I was in a conversation recently with some friends about native peoples in the early colonial period and the issue of group definition sort of came up, in relation to the history of colonization of North America and relationships between settlers and natives. That is, when did the natives/Indians become the natives/Indians? For a long while they weren’t any one group, they were many groups — just as the Europeans weren’t “the Europeans” but were many groups. Likewise African slaves weren’t African in the sense of a politically relevant collectivity. I don’t know when these became political relevant collectivities; my hunch is that it’s a product of colonization though that’s so vague as to mean very little. One reason this is relevant, at least for historical explanation, is that it gets at questions like “why didn’t the Indians stop the English, since there were so many more of them?” and “why didn’t Africans stop slavers?” The reason is in part that “Indian” and “African” weren’t names for subjective group belonging. (Further note about slavery – the supply side of slavery involved a geographically distributed division of labor. This included some people in Africa capturing others, who after a while ended up sold to European merchants who took them across the Atlantic. It’s worth mentioning that there were multiple other slave trades as well in addition to the west-bound transatlantic trade – ones internal to various territories within Africa as well as an east-bound out-of-Africa trade.) So to say that Indians and Africans outnumbered the settlers and colonizers and slavers, while true, isn’t really as relevant as it may seem for understanding what went on. To put it another way, to think of Indians and Africans (and for that matter Europeans) on the north american continent during at least the early part of colonization is to mistakenly aggregate people who had not yet aggregated themselves. I’d like to know more about when and how people did actually aggregate themselves.

That brings me the main thought I wanted to think out by writing this. I’ve just started Eric Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism Since 1780. I don’t have time to write proper notes with quotes and summary just now, but, it’s quite good so far. One thought that strikes me about Hobsbawm’s book and this conversation about Indians is that Hobsbawm traces some of the etymology and the conceptual history of “nation.” The term and concept used to refer to human groupings based on location of birth and of where people lived. Its geographic scope wasn’t fixed. It could, for instance, mean a county. It was a type of association in the sense of sharing a common place of being from and living-in (or having lived-in) and often though I don’t know if always implying common *ways* of living — this makes it not unlike things like “Chicagoan” or “Midwesterner” today. That said, it wasn’t necessarily a term referring to political groupings and institutions. The notion that nations were single political entities that governed themselves as nations is a later development. It’s incredibly hard not to read this notion back in, not least because of terms from the era like “The Iroquois Nations,” and to think that Indian nations involved a correspondence of political institutions and governance along with shared geographies, ways of life, and languages.

This can work in two ways. One, it can lead to a mistake in types of association, like thinking that the Iroquois were a single people. In one sense they were and in another they weren’t (how and where to draw these distinctions is hard, and is tied in part to why their drawn; the interesting bit in my opinion is how different historical actors drew these distinctions in different ways at different times and for what purposes). “Iroquois” names on the one hand a linguistic group as well as a set of political institutions and government, but it was a confederacy made up of peoples like the Mohawk and the Tuscarora. The Iroquois as a political entity were not just one people in the sense of social reality — and the component peoples changed. The Tuscora joined the five tribes later, so they became six. The Tuscarora weren’t and then were part of what it’s easy to think of as the political Iroquois. And the Iroquois as a political entity weren’t the only Iroquois linguistically. There were numerous groups who spoke Iroquoisan language but who were outside the political Iroquois. In some cases the political Iroquois made war on other Iroquoisan speakers (and of course vice versa, like with the Susquehannock), sometimes with devastating results, as with the Wenro, the Wyandot, and the Erie nations.

I think it’s worth pointing out that “Iriquoisan” is a language group, not necessarily a language. I’m not a linguist so I don’t know how mutually intelligible the various Iroquoisan languages were (I also know that for me Glaswegians speaking English can be pretty hard for me to follow, because of the distance of their accent from what I expect, due to my limited exposure to people speaking that accent). I know generally it can be hard to draw the lines between languages and that distinctions between languages are sometimes political and are a thing that political nationalists will sometimes target (I believe that this has been a big deal in the Balkan states, with some distinguishing languages like Serbian and Croatian and others saying they’re all speaking the Serbo-Croat language with different accents. I think I heard a joke once, something like this: what’s the difference between a dialect and a language? An army.) Did the Iroquois all speak the same language? What’s a language? What did they think themselves, and did their minds change? I dunno. In any case, the Mohawk spoke Mohawk and the Oneida spoke Oneida, whatever we call those “Oneida” and “Mohawk. (Incidentally, some Iroquoisan linguistic groupings seem to be closer to each other than others, like Oneida and Mohawk are closer to each other than to Onandaga. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iroquoian) I wouldn’t be surprised if speech communities within the political Iroquois became more alike over time – associational practices shape speech practices after all (and institutions do as well, since institutions are forms of associational practice). Hobsbawm makes the point in his book that the similarities appealed to by political nationalists in the 19th century were/are often more a project for and product of nationalism (and the political institutions that result from nationalism) rather than something that pre-exists and therefore requires a new political institution which will correspond with the nation. That would seem to fit with what I’ve been talking about here as well.