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Analysis of Relationships Between Native American Indians and Europeans in the Native Ground

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Kathleen DuVal’s The Native Ground focuses on the relationships between Native American Indians and Europeans in the Arkansas River Valley. By shifting our perceptions from a European based view to a Native American Indians centered view, history as we know in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is dramatically altered. Her work shifts geographic focus from European coastal outposts to “the heart of the continent.” The Arkansas Valley was already an established center of Native American Indian trade in North America. The importance of the region for its Native American Indian and European players was the distinct opportunity for natural progression because of the existing diverse communities and tribal relationships. Modern history reflects the settlement of colonial North America from the European viewpoint or another. However, she shows that the simplistic, mainstream version of American history is riddled with historical biases. Recognizing the Arkansas Valley as the center of colonial North America is a more truthful representation of the evolvement of the nation.

DuVal points out that the Arkansas Valley was a place where Native American Indians and Europeans from the East and West met, providing a link between the two. Due to the proximity of the eastern Arkansas Valley to the Mississippi River Valley, the area was a natural trade route for Native Americans. By proxy, it would eventually be the same for Indian and European explorers, traders, and ultimately, immigrants. Because of the importance of the region for so many diverse polities, DuVal is able to make her case more strongly that the Arkansas Valley was itself the center of North America for its Indian and European actors in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It was, indeed, “the heart of the continent” and not some European empire’s periphery. She does not face east or north or south or west to look at Europe or its colonists because the people she studies did not.

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No one representing any European empires had any control over the Arkansas Valley, and thus any remnants of an imperial geographical perspective break down completely. but her more focused geographic scope immerses the reader in one place, allowing a level of specificity that makes especially vivid how important Indian viewpoints are if we hope to understand the power relations in the colonial period.

In identifying the Arkansas Valley as a “native ground,” DuVal argues that unlike the peoples of the Great Lakes region Richard White studies in The Middle Ground (1991), Arkansas Indians dominated their region well into the nineteenth century. They were able to maintain their power through the colonial period because they were not a population of refugees as were the Indians in the Great Lakes. Rather, the Indians in the Arkansas Valley, though many of them seventeenth-century immigrants, maintained their sovereign identities and very quickly developed systems for incorporating newcomers, systems that they applied to Europeans as well as to Indians. DuVal emphasizes that the Indians in the Arkansas Valley placed high value on connectedness. The sixteenth-century Spanish explorers in the area failed because they appeared unconnected and seemed unwilling to become incorporated into existing relations. The situation in the seventeenth century was very different. Quapaws, newcomers in Arkansas who left the Ohio Valley in response to Iroquois incursions, faced opposition from existing populations. They therefore recognized an opportunity to strengthen their position when French explorers arrived in the 1670s. The French recognized their own need for contacts and accepted incorporation into the Quapaw world. The Quapaws used their French connection and their extraordinary diplomatic skill to secure their place in the local political order as valued negotiators, despite their modest numbers and inability to exercise military dominance.

The Osage emerged as a regional power during the early eighteenth century. They (who, like the Quapaws, had migrated from the Ohio Valley) exerted their influence very differently. Their numbers were greater and they countered threats from Indians or Europeans with violence. Through these strategies, according to DuVal, they established an empire by the late eighteenth century. The accumulation of evidence from historians like DuVal (and Pekka Hamalainen, who argues that Europeans and Indians alike understood Comanches to constitute an empire during the same time period) who identify Indian empires in central North America, suggests that historians need to rethink the political geography of colonial North America. DuVal insists that no contemporaries familiar with the region took seriously the imperial boundaries European mapmakers imposed on the continent, understanding that Indians held power. Despite their attempts, neither the French nor Spaniards proved able to break Quapaw or Osage political and military hold over the region. During the colonial period, other Indians did not try.

Neither the British triumph over France, the U.S. triumph over Great Britain, nor the U.S. purchase of Louisiana directly challenged Indian control over the Arkansas Valley. Indirectly, however, the U.S. acquisition of the region put into motion a series of events that did change the power relations dramatically. Jefferson’s vision of the Arkansas Valley as a receptacle for eastern Indians provided the first wave of eastern immigration that would shift the power away from Indians. This first wave, however, consisted not of whites but of Cherokees. Like the white immigrants who followed them from the east, Cherokee power came in part from their continual migration and resulting demographic power. Their influence in the region, however, was short-lived, as the whites who followed in their wake insisted that the United States recognize their legitimacy, based on their claims to be the true “native” Americans in the region, despite sophisticated Quapaw and Cherokee legal and cultural arguments to the contrary.

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