What I’m Reading Now… by Catherine Wagner

 

Last year, I learned that my Cincinnati, Ohio neighborhood occupies land on which, in 1791 and again in 1794, the first federal US army trained for battle against a powerful Indigenous coalition. The Miami and Shawnee had called together many allies to help them protect the wealthy Indigenous farms, towns and villages along the rivers between the Ohio and the Great Lakes. For awhile, it looked like they would win. At one battle in 1791, the US military lost nearly a thousand men—more casualties, proportionately, than in any battle since.

It’s curious to think what the Ohio Valley might be like today if the US hadn’t broken treaties to invade and colonize it. According to historian Susan Sleeper-Smith and others, the land between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River was then extraordinarily ecologically and socially diverse. Sycamore and buckeye trees as large as California redwoods grew in vast forests. Ten-foot-long fish and multitudinous freshwater mussels thrived in the rivers. Buffalo and deer roamed hunting grounds groomed by their human co-residents. The people of the Ohio Valley (Miami, Shawnee, Potawatomi, Delaware, and others) were agricultural experts, practicing shifting cultivation and achieving corn yields much higher than those generated by today’s industrial agriculture. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the nations lived in collaboration and sometimes conflict alongside Jesuit priests; French coureurs-de-bois; Métis (Indigenous/French) trading communities; Scotch-Irish, Irish, English and German settlers pushing westward after landing on Turtle Island as indentured laborers; British military officers; and Black arrivants (Kamau Brathwaite’s term) escaping from slavery to establish farms.

For a time, then, the Ohio Valley may have been the most socioecologically diverse region in the world. The Midwest’s reputation as a boring, flat, conservative, samey, monotonally white region turns out to be an ideological fiction, a defense against a complex demographic reality that still threatens to undermine a white facade. Despite the displacement, assimilation, and killing of tens of thousands of Indigenous residents and Black arrivants, Midwestern whiteness remains incompletely achieved. The apparent monotony and monotonality of the Midwest is a tactical stereotype, part of settler culture’s continuing efforts to suppress alternatives to its supremacy. Witness the continuing, centuries-long displacement of Black communities in Cincinnati and elsewhere as private capital cranes around for development opportunities, or the almost complete invisibilization of local Indigenous history and Indigenous people, or the erasure of local memories and acknowledgement of the post-Revolutionary Ohio Valley war. Setting a template for future US imperialist expansion, the Ohio war opened space for the growth of the city of squatters where I (a white woman) live, the public land-grant university where I work, and the destructive monocrop industrial agriculture that surrounds both—meanwhile violently separating Indigenous farmers from land they had collaborated with and sustained for thousands of years.

Could the Ohio Valley be otherwise, henceforward? “Henceforward,” says Frantz Fanon in Wretched of the Earth, “the interests of one will be the interests of all.” Given our increasing risk of bio-extinction, Fanon’s words are truer than ever. Humans and the biotic world would be in less danger if Euro-descended settlers had not displaced the indigenous residents of the Ohio Valley and elsewhere, dispossessing the world of knowledges that might have nourished it (and might still, if settlers can get out of the way so that Indigenous sovereignty can once again sustain Indigenous knowledges). In hopes that a different future could still emerge out of the Ohio Valley’s verdant, violent past, I’m trying to learn about that past and investigate possible futures. I’m in the early stages of this reading, so if you have recommendations, please get in touch and tell me about them.

  1. Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants. Kimmerer is a Potowatomi botanist who writes in an accessible and winning style, useful to read alongside recent anthropological studies of animist ontologies and lifeways such as Eduardo Kohn’s How Forests Think (2013), Pierre Descola’s Beyond Nature and Culture (published in English in 2013), Alfred Irving Hallowell’s essay “Ojibwe Ontology, Behavior and World View” (1969), and Eduardo Viveiros de Castro’s work.
  2. Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690–1792 (UNC Press, 2018), a revisionist ecological and feminist approach to material covered with a different emphasis in Eric Hinderaker’s Elusive Empires (1987), Richard White’s The Middle Ground (1991), Andrew Cayton’s books, William Hogeland’s Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (2017), and briefly in Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s An Indigenous People’s History of the United States, and elsewhere. Sleeper-Smith has an earlier book, Indian Women and French Men (2001), on Métis society and the agency of Indigenous women in the Great Lakes area, that is fascinating to read alongside recent critiques of “settler sexuality” by Kim Tallbear, Scott Morgensen and Mark Rifkin.
  3. Anna-Lisa Cox, The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality (Hachette, 2018). The book is written in an a pop-history style not quite to my taste, but I think it’s intended to reach a large audience and I hope it does. It tells a necessary story about the numerous Black arrivants in the rural Midwest, their success, and the brutal oppression that pushed them for the most part off their farms.
  4. Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya, Cooperation Jackson, Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi (Daraja, 2017). A set of goals and blueprints for reimagining land use and land tenure in radically democratic and collective ways that build and hold onto Black community sovereignty. Also see Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang’s 2012 essay “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor” (2012), which uses the Fanon sentence quoted above as an epigraph, and Aileen Moreton-Robinson’s The White Possessive (2015).
  5. Other media: Myaamiaatawaakani (Myaamia Dictionary), an app created at the Myaamia Center at Miami University, and the Native American Studies, African American Studies and Caribbean Studies channels of the New Books Network podcast series; Media Indigena podcast.