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A Legacy of Plunder

In its reexamination of entrenched narratives about the expropriation of Native land, Michael Witgen’s work is changing how Native people are situated in the arc of North American history.

An advertisement for the sale of Indian land by the US Department of the Interior, 1911. The man pictured is Padani-Kokipa-Sni of the Yankton Indian Tribe,DeLancey Gill/Library of Congress

Growing up in the southwestern United States, I often heard stories from my stepfather about people who enriched themselves by stealing from Natives. These were not tales from the past, but ongoing stories taking place on the reservation lands where he was employed and later lived. My stepfather spent much of his career working to preserve land and water rights for tribes and their members, and he spoke to me frequently of the businesspeople, corporations, lawyers, and federal and tribal officials who routinely tried to defraud Native people. Though my stepfather is white, he grew up with extended family who were enrolled members of western tribes, and he became invested from an early age in understanding the bureaucratic machinations that denied people land and money that was rightfully theirs. As a boy I imagined the predatory individuals and entities he described as simple villains, and even as I grew older and began to comprehend the shape and design of their trickery, they remained faceless, the means of their duplicity hidden and incomprehensible.

The institutional lineage of indigenous dispossession is at the center of Michael John Witgen’s Seeing Red, which was a finalist for last year’s Pulitzer Prize in history. It is neither a popular history nor a polemic, offering instead a deeply researched look at the ideological and legal foundations of the systems that have despoiled Native nations. Witgen’s subtitle, “Indigenous Land, American Expansion, and the Political Economy of Plunder in North America,” reveals the scope of his history, which examines the ways, both sweeping and quotidian, that early American settlers, traders, diplomats, and politicians stole and expropriated land. The Native people in Witgen’s account, however, are recognized not for their victimhood, but for their adeptness at reasserting their rights, dignity, and sovereignty against the supposedly insurmountable power of the state.

Witgen’s first book, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (2011), told the history of the first encounters between Natives and white explorers in the Great Lakes region. Witgen emphasizes how the Native people of this region and beyond, contrary to popular mythology, remained unconquered and unassimilated well into the nineteenth century, living in a “Native New World” that endured and thrived for hundreds of years after European contact. Through his reexamination of entrenched narratives, Witgen has joined a flourishing group of Native writers, including Nick Estes, David Treuer, Jacqueline Keeler, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, whose work is helping to change how Native people are situated in the arc of North American history.

In Seeing Red Witgen maintains his attention on the Great Lakes but shifts his focus to the nascent days of Manifest Destiny, when the region was imagined as part of a northwestern frontier preordained to be incorporated into a rapidly expanding nation. Witgen writes about this region for a reason: he is a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe, whose modern-day reservation is located in the far north of Wisconsin. The Red Cliff Band forms part of the Great Lakes people known as the Anishinaabe, whose ancestral homelands span both sides of what is today the US–Canada border, including swaths of Quebec, Ontario, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, encompassing peoples often referred to as the Odawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, or Algonquian. With the arrival of Europeans this vast area became an early American borderland where Native life converged with the interests of various colonial powers, newly formed governments, and a shifting array of immigrant and American-born settlers.

The colonists who arrived in North America understood the indigenous people they encountered as “a primitive form of humanity that had failed to advance beyond the state of nature,” writes Witgen, inhabitants of “an uncivilized continent waiting to be settled.” This notion, inherited from the Catholic Church’s fifteenth-century “Doctrine of Discovery,” meant that even as the newly independent United States forged a new government that supposedly rejected colonialism, it held fast to the principle that non-Christian Natives could not truly possess their land. The expansion of an American settler state was further supported by the prevailing belief that Natives were destined to diminish before an inevitable tide of white settlers. “The construct of the vanishing Indian,” Witgen writes, “was a central trope of the ideology that imagined North America as the New World and was meant to rationalize what US citizens would now recognize as ethnic cleansing.”

