DuVal on Williams, _Linking Arms Together_
DuVal on Williams, _Linking Arms Together_
Date: Tue, 12 Jan 1999 07:10:58 -0600
H-NET BOOK REVIEW
Robert A. Williams, Jr. _Linking Arms Together: American
Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600-1800_. New York
and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 192 pp. Notes,
index. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-19-506591-3.
Reviewed for H-SHEAR by Kathleen DuVal <
University of California, Davis.
In 1990, Robert A. Williams, Jr., wrote _The American Indian in
Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest_. This
comprehensive and fascinating book explored how Europeans
applied their legal beliefs and practices to native peoples.
Williams's new book, _Linking Arms Together: American Indian
Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600-1800_, examines the same
issue from the side of Native Americans. _Linking Arms
Together_ begins to answer an important question, how American
Indians influenced and interpreted early Indian-white
negotiations. Williams demonstrates the leading role that
American Indians played in establishing diplomatic traditions.
He explores some common Indian beliefs about the rituals and
meanings of treaties. Unfortunately, this book is a rather
quick, general overview, which does not match Williams's more
in-depth study of the European side of the question.
In _Linking Arms Together_, Williams persuasively argues that
American Indians' views on treaty negotiations and
responsibilities profoundly affected Indian-white relations. He
points out that when Europeans first arrived in North America
they did not have the power to impose their visions and purposes
on the peoples they encountered there. Moreover, European rules
of diplomacy based on "hierarchy and centralization of
authority" did not fit the complex, decentralized nature of
negotiating with the multitude of eastern tribes (p. 32). In
contrast, North American Indians were accustomed to delicate
diplomacy on a complex "multicultural frontier," in Williams's
apt words. Existing methods of diplomacy were able to
accommodate the newcomers. Having common conventions for
diplomacy forwarded both Indian and European goals.
Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,
Indian-white negotiations employed Indian metaphors and rituals.
Indians often expressed the sacredness of treaties with rituals
such as smoking the sacred pipe, or calumet. Another common
custom was the use of wampum belts, elaborate strings of beads,
as symbolic messages. These rituals and symbols made treaty
participants into metaphoric kin, a status that made breaking
treaties similar to betraying family. For example, Chippewa
chief Mash-i-pi-nash-i-wish told the United States at the Treaty
of Greenville in 1795: "When I show you this belt, I point out
to you your children at one end of it, and mine at the other...
Remember, we have taken the Great Spirit to witness our present
actions; we will make a new world, and leave nothing on it to
incommode our children (p. 99)." Like many chiefs before him,
Mash-i-pi-nash-i-wish informed his treaty partners of the
ability of a sacred treaty to ensure their future together. The
treaty tied the Chippewa and the United States to each other,
just as the wampum belt connected the beads at its two ends. As
Williams demonstrates, such treaties created "a complex web of
connective, reciprocating relationships" that safeguarded peace
and security in a dangerous world (p. 62).
Historians have long portrayed Indians as obstacles to
Euro-American conquest of North America. Some of these
historians have viewed Indians as a troublesome obstacle to be
conquered by whites' progress across the continent; others have
seen Indians as continually mounting a righteous defense against
invaders. Williams adopts an alternative argument increasingly
common in the New Indian History. He calls Indians of the
eastern woodlands "active facilitators of the many multicultural
accommodations that Europeans found absolutely essential for
survival on a colonial frontier (p. 20)." He reminds readers
that North American Indians were neither homogeneous nor
unified. Many tribes found alliance with a European power, or
playing two powers off of each other, to be a tremendous
advantage over regional rivals. In addition, avoiding conflict
was an important objective for most parties on this dangerous
and crowded borderland. Negotiation and compromise were wiser
strategies than armed conflict. In general, most Indians at
most times in the seventeenth century treated Europeans not as
threatening invaders but as a new people to fit into an old
system of treaties and alliances. While many historians have
portrayed Indians as "stubborn, 'savage' barriers to expansion,"
Williams demonstrates that they were "active, sophisticated
facilitators on a multicultural frontier (p. 29)."
Williams shows that both Indians and Europeans desired and
benefited from good relations. For example, he does not portray
the fur trade as the traditional story of escalating Indian
dependence on European goods. Rather, it was a "unique period
of increasing interdependence between the different cultural and
racial groups engaged in the commerce and politics of
accommodation and conflict that surrounded the trade (pp.
21-22)." Blankets, knives with metal blades, and copper pots
benefited eastern tribes. Those leaders who controlled the
distribution of goods within a tribe increased their own power.
Tribes increasingly required guns and ammunition as their
neighbors acquired arms. But Europeans also depended on their
American Indian allies. The lucrative fur trade would have
failed without partners. In addition, the French and English
newcomers needed military alliances in a region ripe for
conflict. They were outnumbered by Indians and were not inclined
to ally with each other.
Williams generalizes about eastern woodland tribal beliefs and
practices while avoiding oversimplifications. He pays
particular attention to the Iroquois covenant chain but also
shows how ceremonies such as smoking the sacred pipe and beliefs
such as the importance of fictive kinships spanned the eastern
woodlands. Much of his ability to generalize comes from his
impressive array of secondary sources. He wisely draws on
important recent works such as Daniel Richter's on the Iroquois
and Richard White's on the middle ground of the Great Lakes
region. Williams brings their important insights on tribal or
regional Indian diplomacy into his more general analysis.
However, his use of some other secondary works is more
problematic. For example, his comparison of Native American
storytelling to philosopher Richard Rorty's call for using the
imagination to empathize with others seems odd and unedifying.
Similar ahistorical references periodically disturb the flow of
While Williams's secondary sources are comprehensive and
generally useful, this book would benefit greatly from more
primary evidence. As a book about stories, treaties, and
ceremonies, it needs more of them. The book cites enough
evidence to be persuasive but leaves the reader unsatisfied.
More and, especially, longer stories would flesh out Williams's
analysis and provide more of a sense of the intricate,
important, and at times astonishing early Indian-white
interactions. A shortage of available primary sources is often
an impediment to writing Native American history before the
twentieth century. But the primary sources on early
Indian-white relations that are available are often rich
accounts of very different peoples attempting to understand each
other. By relying on secondary sources and snippets of primary
ones, Williams forfeits this asset. Also, his shortage of
stories makes Williams's points repetitive. Rather than
hammering home well-illustrated arguments, his repeated phrases
such as "American Indian visions of law and peace" are often
Overall, _Linking Arms Together_ is a worthwhile but fairly
cursory synthesis of the meanings that American Indians attached
to the complex negotiations of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries. Readers unfamiliar with the work of such historians
as Richter and White will find this book a good introduction to
early Indian-white diplomacy. I hope it will spur further
research into this important subject.
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