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FW: Boulware on Pluckhahn and Ethridge, eds., _Light on the Path_

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  • Amos J Wright
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      Subject: Boulware on Pluckhahn and Ethridge, eds., _Light on the Path_

      H-NET BOOK REVIEW
      Published by H-AmIndian@... (February, 2007)

      Thomas J. Pluckhahn and Robbie Ethridge, eds. _Light on the Path: The
      Anthropology and History of the Southeastern Indians_. Tuscaloosa:
      University of Alabama Press, 2006. xi + 283 pp. Maps, figures,
      bibliography, index. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8173-1500-9; $34.95
      (paper), ISBN 978-0-8173-5287-5.

      Reviewed for H-AmIndian by Tyler Boulware, Department of
      History, West Virginia University.

      Connecting Prehistory to History

      It has been thirty years since the publication of Charles Hudson's
      groundbreaking study of Native peoples in the Southeastern United
      States. Long a centerpiece of every Native Americanist's library, it was
      not a new interpretive framework that made _The Southeastern Indians_ so
      valuable, but rather its comprehensive analysis of an important yet
      neglected region of indigenous peoples in North America. Attempting to
      eradicate the "virtual amnesia" that then existed about Southeastern
      Native Americans, Hudson effectively integrated the benefits of
      archaeology, anthropology, and history to produce a work that influenced
      succeeding generations of scholars.[1] Indeed, it is due to Hudson's
      legacy that _Light on the Path_ originated, as the papers in this
      commendable volume mostly stem from a day-long symposium honoring the
      University of Georgia professor upon his retirement.

      Edited by Thomas J. Pluckhahn and Robbie Ethridge, _Light on the Path_
      begins by tracing Hudson's career and ideas, and their connection to
      larger trends within the field. The introduction thus serves as a useful
      review of interdisciplinary approaches to Southeastern Indians over the
      past fifty years, an assessment that could be valuable to graduate
      classes devoted to such issues. Also quite valuable is the volume's
      extensive bibliography, which students and advanced scholars alike will
      find extremely beneficial. More importantly, this volume offers new
      insights into how scholars have recently begun to reconceptualize the
      Native Southeast. When Hudson wrote in 1976 that archaeologists and
      ethnohistorians "are now making some headway in establishing linkages
      between archaeology and history in the Southeast," he recognized few
      attempts had been made to connect precontact Mississippian chiefdoms
      that once dominated the Southeast to the historic Cherokees, Creeks,
      Choctaws, Chickasaws, and others.[2] This is no longer the case,
      according to Pluckhahn and Ethridge, as the bridging of prehistory and
      history by scholars of the American South has been under way for the
      past twenty years.

      _Light on the Path_ is therefore primarily concerned with highlighting
      this new way of thinking and writing about the Southeast. Pluckhahn and
      Ethridge depict these exciting trends in Southeastern ethnohistory as
      nothing short of a "paradigm shift." It is now possible, they argue, to
      write a "seamless social history that includes not only the
      sixteenth-century Late Mississippian period and the eighteenth-century
      colonial period but also the largely forgotten, but critically
      important, century in between" (p. 1). Toward this end, _Light on the
      Path_ presents ten essays that span the connection between prehistory
      and history in the Southeast. It is this emphasis on _spanning_ rather
      than _exploring_ that connection, however, in which this volume could
      use further development, especially in the introduction where few
      connections are made between the assembled papers. Besides the fact that
      each contributor deals with Southeastern Indians, was influenced by
      Hudson's writings, and relies on interdisciplinary approaches, what more
      do these papers have in common? Unfortunately, Pluckhahn and Ethridge
      fail to adequately address this issue in an otherwise well-conceived
      introduction, as they offer next to nothing in the way of weaving these
      chapters together. Less than two pages at the end of the introduction,
      in short, do little more than offer a brief description of each paper
      and a terse acknowledgement that each falls within the period under
      study. One way to redress this deficiency would have been to tie these
      chapters together within the context of continuity. Indeed, if their aim
      was to demonstrate a connection between prehistory and history, it would
      seem imperative that they identify how each paper relates to issues of
      continuity and discontinuity from precontact Mississippian societies to
      historic-era Southeastern Indian communities.

