Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Indian Marriage in Early New England, Ithaca

Ann Marie Plane, Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000. Pp. xv + 243. $39.95 (ISBN 0-8014-3291-X).
Women's historians and historians of Native Americans have become practiced at making much out of a very thin base of sources. Anne Marie Plane's Colonial Intimacies: Indian Marriage in Early New England offers a treasure of evidence and anecdotes about Native American women's and family history, reflecting years of dedication to researching a notoriously difficult subject. The history of private lives—especially marital and sexual practices—is very difficult to reconstruct because of the highly ideological evidence found in English-language colonial sources. This evidence tends to highlight only the impossible ideal of family life (as in sermons or other prescriptive literature), or families in complete breakdown (as documented in criminal and civil court records). Plane supplements these sources with the ethnographically rich records kept by missionaries to Christian Indian communities of Southeastern New England and succeeds in giving texture and nuance to the changes in marriage and family life of the so-called "praying Indians" and their near neighbors.
Plane argues convincingly that marriage and family life were at the center of Anglo-Indian relations from the very start. The family was key to the social organization of both eastern Algonkians and the English invaders, although Indian families and households were organized around linear kinship, whereas the English households were centered on marriage and patriarchal nuclear families. Because of the devastation wrought by European diseases on the Native population, and the great success of the English in increasing their numbers in the first half of the seventeenth century, the English quickly gained the upper hand in the demography of Southeastern New England. The process of exercising dominion over the land and the peoples of New England was shaped by the family ideology of English puritanism, which insisted that Christianized Indians not only pray to Jesus and read the Bible, but that they conform to English cultural conventions as well. Plane shows how praying Indians sometimes dropped their more flexible marriage customs, which included easier divorce for couples without children, and polygyny among elite families, and how more often they accommodated to English conventions selectively and syncretically. Indian tradition and English convention coexisted and sometimes blended into "the sort of multilayered, asymmetrical legal order well known to students of other colonial societies" (94). By the beginning of the eighteenth century, Indian marriage might have served as a means for English ministers and magistrates to judge, segregate, and further disdain Indian peoples, but it also served as a site of resistance to the English colonial regime. Plane argues that because Indian marriage and sexual practices remained notably distinct from Anglo-American practices, and because Indians were much likelier than English people to intermarry with Africans and African Americans, they served as a means by which the remnants of disease- and war-torn tribes of the seventeenth century reconstituted and re-invented themselves in the eighteenth century.
The story Plane tells is one that fits into a larger picture limned by new and emerging scholarship on colonial family life and gender roles, sexuality, the body, and the concept of race. However, her argument curiously does not engage this larger literature, which might have allowed her to make suggestive connections between her fine source base and the historiography of the colonial Americas. Sometimes Plane is too timid in making claims for her work: "It will remain for others to assess both the accuracy and the larger significance of the picture that I present" (12), she writes in the introduction. A little more direction from the author would have make the book more useful beyond graduate seminars and a readership of specialists in Native American and family history.
At the same time, Plane's claims about the nature of Euro-Indian contact writ large seem rather bold for a book whose sources come almost entirely from praying Indian communities—an experience of only a tiny minority of Indians and English people in colonial Anglo-America. What about the Wabanaki and Western Abenaki of nothern New England who chose to ally with the French, many of whom converted to Catholicism? What about the majority of Indians who chose to resist English ways and waged war on Anglo-American towns and settlements for over eighty years? What about the hundreds of English people who were captives at the mercy of Indian masters and mistresses? At least as often as praying Indians and Indian servants in English families were expected to adopt English family ways, English people were forced to adapt to Indian family life, but Colonial Intimacies barely acknowledges the existence of these cultural encounters where Indians had the power to convert English people to their beliefs and folkways.
Colonial Intimacies is a smart book full of fresh research and insights into Indian family life found nowhere else. Plane's successes should be encouraging to other scholars interested in adding to the historiography of colonial Indian marriage and family life.


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