48: Richard White’s The Middle Ground

In The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, Richard White argues that the French and Native Americans negotiated a middle ground in the Great Lakes region; unlike in other parts of the country, colonization here created a region characterized by negotiation among groups with relatively equal power.

For White, “middle ground” has two distinct meanings:

  • A productive “process of mutual and creative misunderstanding;” this includes both sides’ willingness to justify their own actions in terms of their partners’ perceived cultural expectations; folks who sought out similarities between their culture and their partners’ culture; and the understanding that even the most tenuous cross-cultural similarity can be used in negotiations if both sides accept it.
  • A “quite particular historical space that was the outcome of this process:” the Great Lakes region, aka the pays d’en haut.

Because the middle ground is a spatial metaphor, it’s possible to conflate the process of creative misunderstanding and the physical space, so that the Great Lakes region becomes the product of two cultures that have roughly equivalent power, a historically-specific place where creative miscommunication between Europeans and Native Americans created new, hybrid cultural forms.

White is careful to characterize this middle ground as a place constituted not by violence and bloodshed but by adaptation, compromise, and mutual respect.  He is also careful to link it specifically to the Great Lakes region, because he derived it empirically there via oral and written histories and archival sources.  However, he does allow that the process of the middle ground might be transferable to other regions, as long as these other regions include a rough balance of power, a mutual need or desire for what the other possesses, and an inability for either side to force the other to change because neither side is bigger or more powerful than the other.  The space of the middle ground might be transferable as well, so long as it includes an infrastructure that can support and expand the process.

With this study, White makes a number of important interventions.  He turns culture into a spatialized process; he considers the possibility of a frontier as a space of mutual understanding and negotiation, where hybrid cultures are created; he recognizes the agency of Native Americans in shaping the middle ground, and uses oral histories with the descendants of these tribes to understand the memory of this process; and he shifts the development of American culture from New England to the Great Lakes region.  And rather than assume rational, perfectly informed actors, he acknowledges and even appreciates that “biased and incomplete information and creative misunderstanding may be the most common basis of human actions” ever.

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