Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Illiniwek Indians made a bid for power in the late 1600s Mid-west America, based on bison and slavery.

Most historical accounts describe the Illiniwek Indians, of the late 1600s as a weak and beleaguered people, shattered by war.

{{The Illiniwek Indian tribe was a Confederacy of tribes [aka: Illinois (pronounced as plural: Illinois') and Illini]; consisted of the Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Peoria, Tamaroa, Moingwena, Michigamea, Chepoussa, Chinkoa, Coiracoentanon, Espeminkia, Maroa, and Tapouara tribes.}}

Their Grand Village of the Kaskaskia (aka: The Village of La Vantum), near present-day Starved Rock State Park, 80 miles southwest of Chicago, was depicted as little more than a refugee center, propped up by the French Fort St. Louis du Rocher.
The reality, however, is quite different, argues University of Illinois history professor Robert Morrissey, in an “editor’s choice” article in the December issue of the Journal of American History.

The Grand Village and surrounding settlements were then likely the largest population center north of Mexico City, and the Illinois were making “perhaps the most remarkable bid for power in 17th century native North America,” according to Morrissey, who also has written a book on colonial Illinois during this period.

The Illinois Indians were exploiting a unique ecological and social borderland at the center of the continent – between tallgrass prairie to the west and woodlands to the east, and between distinctly different peoples of the Great Plains and the Great Lakes, he said.

There they could hunt plentiful bison at the eastern edge of their range. And there they also could raid Indian villages to the west for slaves, to trade to Indians to the east, where slaves were sought mostly as “replacement kin” for those lost to war and European disease.

“In that particular moment, and in that particular space, these people rose to quite considerable power, and yet they’re not part of the narrative of early American history, and the place is totally off the map,” Morrissey said.

Much of the reason can be traced back to accounts by the French who established an outpost and mission near the Grand Village in the 1670s, he said. “I don’t think they understood what they were looking at when they arrived in the Illinois country.”

The Illinois and other Algonquian-speakers in the Great Lakes region had suffered what seemed to be devastating attacks by the eastern Iroquois, as part of what were called the Beaver Wars, Morrissey said. “I think this caused the French to miss the ways that the Algonquians, and especially the Illinois, were themselves acting aggressively and were themselves acting out of their own motivations.”

The French also exaggerated their own importance in those accounts, Morrissey said. “The French were not the biggest thing happening in the Illinois people’s lives at this moment, and when we read those sources, it sometimes seems like the French think they are.” They also had reason to exaggerate Illinois weakness and their own importance in search of greater support from the French government and the Catholic Church.

Taking a more-critical look at French accounts, and supplementing that with archeological and environmental sources, Morrissey is seeking to tell native history in a broader context.

In his story of the Grand Village, for instance, he notes that the Illinois, a loose confederation of at least 13 subgroups or kinship groups – among them the Cahokia, Kaskaskia and Peoria – were recent arrivals themselves. Their ancestors, or “proto-Illinois,” had lived south of Lake Erie and in the Ohio River Valley, and moved west in the 1500s and early 1600s.

Their move may have been prompted by climate changes resulting from the “Little Ice Age,” which shortened growing seasons in the Ohio Valley and moved the bison range east into Illinois.

They had settled in villages along and west of the Mississippi River before moving into the upper Illinois River Valley. What they saw or found there, according to Morrissey, were the advantages of a literal and metaphorical “ecotone,” a term used by biologists to describe a border zone between adjacent communities of vegetation. Some species thrive in such zones, moving between and exploiting multiple habitats.

The Illinois thrived in that ecotone for about two decades, Morrissey said. They found opportunities and power in bison hunting, trading and then slave trading.

The Grand Village was ultimately short-lived, in part due to the inherent violence and other corrosive effects of the slave trade, Morrissey said. One aspect of that was that many more women than men were taken as slaves since they were more valuable as replacement kin, and Illinois men then took some of those female slaves as additional wives.

This degraded the status of Illinois women and caused rifts and often abuse within these polygamous families, Morrissey said. Many Illinois wives sought refuge in the Catholic mission and Christianity.

Resources were also an issue. Nearby forests were thin, so village residents lacked firewood, and it’s possible they even reached limits on bison hunting, supporting a population of up to 20,000.

The story of the Illinois and the Grand Village holds importance because it shows native people acting on their own motivations in a bid for power, separate from European influence, Morrissey said. It also reveals the significant and often-neglected place of the Midwest in early American history, he said.

“Historians of early America often still tell their narratives in terms of Indian reaction to Europeans, as if Europeans were the most important thing happening in Indian worlds,” Morrissey said.

“My agenda here is to suggest that there are a lot of other factors playing into what native people were doing, and why they were doing it. Many of the logics of their actions have probably nothing to do with Europeans, or only partially to do with Europeans. To understand them, we need to recontextualize the story from an indigenous perspective.”

By Craig Chamberlain
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

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