Ethnographies and Exchanges: Native Americans, Moravians, and Catholics in Early North America.
The editor and authors of this small but diverse and ambitious collection of essays intend to investigate the "linguistic, political, and religious exchanges" in which Native Americans and two groups of European interlopers engaged during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (p. xvii). To accomplish that goal, editor A.G. Roeber has organized the volume into three groups of essays. The, first addresses the obstacles that language and translation present to historians seeking to understand long-ago cultural exchanges. The second focuses on the French-speaking Roman Catholic and German-speaking Moravian Protestant missions and the roles they played in cultural exchange. The third and riskiest group of essays, "attempts to recapture the voices and visions of the First Peoples" (p. xx). David Edmunds introduces the essays with an engaging biography of Moravian Delaware leader Isaac Glikhikan that demonstrates the inarguable connection between German-speaking Moravians and Delaware people in the Ohio Valley during the late eighteenth century, a connection elsewhere interpreted as destructive to Delaware traditions. Julie Tomberlin Weber, translator of Moravian missionary David Zeisberger's diaries, contributes a conspectus that reminds readers of the difficulties faced by all colonial-era European ethnographers, difficulties involving unreliable sources, the primary problem faced by this volume's authors.
In his introduction, Roeber states that he wants to add "a fresh perspective" to the understanding of exchanges between Europeans and Natives in what he sees as the overlooked interior of North America (p. xi). He works to do that by having his authors assess cultural exchanges between Natives and missionaries as they are represented in the missionaries' observations. He argues that neither German Moravians nor French Catholics "played the part of providing Europeans with formative descriptions of the peoples of the Americas," so that in the early seventeenth century, when the Catholics and Moravians began to arrive in the American interior, these Christians were free to learn about the Natives' cultures rather than imposing a European will upon them (p. x). As questionable as that interpretation may be, it allows Roeber to argue that these Europeans created high-quality and reliable ethnographies that help us understand the ways in which Europeans and Natives went about life in the middle English colonies and along the St. Lawrence River.
Whether or not these particular European observations can be deemed authentic, one of the book's strengths is that each author focuses on Catholic and Moravian desires--however inspired--to obtain a subtle understanding of the roles of language, religion, and political organization that Native culture exhibited. Of course, most of the authors recognize that those understandings were filtered through the lens of Western tradition dating from at least the Greeks and should be read skeptically. Those who do so are able to mine sources for what they can tell us reliably about the way Europeans perceived Natives.
For instance, Hermann Wellenreuther, in a nuanced interpretation of Zeisberger's observations, discusses the ways in which the Delawares, in 1776, chose the successor to their pOlitical leader Netawatwees. He shows that Zeisberger may well have understood that the processes exhibited by the Delawares in choosing their new leader were cultural and not political. Wellenreuther, however, also shows that Zeisberger's assessment of that event is valid only in the context of the late eighteenth century and that the process of choosing a new chief in this time and place was a product of change within Delaware culture spawned largely by contact with Europeans.
The section on missions addresses more fully the difficulties of trusting the sources. Dominique Deslandres finds it difficult to read Europeans ethnographical writings "as serious anthropological and historical sources" (p. 67). She finds, instead, that missionaries' identity was, to a large extent, determined by the Natives they encountered. Thus, the descriptions of Natives left behind by any given French missionary--and perhaps Zeisberger as well--was really "all about himself, about his dreams, his projects, his utopia, and in so doing he constructed himself" (p. 71).
One of the most intriguing insights into these sources is Walter W. Woodward's essay on the role of song in treaty negotiations. He argues that songs were essential to Native culture and were a predictable part of their political practices. However, such performances were peripheral to Europeans impatient to get on with conversion and dispossession. As he notes, "the descriptions of these performances take ten words. In the talks themselves, the songs probably represented by far the longest segment of the council meeting" (p. 126). It would be difficult to better synopsize the problems posed by the sources under consideration in this volume.
The third section gets to the meat of the issue by trying to tease out of European sources the perspectives of the Natives under observation. Siegrun Kaiser notes that Moravians, particularly Zeisberger, found the Munsees--a band within the Delaware nation as defined by Zeisberger--recalcitrant in the face of conversion. In fact, Kaiser shows that Moravians often had difficulty converting Munsees, when the Moravians went to live among them. They were more successful when they gathered exiles into new social groups and established a dependence resulting from removal.
Finally, in perhaps the best of the essays, Jane T. Merritt argues that Zeisberger's diaries surfer from a sort of misogyny born of his status as a single man, despite the fact that "more women than men chose to be baptized" almost everywhere Moravians proselytized (p. 170). Nevertheless, she is able to use Zeisberger's work to examine the gendered encounters between Europeans and Natives, finding women making "decisions concerning their household organization, production, and consumption" within the framework of ancient cultural characteristics that "bridged gaps between cultures" (p. 165).
At least one author's analysis borders on hagiography by extolling the Moravians' heroic efforts at spreading Christianity. Rowena McClinton's contribution features a comparison of Moravian missionaries Zeisberger and John and Anna Rosina Gambold. McClinton finds the Moravians to be "[c]areful observers of Indian cultures" (p. 118). Yet, her use of those observations revere the missionaries' work to dissuade Natives from alcohol abuse, while refining their own spiritual lives by lamenting the spiritual darkness in which Natives lived.
Roeber's intent may well have been to use new tools, such as Merritt's gender analysis, to reassess traditional sources. Nevertheless, this volume's greatest--and perhaps least convincing--accomplishment well may be its attempt to elevate David Zeisberger to the status of reliable ethnographer as well as Christian missionary.
David P. Dewar
Angelo State University, Texas
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|Author:||Dewar, David P.|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Dec 22, 2008|
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