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An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America.

An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America. By Michael Witgen. (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011. Pp. 450. $45.00.)

This new study is a continental Indian history that reexamines Native-European encounters in seventeenth-century North America. According to the author, to acquire genuine understanding of early American history, it is necessary to examine colonial North America from an Indian perspective. This change in orientation requires a continental approach, as the migratory patterns of indigenous Americans preceded the political borders of modern North American nation-states. Author Michael Witgen uses this framework to analyze the parallel evolution and convergence of two social worlds: a Native New World and an Atlantic New World that resulted from Native-European encounters in North America.

The work begins with analysis of the discourse of discovery as a European historical concept, explaining how Europeans relied on a language of discovery to describe their experiences in an unknown place and developed it into the teleology of conquest and dispossession. As Witgen suggests, seventeenth-century French ethnographic classifications in the western Great Lakes subsumed "an infinity of nations" into fixed and unstable political designations.

Next, Witgen examines the social worlds created by encounters between peoples from Europe, Africa, and the Americas but centers on the Atlantic World of European settlers and the Native New World that extended from the Great Lakes to the Northern Great Plains. The author argues that this Native New World was forged by the Anishinaabe and Dakota peoples in the western interior and emerged from their growing participation in the Atlantic market economy. These migratory Algonquians comprised the nucleus of the French alliance in the western Great Lakes, because the French provided European trade goods and physical protection in exchange for their loyalty in the fur trade.

Witgen argues that, despite increased exposure to European peoples and objects transforming their communities and social codes, native peoples constituted a demographic majority in the northern plains. Witgen contends that population increases, coupled with complex kinship networks, helped native peoples keep their autonomy as indigenous societies not subjugated to European rule. Indeed, French power started to wane at the same time the Anishinaabe saw their population increase. Despite French attempts to gain control over the western fur trade, the fall of Quebec and the British victory in the Seven Years War ended their attempts to reestablish imperial power.

Lastly, Witgen focuses on the collision of the Native New World with the new American republic. Here, he analyzes the nature of American sovereignty in the West and the consequences American claims of possession had for the indigenous peoples. Eventually Western expansion became synonymous with ideas of progress in the American imagination, causing significant social transformations for native peoples. Federal policies aimed at assimilating native peoples to American civil society soon appeared in response to the difficulties of creating a modern American settler society by uniting these two distinct social worlds.

Witgen's study successfully contradicts the dominant narrative of European conquest and dispossession by determining that European claims of empire in the West were merely an illusion. Moreover, he acknowledges the contributions to modernity the Native New World made to the history of the continent.

Stacey L. Moore

Western Michigan University
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Author:Moore, Stacey L.
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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