As the United States entered the nineteenth century and sought to dominate the continent, its gaze became increasingly fixed on its periphery. The terrain beyond its newly established boundaries was understood to be terra nullius, land owned by no one. That phrase evoked the romance of exploration while also functioning as a legal term of enormous consequence: “Declaring North America terra nullius,” Witgen writes, “implied that the land had never been properly cultivated or truly settled. It remained, in effect, in a state of nature, the condition in which it existed at the beginning of time.” Under this principle, inherited from the same European laws that supported the establishment of the original thirteen colonies, such land constituted an expansive commons that could be converted—through settlement, cultivation, and other forms of development—into private property owned by the individuals who “improved” it.

Early presidents like Thomas Jefferson liked to imagine the United States as different from the foreign powers it had fought against and replaced. After sending the newly formed Corps of Discovery west into the Louisiana Territory, Jefferson recounted his philosophy to Native leaders who traveled to meet him:

We are descended from the old nations which live beyond the great water but we and our forefathers have been so long here that we seem like you to have grown out of this land: we consider ourselves no longer as of the old nations beyond the great water, but as united in one family with our red brethren here.

Jefferson was quick to clarify that the Republic’s vision of family relations was subject to unambiguous hierarchy: “We are now your fathers,” he proclaimed, “and you shall not lose by the change.”

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Jeffersonian Indian policy flowed naturally from the idea of Natives as children; living in an uncivilized state of nature, they could not be legally entitled to anything that belonged foremost to their civilized parents. Americans in the new republic had always understood their national boundaries to be temporary, and in short order the US established a system to designate the lands at its periphery as territories that would be gradually incorporated into new states as their white populations grew. The first of these was the Northwest Territory, founded in 1787 and made up of the land between the southern shore of the Great Lakes, the Upper Mississippi, and the Ohio River. While removing indigenous people to make way for settlement became an immediate priority of territorial governments elsewhere on the frontier, here, Witgen writes, “this process proved to be most lucrative, not when Native peoples were eliminated, but when they remained in place as part of an ongoing colonial project.”

Something that set the Northwest Territory apart from the industry-fueled North or the plantation-powered South was the presence of the fur trade, which remained a dominant economic force in the region for around two hundred years. Here indigenous people’s intimate knowledge of the geography and their unmatched skill in hunting and trapping beaver, fox, otter, mink, muskrat, and marten were essential to meeting demand in eastern and European fur markets, which meant less pressure for removal. Thus Natives continued to outnumber white settlers in the Northwest Territory well into the nineteenth century, giving them a degree of political and social power seldom acknowledged in the annals of Western expansion.

Witgen often pauses his scholarly account to capture the rhythms of Anishinaabe life, describing the movement of people through boreal forests and across treeless expanses of plains and prairies. He describes, too, the ebb and flow of harsh winters and bountiful summers, the seasonal gatherings to hunt and harvest and make sugar from maple, and the bustling villages and outposts connected by networks of alliance, marriage, gift-giving, and trade. The freedom the Anishinaabe maintained in these lands, Witgen asserts, “forced the United States to negotiate place and belonging with the Indigenous inhabitants of a land they wanted to imagine as an empty wilderness.”

Gradually, however, the fur trade in the Northwest began to wane, and soon new infrastructure like the Erie Canal, completed in 1825, facilitated travel to the region and made the removal of lumber and other resources more profitable. This opened the door to what Witgen calls “the political economy of plunder—the extraction of wealth from colonized Indigenous subject nations through the treaty process.” These deals were usually engineered by government negotiators to extinguish the limited rights Natives had to their ancestral lands. Under US law, Natives were not recognized as outright owners of their land, but they could claim a lesser legal “title” established through occupancy. Under these treaties, Witgen writes,

Native peoples ceded title to their lands to the federal government, which then converted this territory into the public domain of the United States. The federal government, acting as the sole proprietor over this land base, made it available for purchase as private property to settlers. These settlers were almost exclusively white, and they took possession of this land at a subsidized price in exchange for settling Native homelands and making them part of the US Republic.

