topics and themes, including “agency, voice, sovereignty, nationhood, gender, marriage, status, class, intercultural connections, diplomatic mergers, race, and cultural change.”3 Because of the large amount of scholarship on Native Americans in the Midwest, this essay will examine only those works published after 2000 and cover the colonial period into the present day, although there also is a growing body of historical and archaeological work on pre-contact Native Americans in the region, especially around Cahokia, for example.4
In order to examine the experiences of midwestern Native Americans, many historians utilize an ethnohistorical approach. Ethnohistory expands the type of historical evidence consulted to “include every conceivable discovery by archeology and cultural studies,” especially oral history and, recently, photographs.5 Ethnohistorians work to involve “native peoples, their [End Page 9] leadership, and their traditions” in their scholarship.6 Historians also increasingly frame their studies around questions of settler colonialism and imperialism. These concepts allow historians to examine “multidimensional issues surrounding indigenous sovereignty . . . identity, nationhood, relationships with colonial societies, indigenous voice, indigenous law, and culture change.”7 The ultimate goal of much of this scholarship is decolonization, which can be defined as healing “the wounds of colonialism” through cultural, religious, and language revitalization and “dismantling oppressive systems that harm [indigenous] people, land, and culture.”8 The best scholarship on Native Americans in the Midwest acknowledges the importance of multiple viewpoints, sources, and theoretical approaches.
Scholars studying the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries have embraced ethnohistory and apply models of imperialism, colonialism, and cultural exchange to explore the interaction of Europeans and indigenous peoples in the Midwest. Scholars argue that indigenous peoples, settlers, and French and English officials created a world of fluid, changing identities, and, ultimately, creole societies. For example, Robert Michael Morrissey, in Empire by Collaboration: Indians, Colonists, and Governments in Colonial Illinois Country (2015), offers a reinterpretation of the French colonial empire in Illinois from the 1600s until just before the American Revolutionary War. Morrissey convincingly argues that the French empire in Illinois was characterized by “compromise and flexibility, by diverse people purposefully acting to create a mutually acceptable order.” French Illinois was an “empire of collaboration” where distant French officials, French traders and settlers, Jesuit priests, and Illinois Native Americans worked together to develop a legal system, economy, laws, and social relations.9 Other authors also have examined French and English colonialism in other areas of the Midwest as well as the creation of creole societies.10 Moving forward in time, historians have studied the role of midwestern Native Americans in the Revolutionary War.11
Following the colonial and Revolutionary War eras, early nineteenth-century Native American history has traditionally focused on federal removal policies, especially in the southeastern portion of the United States. However, removal also occurred in the Midwest; moreover, tribes from the East and Southeast moved into the Midwest, displacing resident communities. Recently, historians have studied and reinterpreted removal in the Old Northwest and other portions of the Midwest.12 In addition to shortchanging the stories of the removal of northern tribes, historians often portrayed the end result of antebellum removal as the erasure of native peoples from [End Page 10] the Midwest, especially in the Great Lakes region. Certainly, the nineteenth century was a...