Book Review: Rites of Conquest

Each year, thousands of visiting Michigan school children file through the National Statuary Hall Collection in the US Capitol building past an imposing statue of Lewis Cass, Michigan’s territorial governor from 1813 to 1831. The guide likely throws out brief factoids on his tenure, leaving the students with some vague impression that this portly, serious-looking guy did something great. At the US Capitol’s website, we’re told that “his tenure was marked by good relations with the numerous Indian tribes under his jurisdiction.” Anyone who’s read Charles Cleland’s beautifully researched Rites of Conquest: The History and Culture of Michigan’s Native Americans would gag at such a statement.

Cass is not the only character in the history of the slow erosion of Indian (I’ll use “Indian” here as Cleland does) livelihoods in the Great Lakes region, but his activities marked a stunning apex of greed which was born with the first European (French, essentially) arrivals in the 1600s. Before that, the material record indicates that Indians occupied the area of what we now call Michigan for 12,000 years (“In contrast to the 350 or so years non-Indian people have lived on the shores of the Great Lakes, such a tenure is immense”). Cleland brings to life the likely realities of the Anishnabeg, the Algonquian-speaking people who fished, hunted and later farmed the region and who, importantly, travelled for food and social reasons along with the seasons (summers fishing at the lake in larger villages, winters hunting the interior). Cleland deftly avoids romanticizing traditional Indian life while at the same time fostering a deep respect for their endurance and connection to the land.

After European arrival, a wave of different tribes washed over the area, fleeing or following various wars. What we now think of as traditionally “Michigan” tribes: the Ojibwa, Ottawa and Potawatomi originated in today’s Canada and Wisconsin. Warfare was not unknown prior to the Europeans, but it increased as the French fur trade gained momentum and allies, and Indians sought new, useful products (cloth, metal, guns) from this new French “tribe”. In contrast to the British and eventually the Americans who would follow, the few French traders operated on relatively even ground with their Indian counterparts. Over time, Indians were increasingly conscripted as mercenaries in wars between France and Britain or Britain and America.

But the most heartbreaking chapter in this history has got to be the late-18th and entire 19th century, after the establishment of the US. In conventional history, we think of this era as the beginning of our great independence. For Michigan Indians, it was exactly the opposite as a hungry new country swindled all but the tiniest speck of land from them by both formal and informal means. That a people used to migrating with the seasons fared so poorly in trivial, static “reservations” is not surprising. You know the story, but you’ll weep at the details. The aforementioned Cass played one of the biggest roles in this swindle.

What makes this book so special is its ability to weave history and anthropology together seamlessly. Most Americans have a general sense of atrocities carried out against indigenous people, but Cleland describes the cultural underpinnings of misunderstanding and manipulation that continue to have such an impact on Indians today. Primarily, those are the conflicts between oral and written methods of documenting history, the difficulty of ascribing names/identity to individuals and tribes, and the disconnect between Western economic systems and Indian traditions of gift giving. All of these divisions played out, pretty much solely to Indians’ disadvantage in treaty negotiations and other methods of land acquisition.

As an environmentalist, I’m interested in history that’s tied not to an ethnic group or state, but to the land. For that reason, I think every American should know the local indigenous history of their region – it gives a humbling counter to our sense of ownership and identity as citizens of a place. Cleland’s book is not only an important contribution to Michigan history, but hits on fundamental questions about the founding and future of our country.

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