      These faults of the introduction aside, there are some excellent papers
      within _Light on the Path_. David J. Hally opens the volume with an
      examination of Mississippian chiefdoms in northern Georgia. He
      demonstrates that interrelationships between these chiefdoms were
      characterized by interaction, interdependence, and exchanges, thereby
      encouraging the development of a larger regional system. By broadening
      his view to consider six hundred years of the Mississippian era, Hally
      argues for a marked degree of continuity within the precontact period.
      Though individual chiefdoms cycled in and out, "the fundamental
      structural characteristics of Mississippian society remained unaltered"
      (p. 31). It was only with the arrival of Europeans, he notes, that the
      Mississippian regional system in northern Georgia experienced major
      disruption and structural change.

      Radical changes following European contact could also be found in the
      environment. In "Lithics, Shellfish, and Beavers," Mark Williams and
      Scott Jones propose a highly intriguing but speculative interpretation
      of native land- and animal-use patterns in the Oconee River valley of
      north-central Georgia prior to European colonization. Confused as to why
      Oconee peoples ceased making stone tools and weapons, they suggest this
      phenomenon resulted from a symbiotic relationship with beavers. Before
      overhunting decimated the beaver population during the historic era,
      Williams and Jones argue that a "communal relationship" existed between
      beavers and local natives. Beavers provided ponds, which attracted fish,
      fowl, and other animals. Abandoned ponds in turn became lush
      agricultural fields. Beaver ponds also encouraged large concentrations
      of freshwater mussels, whose shells were used, along with beaver-cut
      poles, as labor saving devices for domestic chores (hence, one reason
      for the lack of stone tools on a significant scale). With the end of the
      Lamar period and arrival of Europeans, the north-central Georgia
      landscape eventually morphed from an area abundant with beaver ponds and
      extensive meadows to a typical piedmont setting of deep-cut creek beds
      and narrow floodplains.

      While the first two chapters essentially deal with the precontact
      Southeast, there are a few essays in this volume that successfully
      connect prehistory to history. Steven Hahn's analysis of the Cussita
      migration legend is a superb interdisciplinary exploration into how a
      precontact migration story took on new dimensions with changing
      geo-political circumstances of Creek peoples during the early eighteenth
      century. As Creek towns and individual leaders maneuvered for supremacy
      within an ill-defined confederacy, the arrival of the English in Georgia
      prompted Chigelly of Coweta to alter the Cussita migration legend to
      reflect his town's hegemonic aspirations. But this was not simply local
      politics gone awry. Chigelly's rendition of the migration legend also
      signifies, according to Hahn, an articulation of Creek nationhood, as it
      more broadly spoke to common ideological origins shared by all Creek
      peoples.

      This collectivity of Southeastern Indians also attracts the attention of
      Stephen A. Kowalewski, who employs a comparative approach to show how
      coalescent societies emerged in the Southeast during times of severe
      pressure and threat. Though one of many response mechanisms, coalescence
      became a particularly effective strategy by which weakened and
      distressed remnant groups formed larger polities in the precontact and
      contact eras. Adam King argues along similar lines when he emphasizes
      the ways in which Southeastern Indians used corporate approaches to form
      coherent polities. Stressing a degree of continuity between prehistory
      and history rarely found in other chapters, King asserts that the
      fundamental structures of subsistence systems, community size, and even
      social and political organization remained remarkably similar over time.
      Theda Perdue likewise emphasizes continuity of cultural forms in her
      look at intermarriage between Europeans and Indians in the
      eighteenth-century South. She finds that both indigenous women and their
      "mixed" children did not readily embrace the fathers' culture. Perhaps
      the most important reason for this owes to the strength of the
      matrilineal kinship system, which relegated biological fathers and
      non-clan members to minor importance in a child's life. Even well into
      the nineteenth century, Perdue argues, there existed a strong tendency
      among indigenous peoples to preserve their own cultural values and
      ethnic identity. Most scholars in this volume, however, view the arrival
      of Europeans as a sharp "break" in historical and cultural continuity
      for Southeastern Indians. Robbie Ethridge, for instance, plainly states,
      "the Indians of the sixteenth-century South were quite different from
      the Indians of the eighteenth-century South" (p. 207). In her essay,
      "Indian Slave Traders and the Collapse of the Southeastern Chiefdoms,"
      Ethridge borrows and broadens the concept of "shatter zone" to depict
      how the introduction of commercial trade and ensuing colonial conflicts
      created "large regions of instability" in the Eastern Woodlands of North
      America (p. 208). This insightful look at the ways in which capitalism
      helped spawn a generation of militaristic Indian slaving societies
      builds on Alan Gallay's exhaustive work, _The Indian Slave Trade: The
      Rise of the English Empire in the American South, 1670-1715_ (2002), by
      focusing more on "the Indian side of the story" and extending the "scope
      of regional instability" to include areas outside the Southeast (p.
      217). Indeed, Ethridge connects the first slaving society--the
      Iroquois--to the rise of the Occaneechees, Westos, Chiscas, Chickasaws,
      and others in the South. This idea is furthered by Eric Bowne in " 'A
      Bold and Warlike People': The Basis of Westo Power." Bowne shows how the
      Westos suffered from Iroquois hostility during the seventeenth-century
      Beaver Wars and accordingly made a calculated emigration to the South.
      The Westos then replicated the Five Nations' wars of aggression by
      establishing themselves as the preeminent power in the Carolina Indian
      slave trade, at least for a while.