The tribal land ceded during the treaty-making process was sold off not only to individual settlers who converted parcels into private homes, farms, and ranches, but to agents of industry who reaped enormous profits from the terrain through logging, fishing, mining, and transportation. Even as it became clear that everyone except the Natives was earning money from the cession of their territory, US agents continued to present these measly deals as tribes’ “only chance for compensation,” turning the signing of these treaties, Witgen argues, into “an involuntary or coercive process.”

Most of these treaties also included agreements by the government to pay cash annuities and supply yearly provisions to the tribes. These forms of compensation were usually stipulated to sunset after several decades, in line with the idea of the “vanishing Native.” Though the payouts were supposedly “designated for Native peoples,” Witgen explains how they “mostly wound up in the hands of traders, territorial officials, and local merchants.” In one memorable passage, he describes how large portions of the benefits agreed upon in the 1837 Treaty of St. Peters were diverted into the pockets of white settlers. During negotiations, Wisconsin governor Henry Dodge ultimately agreed to pay annuities of $30,500 for twenty years. However, this was subdivided into a mere $9,500 in actual cash payments to the tribe, with $19,000 coming in the form of trade goods and another $2,000 as yearly provisions to be supplied by the region’s white traders—thus guaranteeing them two decades’ worth of annual pay from the government.

Of the cash designated to flow directly to the tribes, more than a third was earmarked by the government to pay off debts supposedly owed to white traders. Two of the region’s most prominent merchants received payments as large as $25,000 and $28,000 from this arrangement—nearly six years’ worth of the tribe’s cash annuity. White traders and merchants were also notified in advance of when and where Natives would receive their annuities, and were even advised which goods could be most easily sold to them as they emerged from the government office with cash in hand.

Further muddying the waters was the fact that treaties were rarely negotiated solely between government agents and tribes and usually involved a plethora of middlemen. While some were allies, many more were the same kind of opportunistic criminals who would a century later perpetrate the Reign of Terror against the Osage (as depicted in David Grann’s and Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon), or the same kind of modern-day thieves and schemers I heard about from my stepfather growing up. “These white interlocutors,” Witgen writes, “who most often had Native wives and mixed-race children, facilitated the negotiation of treaties by acting as interpreters, counselors, and debt collectors to the leadership of Indigenous nations.” The services of these men rarely came free, and they usually laid claim to some portion of the negotiated settlements, payouts, and even, in some cases, land grants.

During treaty negotiations special benefits and privileges were often arranged for those known in that era as “half-breeds”—the children of intermarried white and indigenous parents. The unique in-betweenness of mixed-race Natives meant that if they spoke English and were willing to conform to “American” behaviors and customs, they could often enjoy access to American privileges while benefiting from the economic compensations available to them as Natives. Witgen explains:

To make good on these connections and claim their place in the civil society of the US Republic, the half-breeds of the Northwest would have to embrace their identity as a civilized people, denying or at least denigrating their Indigenous identities and selling out their Indigenous nations as part of the bargain.

At times this bargain backfired: in some negotiations—such as the 1836 Treaty of Washington and the 1837 Treaty of St. Peters—their mixed identity ended up shutting them out of rights to land that were reserved exclusively for full-blooded Natives. In these instances, Witgen writes, “they were Indian enough to be compensated for the extinction of Native title to their ancestral lands but not Indian enough to be granted a reserved homeland.” This led certain groups, such as the “Council of the Half Breeds” of the Chippewa Nation, to insist upon full incorporation into American society by petitioning the US for all “the privileges and immunities of free White Citizens of the United States.”

Among the Anishinaabe and many other Native groups, race and national identity were largely ambiguous notions, and many refused American attempts to impose categorizations based on blood, adoption, or citizenship.

