Beyond the Valley of Mexico

Expanding the boundaries of early America has been a hot topic of conversation this summer. At both the Omohundro Institute conference last month, and at SHEAR last weekend, plenary sessions discussed a broader view of the past. Having internalized the Atlantic turn, scholars are now turning their energies toward the interior, asking how we should integrate the trans-Appalachian and trans-Mississippian West into our stories and interpretations.

I wasn’t able to attend SHEAR this year, so I must rely on colleague Ken Owen’s account of the session on Missouri as the “Crossroads of the Early Republic.” At the Institute conference, the discussion about the “Interior West” included Brett Rushforth, Juliana Barr, James F. Brooks, Kathleen DuVal (the only scholar to appear on both panels), Paul Mapp, and Richard White. Each panelist encouraged the audience to include the interior in our thinking and offered some thoughts on how:

  • Juliana Barr suggested that the West provides an opportunity to think profitably about space, particularly from the models available—including not only White’s Middle Ground and DuVal’s Native Ground, but also Pekka Hämäläinen’s work on the Comanche Empire and Michael Witgen’s concept of the Native New World.
  • James F. Brooks used his own experience doing Native American history to encourage scholars to talk to and take seriously the ideas and stories of indigenous people.
  • Kathleen DuVal, who is currently at work on a study of the American Revolution in the Gulf Coast region, talked about the challenge of doing that work, which is her attempt to write a book about the Revolution that argues that not everything hinges on it [NB: I’m working from notes, so that may be a direct quote, but as I didn’t note it that way, I leave it thus.] For her, the key question for which thinking from the perspective of the West is crucial is to ask what people in North America in 1750 thought the nineteenth century would look like. As she notes, nearly everyone who would have ventured a guess based on mid-eighteenth-century assumptions would have been wrong, not least in that no one would have anticipated the United States.
  • For Paul Mapp, the value of the West is that it allows us to connect early American history to other parts of the world, through and including the Pacific Ocean. (He knows whereof he speaks, having written an essay on silver and science for Common-place‘s special issue on “Pacific Routes” in 2005.) The west, Mapp notes, was an enigma throughout the period we traditionally call “early America,” lacking a dominant Native civilization (compared to, say, Mexico or Peru), a dominant European power, and an easy way for Europeans to make money. In talking about the West, therefore, we must necessarily reflect on the more familiar parts of our story.
  • Closing the session, Richard White wants us to think about the West as “No Place,” in the vein of “Utopia.” For him, as for other panelists, the paramount challenge is telling the story of dynamism that seems to have reigned across the Mississippi, that is, how to capture the ways in which the two main paradigms of European expansion—the Atlantic world and settler colonialism—don’t work in that region.

I’ve been thinking about the panel since because it raises so many fruitful questions. The question that remains with me from the session is, if I may be a bit too pat: why stop at North America? Each panelist noted that he or she was talking about a region called the “West” (which a questioner pointed out was a European invention) that ran from the Mississippi to the Pacific, and from somewhere in the North to no further south than the Valley of Mexico. On the one hand, that’s fair enough. You have to stop somewhere. But what if we did try to encompass the Mesoamerican and South American experience, not from the perspective of the Atlantic, but from the continent?

That question also stuck with me because I’ve been trying to arm-wrestle it into a broad-ranging course on Native American history I taught this past spring (1500-1800, North, Central, and South America). No one’s inviting me to participate in a plenary on Western or Native American history any time soon, but I do want to offer a few preliminary thoughts on how that question (that is, how do we look at Native American history with the whole hemisphere in mind) shaped the course. In order to keep this post at a reasonable length, for today I just want to discuss one instance in which such a comparative focus worked well in the classroom: the history of gender in Native-European contact.

Historians in several contexts have done fantastic work on Natives, Europeans, and gender, and my goal in that section of the course was to bring these scholars together into a conversation most of them didn’t realize they were having (at least not explicitly in their footnotes, that is). In the first place, putting them together at intervals in the course reinforced for students the variety of Native culture and the differences among European powers. It’s hard, that is, to read Inga Clendinnen on the Maya and Spanish and Kathleen Brown on the Algonquian peoples led by Powhatan and the English and see the Maya and Algonquians as the same, or the Spanish and English. In the early American survey, for example, we can discuss Brown’s argument that the perceived gender roles among each group led the other to make false assumptions, but at a minimum that is drawn into starker relief.

Even further, we can ask questions that historians of other regions are discussing in their own contexts. For instance, Caroline Pennock reframes ideas about “public” and “private” spheres by arguing in a 2011 article in Gender & History that we should consider Tenochtitlan as a “household” in gender terms. That is, men were charged with the “public” and women with the “domestic,” but the Aztec conceived of the domestic much more broadly than did the nineteenth-century Americans about whom much of the separate spheres doctrine was developed. What does Virginia look like if we shake our assumptions and ask the question that way? How would Brown respond to such a framing? And that’s even before we added in Ramón A. Gutiérrez’s argument about Pueblo sexuality and the Jesuits.

On the other hand, students were struck at the commonalities of the narratives that historians developed. In particular, students picked up on the theme of misunderstanding in communication (which, to be fair, I emphasized in a number of different ways in developing the course). Gutiérrez and Brown are good examples here, in that both of their narratives hinge on a misunderstanding of gender and sexuality norms that encourage Natives to believe that they are co-opting Europeans, while the Europeans use what they see as the Natives’ wanton sexuality to justify conquest. As with the differences, such a comparison brought greater force to our discussions. In essence, why the similarity and what did it mean?

To give you a sense, I want to share (with permission) a few students’ comments on this issue from the course blog. One noted the difficulties of applying European norms to Native culture:

Gender roles in the Native American cultures can not be compared to the patriarchal society western Europeans are used to. Gender roles have specific meanings in the different contexts. Therefore, it is difficult for the Spanish to understand and accept gender parallel cultures. It is vital for certain Native Americans, like the Aztecs, to rely on the specific gender roles that make their society thrive. Although there are typically native cultures with more male dominance, the people view both gender roles as equal in the equation. I am glad we spent the time examining the Native Americans’ gender roles because it has helped identify their societies from one another, and especially European understandings.

Another used those distinctions between European and Native cultures to develop a better understanding:

I had also expected there to be a more uneven divide between the responsibilities of men and women in Native American society, with men having greater power over society and the majority of responsibilities outside the home while women did all of the work at home. I was also surprised to see how broad the “domestic sphere” of women could be interpreted by Native cultures. The analogy of seeing Native cultures including some gender parallels with a slight leaning toward patriarchy while European culture was so clearly patriarchal was very helpful in understanding the overarching differences regarding gender roles and one of the factors in the consequential clash between the two cultures.

As I suggested above, I think there is much to be gained from thinking about history—at least in this case, Native American history—from a multi-continental perspective. Yet it didn’t work in all cases, and I hope to explore that in a future post, as well as some of the other challenges, including availability of sources and designing assignments.

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