Iroquois Diplomacy On The Early American Frontier, by Timothy J. Shannon, narrated by George K. Wilson
The author of this book seems to assume that his listening audience will be entirely unfamiliar with the complexities of Iroquois diplomacy or with any of the most notable figures of it. I had heard of some of the people involved myself, like the illustrious Brant family, but some of the names were unfamiliar to me and would likely be unfamiliar to most readers of this book. At the heart of this book is a subtle (?) call for respect for the way in which the Iroquois were able to act like an attractive young woman with multiple suitors trying to keep her options open rather than seeking the sort of open warfare against colonial powers that would have led to certain defeat but enshrinement in our own cultural pantheon as noble but doomed savages in the vein of Osceola or Geronimo or Tecumseh or someone of that sort. As it is, the author praises the Iroquois not for their supposed and illusory importance in our constitutional law, nor for their military prowess or skills in government, but rather for their skills in diplomacy, and if you enjoy reading (or listening) to a thoughtful and complex work on diplomatic history , this book manages to do so in the familiar and yet sometimes alien context of American colonial and early American republican history.
The contents of this book are basically a chronological look at Iroquois diplomacy from its beginnings in prehistory to the early American republic. Of interest to many readers or listeners will be the fact that the Iroquois confederacy itself began out of an act of diplomacy that, at least according to oft-repeated legends, ended some brutal conflicts between various Iroquoian speaking tribes. It should be noted that the Iroquois Confederacy did not include all of the speakers of that language family and that there were many children who were adopted as youth from other cultures and who acculturated as various members of first the five nations–the Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Oneidas, and then the six nations when the Tuscaroras joined in the early 18th century. The book spends a lot of time discussing treaty conferences between the Iroquois and the English, Dutch, French, and later Americans, as well as the careers of particular people involved with the Iroquois or their various “props” like the Mohegans or Delaware over whom they claimed some sort of loose authority. The author also discusses the various fissures within Iroquois society between those who favored one side or another between the British and French or between the British and the Americans, and the ways that they profited off of the sale of lands belonging to other tribes over whom they held specious claims. One of the most praiseworthy aspects of the book is the way that it respects its subject without trying to whitewash it completely of blame.
If one has any reason to enjoy books about our nation’s first peoples and their history, this is a worthwhile book to check out, as it demonstrates how a fairly loose confederation bound together related and culturally aligned tribes which nonetheless had a high degree of autonomy. It demonstrates the way that they used bluff and bluster to be viewed as powerful and to maintain a position of independence and dignity, and how despite the divides over acculturation with European Christianity and their widespread issues with alcoholism and economic dependence on colonial powers after they exhausted their hunting grounds and were unable to gain new ones through warfare with other tribes, they maintained a sense of identity that continues to this day. For those who have Iroquois heritage, this book gives a good reason to be proud of that heritage and some worthwhile names to be proud of. For those who desire to know more about the quirks of Iroquois diplomacy or its characteristic cliches like broken and polished chains, blocked or cleared paths, and the like, this book is also worthwhile in that it explores the language of Iroquois diplomacy as well as the exoticism in which Iroquois statesmen were viewed by Europeans and also the sordid matters of corrupt land deals and economic subsidies and annuities to fiercely proud but often dependent leaders. This book encourages its readers to place within their own mental maps a space for appreciating and remembering the remarkable achievements of the Iroquois confederacy, and presents an excellent case for the historical importance of its sachems and chiefs.
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