 Much more important for most Natives, Witgen writes, was kinship. White settlers grew to understand and exploit this, too—many missionaries and traders, for example, took Native wives with the expectation that they would serve as domestic laborers, translators, and interpreters who could also provide access and influence in matters of tribal decision-making. While marriage allowed many of these women to be included in American civil society, Witgen is careful to cite the historian Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, whose work describes how wedlock “drew Native wives into the US body politic, subjecting them, their children, and their property to the control of their husbands and to the new government and its courts.”

As Seeing Red nears its end the Anishinaabe seem to be hurtling toward the grim outcome readers have been conditioned to expect. In his closing chapters Witgen reveals how government agents sowed discord among tribal members during treaty negotiations, and he gestures toward a Native world that had been “disavowed and dismembered.” Then, on February 6, 1850, President Zachary Taylor issued a removal order nullifying previously negotiated treaties and calling for the Anishinaabe “to move onto lands not yet ceded to the federal government.”

This order severely underestimated the degree to which the Anishinaabe had ingrained themselves into the local economy of the Great Lakes, and was quickly met with petitions, protests, and a deluge of letters and editorials by the area’s prominent white missionaries, legislators, and journalists. The removal, they declared, was “uncalled for by any interest of the government or the people of the United States.” But their concern, Witgen writes, was more economic than altruistic:

In the last states to be forged out of the Northwest Territory, Native peoples as well as Native land had become a source of wealth creation for American settlers. Native peoples were no longer obstacles in the way of US immigrants as they had been in Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. Rather, the presence of Native peoples, stripped of virtually all their land, denied citizenship in the Republic, and legally deemed wards of the federal government, represented a source of cash income.

As white citizens of the Wisconsin and Michigan territories petitioned the government for a reversal of the removal order, Gichi-Bizhiki, the principal leader of the Lake Superior Ojibwe traveled to Washington to request an audience with President Millard Fillmore, who had succeeded Taylor following his unexpected death. As Gichi-Bizhiki made his way to Washington in the company of his American son-in-law, who chronicled the trip, he was met with Army officers, Indian agents, and US marshals who attempted again and again to turn his party back.

Upon arrival in Washington Gichi-Bizhiki was ordered to return home by none other than the Commissioner of Indian Affairs and the Secretary of the Interior. However, a chance encounter with a friendly senator at a Washington hotel finally landed him his long-hoped-for audience, in which he steadfastly demanded that the US honor its previously negotiated treaties. President Fillmore ultimately agreed, leading to the creation of permanent reservations in Wisconsin where several bands of Lake Superior Chippewa still live to this day. “Gichi-Bizhiki and the Anishinaabe people throughout the Great Lakes region refused to vanish,” Witgen writes. Instead they insisted “that the United States allow them to remain in their homelands and continually negotiate the terms of their colonization.”

At the conclusion of Seeing Red, the downfall of the Anishinaabe that many readers will have braced for never comes, elucidating Witgen’s overarching point about the false inevitability of Indigenous disappearance. Even as he meticulously recounts the construction of a political mythology that infantilized and diminished Native peoples—laying bare the inner workings of the policies, business dealings, and treaty negotiations that perpetuated ever-increasing forms of dispossession—he also reveals all the ways tribes of the Northwest Territory subverted and outlasted the engines of their demise.

In the book’s final pages Witgen brings us into the modern era by offering a brief account of his grandmother, a direct descendant of Gichi-Bizhiki whose extended family lived on the very same reservations Gichi-Bizhiki forced the United States to establish in the 1850s. Finishing Witgen’s book, I began to wish that the accounts I heard from my stepfather, about the people and policies that still pilfer Native wealth and resources, could have more often been paired with images like these, of indigenous permanence and ongoing lineages of cunning resistance. But even more, I wish I had been taught to recognize exactly how the heroes of the stories told again and again about our past—those quintessentially American pilgrims and settlers, traders and trappers, governors and presidents—participated in plundering and expropriating an infinity of indigenous nations in the creation of our own.

Francisco Cantú is the author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border. (June 2024)

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