The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast

The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast

The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast

The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast

Synopsis

In The Lives in Objects, Jessica Yirush Stern presents a thoroughly researched and engaging study of the deerskin trade in the colonial Southeast, equally attentive to British American and Southeastern Indian cultures of production, distribution, and consumption. Stern upends the long-standing assertion that Native Americans were solely gift givers and the British were modern commercial capitalists. This traditional interpretation casts Native Americans as victims drawn into and made dependent on a transatlantic marketplace. Stern complicates that picture by showing how both the Southeastern Indian and British American actors mixed gift giving and commodity exchange in the deerskin trade, such that Southeastern Indians retained much greater agency as producers and consumers than the standard narrative allows. By tracking the debates about Indian trade regulation, Stern also reveals that the British were often not willing to embrace modern free market values. While she sheds new light on broader issues in native and colonial history, Stern also demonstrates that concepts of labor, commerce, and material culture were inextricably intertwined to present a fresh perspective on trade in the colonial Southeast.

Excerpt

In the summer of 1716 a Cherokee man walked into a store in Charles Town, South Carolina, and offered the shopkeeper ten beaver skins for a gun. The shopkeeper did not haggle for a higher price, suggest other items the man might afford, or extend a line of credit to make up for the difference in cost. Instead, he turned the Cherokee man away, dutifully abiding by the official oath he took two days earlier, in the wake of the Yamasee War, not to trade directly with Native Americans. Despite this restriction, the Cherokee man did leave Charles Town ten skins lighter and one gun heavier. The stof the man’s role in overseeing the Cherokees who carried skins from Cherokee country to Charles Town. In return, the governor accepted the Cherokee man’s gift of ten beaver skins.

This episode, which features a Native American who is comfortable with commodity exchange and a European community that is not, is at odds with the predominant historiography depicting Native Americans as gift givers and the Europeans as modern economic actors. As one book states, trading with Native Americans “was more akin to an exchange of gifts between allies.” Historians who adopt the Native gift/British commodity duality have argued that, in colonial America, exchanges with Native Americans often had to bear close resemblance to gift giving. In their view, Native Americans were not fluent in the economic parlance of European market transactions.

The above episode suggests a different, and unexplored, story, one in which the British, and not the Southeastern Indians, were uncomfortable with commodity exchange, and at times regulated trade so heavily that it became akin to gift exchange. In early modern European marketplaces that relied on the extension of credit to execute most transactions, and thereby forced many economic networks to follow the trail of familial and ethnic connections, it is not surprising that trade and gift exchange . . .

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