U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Is The Middle Ground intellectual history?

“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?

[1] Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (1991), x.

[2] Nancy Shoemaker, A Strange Likeness: Becoming Red and White in Eighteenth Century North America (2004).

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Nice piece, although I would argue that Gary Nash’s Red, White, and Black anticipated White’s themes by some twenty years, but they are both great pieces.

    As for White’s book being intellectual history, I can see your point, but I must confess that my first reflex was to say no. Richter’s book The Ordeal of the Longhouse more quickly came to mind as being more “intellectual” history, but I am not about to quibble over two books i haven’t read in at least two decades. There both nice pieces of scholarship and both are worthy of being used.

    My experience from being educated thirty plus years ago is very similar to yours. The Early American survey at the University of Illinois was taught by a member of the imperialist school. We got a heavy dose of the mainland colonies, mercantilism, and the only indigenous history was the Lewis and Clark expedition. The post-Civil War survey was taught by a Marxian labor historian who characterized American Indian policy as being genocide and actually taught about the Indian boarding schools, etc. My upper level US Intellectual history class actually had us read the Rogan book on Andrew Jackson. My graduate school education had NO Native American history.

    The era since the 1980s has been a productive time for historians of Native Americans, the concept of settler colonialism has slowly percolated through the profession. John Mack Faragher in his book A Great and Noble Scheme was the first instance of an historian using the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe North American policies. Pekka Hamalainen’s The Comanche Empire rightfully won numerous awards while showing that native peoples could build empires at the same time as Anglo-Americans.

    Have these themes been integrated into the master narrative of American History? Sadly no.

    • Thanks for these insights. I agree that Richter’s “The Ordeal of the Longhouse” is perhaps a more strictly Native American intellectual history, but thought to focus on the more trendy scholarship of cultural encounters.
      I did that even though I have long held a grudge against scholarship that focuses on Native American agency like “Comanche Empire” and “The Middle Ground” because I felt it has all too often been a contrived historiographical move that undermined narratives of genocidal destruction.
      I guess this was in some way an attempt to see more value in this scholarship than I had before.

      • May I recommend a book by Juliana Barr entitled, Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands. I do this because genocidal destruction and accommodation strategies are historically contingent. White’s Middle Ground came into being with a specific set of circumstances, thrived, and then was destroyed when those circumstances changed.
        As for the Barr book, let’s just say it wasn’t the Europeans who dictated the terms in 18th century Texas. Hope this may help you in your quest for understanding.

      • Thanks. I’ve read that book and like it to an extent. Again I have a problem with the project of affording agency to oppressed people by framing a geography and periodization that tell a “different kind of story.” I understand the desire, but I have seen too many reactionary people made comfortable by such stories which help them feel better about Native history. It’s a bit like the famous “cut the balls” story by Zizek, if you are familiar. Agency, as a historiographical project that began in the late 1960s, is a bit wrongheaded in my mind.

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