      The impact of European technology on Native Americans, as witnessed with
      the Westos and their access to English firearms, has long been a subject
      of debate among scholars of the Southeast. Much of this discussion has
      centered on the concept of acculturation, which has undergone
      significant revision over the past thirty years. John E. Worth adds to
      this debate by using his own research on Spanish missions and aboriginal
      peoples in Florida to argue that acculturation has "only limited
      utility" for understanding exchanges and changes that occurred
      throughout the colonial South (p. 197). No matter how multifaceted the
      concept has become, Worth contends, it nevertheless fails to account for
      the more significant and fundamental catalyst behind such
      changes--"internally generated responses of aboriginal cultures" (p.
      199). In an interesting reversal of conventional wisdom, Worth suggests
      that Indians adjacent to Spanish missions were noticeably less impacted
      by European culture and technology than those natives on the Southeast's
      distant frontiers. The Creeks, for example, experienced "far greater
      cultural change" than mission Indians as they increasingly sought
      European firearms in order to exert their power over neighboring
      peoples. In a sense then, the Yamassee and Creeks are viewed by Worth as
      a militaristic slave-raiding society, though some scholars will take
      issue with his emphasis on the notion that Creek peoples had "only
      secondary reliance on agriculture" (pp. 202-203).

      _Light on the Path_is a valuable addition to the literature on
      Southeastern Indians, but it is not without faults. A noticeable
      drawback of this volume--as with many such compilations--is that some
      chapters do not seem to fit. William Jurgelski's reassessment of the
      Tsali affair provides a case in point. This is a well-researched and
      insightful essay that utilizes previously undiscovered evidence to
      explore the "martyrdom" of Tsali at the time of Cherokee removal in
      1838. Yet, what does this have to do with the paradigm shift that
      Pluckhahn and Ethridge so boldly announce? How does it connect
      prehistory to history? The short answer is that it could have had a
      great deal to do with these issues. Jurgelski, for instance, offers a
      tantalizing introduction when he renders the Tsali affair "nothing short
      of a modern-day creation myth for the Eastern Band of Cherokee" (p.
      134). It would have been highly informative and relevant if Jurgelski
      could have connected this myth-making occurrence in the historic era to
      myth-making in earlier times, as well as to present an interdisciplinary
      analysis of how and why myths are constructed and perhaps how they
      relate to a people's identity, sense of community, and geopolitical
      circumstances (something Steven Hahn does so effectively throughout his
      chapter). "New Light on the Tsali Affair," in short, is just one example
      of those papers within _Light on the Path_ that span the connection
      between prehistory and history rather than critically investigate this
      connection. For a work that seeks to alter our basic assumptions about
      Southeastern Indians by highlighting a new paradigm shift, it seems
      essential that each paper explicitly reinforce the volume's primary
      contention. If, however, the volume's goal is to merely imply that it is
      now possible to write a "seamless social history" of the Southeast that
      bridges the gap between prehistory and history, then perhaps such an
      undertaking should be left to a single-authored monograph rather than a
      collection of essays which inherently produces a more uneven and
      disjointed depiction of historical processes.

      Nevertheless, the benefits of this volume far outweigh its limitations.
      It will be useful to graduate students, researchers, and anyone who is
      interested in Southeastern Indians. Certain essays deserve more acclaim
      than others, but scholars from the fields of archaeology, anthropology,
      and history will find much to like about this book. _Light on the Path_
      will therefore be a centerpiece of my library, perhaps right next to my
      copy of Charles Hudson's _The Southeastern Indians_.

      Notes

      [1]. Charles Hudson, _The Southeastern Indians_ (Knoxville: University
      of Tennessee Press, 1976), p. 3.

      [2]. Ibid., p. 94.


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