“On the middle ground,” contends Richard White in his famous book of the same name, “diverse peoples adjust their differences through what amounts to a process of creative, and often expedient, misunderstandings. People try to persuade others who are different from themselves by appealing to what they perceive to be the values and practices of those others. They often misinterpret and distort both the values and the practices of those they deal with, but from these misunderstandings arise new meanings and through them new practices—the shared meanings and practices of the middle ground.” (1)
As I was rereading this passage and others in Richard White’s exhaustive piece of scholarship for my latest dissertation chapter, it struck me that though borderland historians don’t regard themselves as intellectual historians, much of what they have written about cultural exchanges in the last twenty five years deserves our attention here at the blog. Indeed, following White’s lead, borderlands scholarship has often hinged on casting cultural encounters as fertile soil for new ideas and practices. Nancy Shoemaker’s work on the differences and similarities of ideas in the borderlands is perhaps the best example of what taking an intellectual approach to the borderlands might look like from a more purely ideational perspective (2).
For a long time Native Americans were not really part of American history. There were histories of American policy towards Natives or of wars with Natives but histories that approached Natives as legitimate subject matter were few and far between. Canonical historiography by and large treated the history of Native peoples as marginal to the narratives we tell about this country or even American history more broadly construed. In college, just about twelve years ago, Natives were only a minor side note to the early America survey I took. Though it was in many ways an eyeopening experience, I didn’t even know who the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee were after that course.
Perhaps no book has done more to render the history of Native peoples a legitimate part of our understanding of American history than The Middle Ground. Whether or not we agree with a somewhat romanticized notion of agency intrinsic to the conceptualization of the “middle ground,” it is a remarkable piece of scholarship that casts the ideas entertained and cultural artifacts created by Native and European actors in the borderlands as collaborative.
However, it seems to me that until we have an intellectual history of cultural encounters and of Native peoples’ thought we will not have reached a point where we can feel that we have fully acknowledged the significance of Native peoples to American history. After all, it was the idea of “civilization”—which put such an emphasis on the superior intellectual capacities of the west—that legitimized wreaking havoc on Native peoples and later deemed them unworthy as historical subject matter. This, I think, puts quite a burden on our shoulders as intellectual historians. It is in some peculiar way up to us, who regard ourselves as the champions of the intellect in American history, to ensure that in so doing we do not perpetuate antiquated notions of that appellation.
Put differently, shouldn’t we start thinking of The Middle Ground as bonafide intellectual history?
 Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991), x.
 Nancy Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth Century North America (2004).