Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Michael A. McDonnell's "Masters of Empire"

Michael A. McDonnell is Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (Hill and Wang, 2015), Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation-Making from Independence to the Civil War (2013), and The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (2007), winner of the 2008 New South Wales Premier’s History Prize. His work was included in the Best American History Essays 2008 and he won the Lester Cappon Prize for the best article published in the William and Mary Quarterly in 2006. He has received numerous research scholarships and grants in the United States and Australia and has served as a distinguished lecturer for the Organization of American Historians. He lives in Sydney, Australia, with his family.

McDonnell applied the “Page 99 Test” to Masters of Empire and reported the following:
To my surprise, there was an image on page 99. While I’m not sure what that says of the “quality of the whole,” it is in fact the key to unlocking much of the story that is told in the book. The image is of pictographs from the Great Peace of Montreal of 1701. It consists of drawings by Native ogimaag, or chiefs, representing their doodem (pronounced doh-dem) – or as we sometimes call them, their clan. These were their signatures. And they are almost the only written ‘texts’ we have from many Native Americans in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. To view this image, see: http://bit.ly/1Q12YQT

Recently, scholars such as Heidi Bohaker and Michael Witgen, working closely with Native communities, have tied these pictographs to the social and political organization of the Anishinaabeg – or the real, or original peoples. We often know them only by the names Europeans gave them: the Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Nipissing, Algonquin and Mississauga. But they all spoke Anishinaabemowin, and they were all, as they put it, “Allies to each other and as one People.” They were connected across the massive expanse of the Great Lakes region by language, trade, and kinship. This made them one of the most powerful Native nations in the colonial period.

Once these connections became clearer, I was able to put together a story centered on an Anishinaabe Odawa community at Michilimackinac – a narrow strait that connected Lakes Huron and Michigan (at present day Mackinaw City, Michigan). Here, a large - and growing - group of Ottawa (or Odawa) managed to use their extensive kinship ties, their mastery of the canoe, and their strategic location to carve out a central place for themselves even in the midst of European imperialism.

And while few people today appreciate the role of the Anishinaabeg in shaping the early colonial history of North America, most contemporaries at the time were well aware of the dramatic impact the native peoples of the Great Lakes had on the course of human events. The kings of France, ministers in London, and imperial and military officers in America, including George Washington, feared – and respected – the Anishinaabeg. They played an influential role in shaping French colonial efforts, the Seven Years’ War in America, and the conflict we now mistakenly call “Pontiac’s War.” And it may be no exaggeration to say that they played a part in lighting the fuse that would ultimately ignite the American Revolution.
Visit Michael A. McDonnell's website, blog, and Twitter perch.

Writers Read: Michael A. McDonnell.

--Marshal Zeringue