- American Indians in Early New Orleans: From Calumet to Raquette by Daniel H. Usner
A compact volume, boasting a series of beautifully rendered color plates and other black-and-white images, Daniel H. Usner's American Indians in Early [End Page 665] New Orleans: From Calumet to Raquette offers an engaging narrative and a valuable contribution to the burgeoning historiography of indigenous urban spaces in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the book's preface, Usner remarks that "American Indians are seldom considered as travelers or tourists to urban places" (p. xiii). As such, how American Indians communicated their identities in cities and how European American observers interpreted and represented those assertions are important and engaging aspects of this study.
New Orleans, despite its origins as a French colony and its growth into a major city of the U.S. South, was not simply an imperial or settler-colonial space. Usner, over the course of five chapters and with an eye toward Indian performances of Indianness, demonstrates how Native Americans in New Orleans, through public diplomatic ceremonies, wampum exchanges, stickball matches, dances, the vending of crafts, and the selling of plants, established their presence in the community and marked it as a continual site of their sovereignty. How and why American Indians in New Orleans performed this work often shifted over time and adapted to new circumstances that aimed to dispossess, marginalize, or destroy their way of being, but the effect often remained the same: American Indians persisted, remembered, and shaped the history of New Orleans.
Usner argues, "A recovery of Indian perspectives and interests, especially for the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, can only be achieved through critical analysis of how white people represented Indian behavior" (p. xiv). The difficulty of writing this kind of history is capturing "how real persons experienced New Orleans and not how they were imagined" (p. xv). In this approach, American Indians in Early New Orleans is wonderfully effective. For example, in chapter 5 Usner carefully sifts through and analyzes the frequent racist, ethnocentric, and demeaning observations about Choctaw women and their families selling filé and baskets at the French Market in the late nineteenth century. He shows clearly that even in marginal and often liminal market spaces, Indian people supported themselves and showcased their identities in unique and complex ways.
Published in time for New Orleans's tricentennial, Usner's work ultimately reminds its readers of the continuous efforts Native peoples have made to exist and to persist in being American Indians in and around New Orleans. But the myth of the "'vanishing Indian'" remains, in city flags and street names, reflecting "a persistent idea—more like a stubborn insistence—that Native people relinquished their possession of land and sovereignty long ago" (pp. xv, xi–xii). In the ideological context of remembrance and celebration, American Indians in Early New Orleans helps readers confront the processes of European American history-making and place-making that have consistently and largely silenced Indian peoples' active engagement with the historical development of the city. By excavating the forgotten, ignored, and silenced Indian histories of New Orleans, Native Americans can find their proper place "in the Crescent City's recognized cultural diversity and social complexity" (p. xvi).
And like all excellent works of history, Usner's sets the stage well and encourages other scholars to further explore American Indian lives, experiences, and histories in New Orleans during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. [End Page 666]