Imperial Entanglements: Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire

Imperial Entanglements: Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire

Imperial Entanglements: Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire

Imperial Entanglements: Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire

Synopsis

Imperial Entanglements chronicles the history of the Haudenosaunee Iroquois in the eighteenth century, a dramatic period during which they became further entangled in a burgeoning market economy, participated in imperial warfare, and encountered a waxing British Empire. Rescuing the Seven Years' War era from the shadows of the American Revolution and moving away from the political focus that dominates Iroquois studies, historian Gail D. MacLeitch offers a fresh examination of Iroquois experience in economic and cultural terms. As land sellers, fur hunters, paid laborers, consumers, and commercial farmers, the Iroquois helped to create a new economic culture that connected the New York hinterland to a transatlantic world of commerce. By doing so they exposed themselves to both opportunities and risks.

As their economic practices changed, so too did Iroquois ways of making sense of gender and ethnic differences. MacLeitch examines the formation of new cultural identities as men and women negotiated challenges to long-established gendered practices and confronted and cocreated a new racialized discourses of difference. On the frontiers of empire, Indians, as much as European settlers, colonial officials, and imperial soldiers, directed the course of events. However, as MacLeitch also demonstrates, imperial entanglements with a rising British power intent on securing native land, labor, and resources ultimately worked to diminish Iroquois economic and political sovereignty.

Excerpt

During an Anglo-Iroquois conference an Iroquois headman approached the British superintendent for Indian affairs, William Johnson, with a special request. The headman relayed to him a dream he had had in which Johnson had given him “a fine laced coat” much like the one that Johnson now wore. Johnson asked the headman if he had really dreamed this, to which the latter affirmed that he had. “Well then,” the superintendent remarked, “you must have it.” Understanding the significance of dreaming and appreciative of Indian etiquette, Johnson removed his coat and presented it as a gift. Delighted, the Iroquois chief left the council “crying out, who-ah! which is an expression of great satisfaction.” At the next council held with the Six Nations, however, it was Johnson who approached the headman. He informed him that although “he was not accustomed to dream,” since he had last met the headman in council “he had dreamed a very surprising dream.” The headman was keen to learn more. “Sir William, with some hesitation, told him he had dreamed that he had given him a track of land on the Mohawk River to build a house on, and make a settlement, extending about nine miles in length along the banks.” The headman had little choice but to reply to Johnson that “if he really dreamed it he should have it.” But noting the discrepancy in gifts, “for he had only got a laced coat, whereas Sir William was now entitled to a large bed, on which his ancestors had frequently slept,” the headman told Johnson that “he would never dream again with him.”

Although there is no evidential basis to this tale, which was recorded in the journal of Indian interpreter John Lang in the 1790s, it nonetheless has much to tell us about the nature of British-Iroquois relations in the late colonial period. There are in fact several versions of this story, in some of which Johnson is replaced by other colonial figures. But even if this specific exchange between an Iroquois headman and imperial officer did not occur, the type of interaction it represents certainly did. During the eighteenth century, the Iroquois Indians and British Empire converged and collaborated, and in the process one side enriched themselves at the expense of the other.

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