History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992

By McBeth, Sally | Plains Anthropologist, August 1997 | Go to article overview

History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992


McBeth, Sally, Plains Anthropologist


History, Power, and Identity: Ethnogenesis in the Americas, 1492-1992. Edited by JONATHAN D. HILL. University of Iowa Press, Iowa City. 1996. vi + 277 pp., figures, maps, notes on contributors, bibliography, index. $32.95 (cloth, ISBN 0-87745-546-5), $15.95 (paper, ISBN 0-87745-547-3).

Ethnogenesis can be defined in a number of ways. On one level, it is the emergence of culturally distinct groups. Everywhere in the world people maintain and develop identity systems to organize their accumulating experiences. Ethnogenesis is the formation of new ethnic identities as individuals (consciously or unconsciously) recognize that their existence as members of a distinct group allows them to survive in contexts of radical change. In his introduction to History, Power, and Identity, Hill adds another dimension to the definition of ethnogenesis. It is, he says, a "synthesis of a people's cultural and political struggles to exist as well as their historical consciousness of these struggles." This definition provides a thematic thread that ties together the inclusions in this timely collection.

As the title suggests, the scope of the book is broad. The essays cover 500 years of creative ethnic identity formation in the Americas. They examine how groups respond to violent changes such as demographic collapse, forced relocations, enslavement, and other effects of the expansion of colonial and national states in the Americas. The volume includes essays on the formation of ethnic identity among indigenous Americans as well as parallel developments among some groups of escaped African-American slaves and descendants of former slaves.

At first glance it appears that Hill's subject is too broad to be covered reasonably in a volume of nine essays plus introduction. Nonetheless, the editor has done an admirable job of creating an interesting collection of both descriptive and theoretical essays covering selected areas. Since most of the published work on ethnogenesis examines Old World cultures, one benefit of this volume is its New World focus.

The ordering of the essays is primarily chronological, but also is configured geographically and thematically. This approach serves both the general reader and the reader with specific interests. The result is an informative and compelling overview of the dynamic adaptable ways that human groups coalesce, converge, and otherwise maintain and formulate new communities and identities.

The essays depict a range of causes for the emergence of culturally distinct groups within a population These include intercolonial rivalries (especially over trade), the disastrous consequences of epidemics, new religious traditions, and notions of common descent and/or shared history. It was often the case that these causal themes became integrated into the larger political and economic activities of colonial European powers present in North and South America.

In his introduction, Jonathan Hill describes the organization of the essays and alerts the reader to current themes. This and the volume's index both help the reader to identify various patterns of ethnogenesis and to achieve a more complete understanding of the phenomenon.

Essays by Sattler, Hickerson, and Albers work nicely together to explore examples of ethnogenesis on the U.S. Plains. The themes developed in these three essays are interwoven through the rest of the book. I highlight them here because of their focus on North American Indians and because Plains readers will find them of most interest.

Richard Sattler's "Remnants, Renegades, and Runaways: Seminole Ethnogenesis Reconsidered" examines post-Removal Oklahoma Seminole sociopolitical structures to provide a model for understanding Seminole ethnogenesis. In this primarily historical essay, Sattler examines how native elites, access to sacred power and knowledge, and U.S. governmental policies affected ethnogenesis of the Seminole peoples. …

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