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It's been ages since I posted about a book here! I hope I'll be able to fix that soon -- I'm reading several other books for my history research project that are by authors of color.

Crossposted from Goodreads.

Robert A. Williams, Jr., who is a Lumbee law professor (currently at the University of Arizona Indigenous Peoples Law and Policy Program), had previously written a book on The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourses of Conquest. He decided to write another, a "complementary study" that outlined Native people's legal and diplomatic discourse during the Encounter period. The result is Linking Arms Together.

Williams' main sources are treaties that were written down by European colonists, so most of the treaties he studies are those between Native tribes and European colonial bodies or the early United States. (He sticks to the eastern part of what is now the US and Canada, so there's not much about originally-western tribes and nothing about Latin America.) However, some of these texts include descriptions of older traditions of treaties among Native tribes, and sometimes European observers attended meetings between two or more tribes, and took notes. This is important because Williams finds common elements in treaty-making discourse from tribes all over this part of the continent. There was a cohesive "vision" of "law and peace" that facilitated international diplomacy prior to colonization. In encounters with Europeans, tribes drew on this tradition to shape these new relationships.

I liked very much the reasons that Williams gave for why studying these traditions is important. Not only do they illuminate the history of the Encounter era and give necessary context to the beginning of the United States' legal relationship with the tribes, debunking "the story [that] the white man's Indian law [is] the salvation of the Indian in North America," but they offer paradigms for decolonization and the renewal and recreation of treaty relationships for indigenous people today.

These aren't new -- Williams refers to an Iroquois diplomat's presentation of the Gus-Wen-Tah (Two Row Wampum treaty belt) to the United Nations Human Rights Commission's Working Group on Indigenous Populations in 1988 -- but I think that Linking Arms Together is the first book-length study of pre-United States Native American treaties written to be relevant to current issues.

Williams groups examples from different people, places, and events together to identify important ways Native diplomats and leaders contextualized and used treaties ("Treaties as Sacred Texts," "Treaties as Connections," "Treaties as Stories," "Treaties as Constitutions"). Within these chapters he examines metaphors used in treaty-making (different types of kinship, the pipe of peace, the wampum belt, the common bowl, clearing the path through the forest, etc.) which show how people thought about these treaties, when they should be made and how, and what responsibilities and obligations they gave to the treaty partners.

Williams shows that in many treaty-making situations between Natives and Europeans, the Native diplomats were trying to teach and advise the newcomers about correct diplomatic procedures, and more generally how European settlements should behave to tribes that were offering to share land and resources with them, and how these settlements could fit into the existing structure of international relations. This really prompts one to imagine and mourn the North America that could have been if European colonizers hadn't willfully misunderstood and disregarded these lessons -- but on the other hand, it's an excellent antidote to the "Indians sold all their land for trinkets" myth.

The only faults I found with this book were really those that Williams anticipates. As he says at the beginning of the conclusion:
This book has explored a few of the ways Indians of the Encounter era spoke about treaty relationships. Only the broadest of themes -- those easiest to identify and pursue at the outset of such an immense interpretive project -- have been developed here. Many other pathways are to be discovered for understanding the complex language of Indian forest diplomacy. Variations and the distinctive vocabularies of large numbers of tribes remain to be examined in all of their rich, diverse particularity. Discontinuities and adaptations over time to the absorptive dynamics of the West's "will to empire" need to be explained in serious and detailed scholarly analyses. What has been essentialized must now be dissolved by scrutinizing the singular responses of different tribes to the centrifugal forces of colonizing power.
I did want particularity, and I was a bit frustrated by how Williams sometimes breaks up the story of a diplomatic meeting in order to use one part of it as an example for one metaphor, and another example elsewhere. And because Williams is interested in emphasizing a general, cohesive tradition that many eastern tribes drew on in their diplomatic discourse, some of the book feels a bit repetitive even when he's using different examples. However, historians are now following up on Williams' recommendations, so I'm looking forward to reading more detailed, specific analyses of particular tribes' treaty discourse. (For example, Leanne Simpson writes about her tribe's history in "Looking after Gdoo-naaganinaa: Precolonial Nishnaabeg Diplomatic and Treaty Relationships," which can be found in Native Historians Write Back: Decolonizing American Indian History, edited by Susan A. Miller and James Riding In.)

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