Focus on the sea

Traditionally, and even if one doesn’t accept the triumphant white idea of ‘manifest destiny’, the picture of American history is usually that of Europeans pushing westward into the interior, an unstoppable tide flooding into native territory and washing away centuries of established ways of life. This may be true, and the evidence is obvious, but Andrew Lipman argues that this is only half the story and that even well-intentioned histories of decline play into the stereotype of ‘frozen’ indigenous culture being unable to fight against its inevitable diminishment. Instead, Lipman paints a picture of indigenous adaptation, and, surprisingly, what he calls an expansion of indigenous worldview, possible because Lipman focuses on the sea, and not just the land, as the place of interaction, confrontation and cooperation between Europeans and American Indians. Saltwater Frontier is unusual in its topic and describes Indians (Lipman uses ‘Indians’ rather than ‘Native Americans’. Interestingly, many indigenous Americans prefer ‘Indian’, as it is a name they, rather than white historians, have embraced) as capable navigators of the ocean, as opposed to a history that has ‘erased’ them from the sea, partly through an assumption that they could only make flimsy bark canoes. As has been noted elsewhere, this is innovative history that gives agency back to indigenous people, much like Bill Gammage’s The Biggest Estate on Earth (on Australian indigenous practice).

Lipman also describes a history beyond simplistic white versus native narratives which pit power against powerlessness and duplicity against naivety. Indians bred with, traded with and manipulated Europeans (in one anecdote Lipman describes a captured American Indian convincing his captors to return him to Martha’s Vineyard by promising to reveal to the gullible Europeans the whereabouts of hoards of gold). Indians travelled back to Europe, they were entrepreneurial. They also incorporated elements of European culture, including Christianity, into their own, especially to act politically. Indians, much as later black Americans did, were able to use the white man’s religion and law to argue for the dignity and rights of all people.

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