- Peoples of the Inland Sea: Native Americans and Newcomers in the Great Lakes Region, 1600–1870 by David Andrew Nichols
In Peoples of the Inland Sea, David Andrew Nichols adds to a growing list of books on the Great Lakes as borderlands. In his examination of Indigenous sovereignty and survivance from 1600 to 1870, he argues that until the 1830s Great Lakes Indians frequently had the upper hand "in their dealings with Euro-American empires" because "the Great Lakes was a region where France, Britain, and the early United States reached their logistical limits" (3). As a result, Great Lakes Indians were able to maintain political independence and cultural continuity. Though scholars have long written about events within the Great Lakes region—especially the fur trade wars of the mid-seventeenth century, the Seven Years' War, and the rise of Indigenous nativism at Prophetstown—few have focused on the area as a distinctly Indigenous space where Native peoples shaped and at times dictated the course of empire, commerce, and settlement.1 Nichols abandons the traditional framework that compartmentalizes the Great Lakes into rigid imperial zones in favor of a borderland approach where Dakota, Anishinaabeg, Shawnee, Miami, and Haudenosaunee peoples are entangled in a fluid geographic and cultural space and bound together through kinship, commerce, and conflict. Peoples of the Inland Sea contends that, seen from this perspective, Lakes Indians "were not subjects but allies, independent nations who manipulated" (57–58) imperial powers and agents for well over two centuries.
For Nichols, the Indigenous Great Lakes period begins in the Hopewellian and Mississippian eras with the advent of agriculture, a key moment in the settlement of the region. At this time the Cahokians reigned. They built populous urban centers that cohered through intensive agriculture, public ceremonies and sacrifices, and potentially expansive warfare. The Cahokians spread their culture via ritualized trade goods and sport, while also facilitating a much larger agricultural revolution throughout North America as other Indigenous peoples began adopting maize agriculture as their own. By examining the extent to which Cahokian agriculture, religion, [End Page 839] and trade transformed the peoples of the Mississippi Valley, Nichols re-centers Indigenous power in the southern Great Lakes while also framing a new chronology in which European imperial history becomes just one of many key moments—and one of multiple imperial moments—in the history of the Great Lakes borderland, rather than its axis. This refocusing is especially effective as Nichols moves the reader into the various conflicts of the fur trade during the early colonial era. Though the Haudenosaunee, Dutch, and English often receive top billing as the primary actors in these wars, Nichols centers the conflict in the southern Great Lakes, where the Haudenosaunee were indeed powerful but where the Isanyathi (Eastern Dakota) and Anishinaabeg successfully defended their homelands and the Illinois confederacy refused defeat. Here the establishment of empire eluded all, and instead a multipolar world emerged. In fact, according to Nichols, if Europeans wanted to assert themselves within the Lakes region, "they needed first to learn how to weave themselves into the social fabric of . . . Indian country" (39).
Yet within Nichols's specific examination of Indian agency during the imperial era lies a set of more traditional assumptions about historical power. Like Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, Nichols sees Native Americans of the Great Lakes region as a site of "peoples in between" where Indigenous borderlands and power could only exist within the contested boundaries between colonial domains.2 As opposed to Tracey Neal Leavelle, who, in The Catholic Calumet, depicted the relationship between French Jesuits and the Algonquian peoples of Illinois as suffused by cultural entanglements and cross-conversions, Nichols tends to depict a more linear story of Indigenous adoption of French norms. Where Michael A. McDonnell in Masters of Empire detailed French dependencies on Lakes Indians for food, trade, and justice, Nichols sees the French as an "uneasy imperium" (40) in which they accommodated Indigenous...