Power  /  Book Review

A Legacy of Plunder

In its reexamination of narratives about the expropriation of Native land, Michael Witgen’s work changes how Native people are in the arc of 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.