The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent

The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent

The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent

The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent


In The Native Ground, Kathleen DuVal argues that it was Indians rather than European would-be colonizers who were more often able to determine the form and content of the relations between the two groups. Along the banks of the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, far from Paris, Madrid, and London, European colonialism met neither accommodation nor resistance but incorporation. Rather than being colonized, Indians drew European empires into local patterns of land and resource allocation, sustenance, goods exchange, gender relations, diplomacy, and warfare. Placing Indians at the center of the story, DuVal shows both their diversity and our contemporary tendency to exaggerate the influence of Europeans in places far from their centers of power. Europeans were often more dependent on Indians than Indians were on them.

Now the states of Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Colorado, this native ground was originally populated by indigenous peoples, became part of the French and Spanish empires, and in 1803 was bought by the United States in the Louisiana Purchase. Drawing on archaeology and oral history, as well as documents in English, French, and Spanish, DuVal chronicles the successive migrations of Indians and Europeans to the area from precolonial times through the 1820s. These myriad native groups—Mississippians, Quapaws, Osages, Chickasaws, Caddos, and Cherokees—and the waves of Europeans all competed with one another for control of the region.

Only in the nineteenth century did outsiders initiate a future in which one people would claim exclusive ownership of the mid-continent. After the War of 1812, these settlers came in numbers large enough to overwhelm the region's inhabitants and reject the early patterns of cross-cultural interdependence. As citizens of the United States, they persuaded the federal government to muster its resources on behalf of their dreams of landholding and citizenship.

With keen insight and broad vision, Kathleen DuVal retells the story of Indian and European contact in a more complex and, ultimately, more satisfactory way.


In the summer of 1673, a Quapaw Indian spotted two canoes full of Frenchmen descending the broad, brown waterway that Algonquian speakers named the Mississippi, the “Big River.” When the people of Kappa, the northernmost Quapaw town, heard the news, they prepared to welcome the newcomers. Several Quapaws paddled their own canoes into the river, and one held aloft a calumet, a peace pipe. As the Quapaws hoped, this sign of peaceful intentions, recognized by native peoples across North America, allayed the fears of their French visitors—Quebec merchant Louis Jolliet, Jesuit priest Jacques Marquette, and their handful of companions. As his canoe pulled up beside the Frenchmen, the man holding the calumet sang a song of welcome. He handed them the pipe, with some cornbread and sagamité, corn porridge. After the visitors had smoked and eaten, the Quapaws led them to Kappa, on the banks of the Mississippi some twenty-five miles north of the mouth of the Arkansas River. There, under persimmon and plum trees, the women prepared a place for the visitors to sit among the town’s elders, on fine rush mats, surrounded by the warriors. The rest of the men and women of Kappa sat in an outer circle. One of the young men of the town translated for Marquette through an Algonquian language that both of them knew.

The Quapaws’ message was clear. They wanted an alliance with the French. From neighbors to the east, the Quapaws had learned of Europeans and the powerful munitions that they traded and gave to their Indian allies. But, as the Quapaw elders explained to their visitors, enemies had “prevented them from becoming acquainted with the Europeans, and from carrying on any trade with them.” The Quapaws hoped that Jolliet and Marquette would be the first of many French visitors who would prove steady allies and provide useful goods.

The Quapaws were purposefully shaping the newcomers’ understandings of the North American mid-continent and the people who lived there. While the Quapaws demonstrated that they were generous and friendly, they portrayed their enemies as aggressive and dangerous. When the visitors . . .

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