(Image: “The Natchez Rebellion,” from chickasaw.tv).
Milne, George Edward. Natchez Country: Indians, Colonists, and the Landscapes of Race in French Louisiana. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2015. Pp. 293. $25.00.
By Summer Abukhomra
George Edward Milne’s Natchez Country: Indians, Colonists, and the Landscapes of Race in French Louisiana discusses the Natchez creation of a new Native identity (“red men,” as they called themselves) and how it was used to maintain a centralized political system within the tribe and exert a show of power over the new French settlers and African slaves. Milne opens the discussion by providing a narrative of the Natchez Revolt of 1729, during which the Natchez raided Fort Rosalie and the nearby plantation of French colonial commandant Sieur de Chépart which led to the eventual mass murder and enslavement of the entire Natchez Tribe a year later. After painting a picture of the raid, Milne retraces the steps of the French and Natchez, showing what led them up to this point. He discusses the role of the “other-than-human-powers,” as understood by the French serving under the “Sun King” Louis XIV and the Natchez people serving under the Great Sun. Most importantly, Milne seeks to illustrate the values of social organization, leadership, and identity of both the Natchez and the French and how their misinterpretations and often misperceptions of each other’s culture led to hostility (16).
Milne begins by debunking a common view in Natchez historiography that the Natchez revolt, like other European conflicts with Native Americans, was inevitable. Like Daniel Usner, Milne argues that the Natchez held more power over the French as they were native to the land and the small group of French settlers were completely unfamiliar with it. In order to flesh out what he believes are the causes for the revolt, Milne argues that we must first explore the complex identity and formation of social ranks. The Natchez categorized themselves in the ranks of “suns, nobles, honored men, and stinkards,” who were ruled by the power of the Great Sun, a leader who maintained absolute control over the tribe. During the initial influx of French settlers, the Great Sun welcomed the Frenchmen, seeing them as potential subjects who could join the Natchez tribe and live under the polity of the Natchez people and under the rule of the Great Sun himself. Milne emphasizes that these were the first outsiders the Natchez had ever encountered, and they did not have the same concept of racial differences that European settlers had forged.
Despite differences in their understanding of race, Milne claims that the French and Natchez shared a lot of similar traditions and beliefs. Both the French settlers and the Natchez believed their respective leaders were chosen to lead by divine mandate that was passed down through blood or marriage relations. In addition to lineage of leadership, the social organization of people was also passed through bloodline and shared similarities with that of the Old World. Despite these similarities, the competition for resources between both forces pushed the Natchez to lead a series of three raids on the French, hoping that the French would give in as subordinates to the Great Sun. It was not long until the Great Sun realized that the settlers had no intention of recognizing his authority or adopting the Natchez identity. The Great Sun then evoked the term “red man” as means of creating a Native identity distinct from the French settlers or African slaves with the purpose of mobilizing indigenous people in an attack on the French.
Through the use of colonial maps and archaeological findings, Milne successfully unveils how the French-Natchez conflict was not inevitable, as some historians have previously thought. In chapter four, Milne is able to reconstruct the Fort Rosalie-Natchez Village region to discuss how the groups quarreled over shared land use after a period of coexistence. Like the French, the Natchez also had slaves, but slavery for the Natchez was based on tribal superiority rather than ideas of racial superiority, as slaves were taken by the Natchez from regional tribes they had conquered in battles. This slavery was based on the self-perceived supremacy of the Natchez, and the perceived insubordination or weakness of the other tribe. In addition, he shows that while many historians were on what he believes was the right track in understanding the Natchez-French conflicts, many also overlooked the way the Natchez and the settlers perceived similarities and differences in each other’s traditions of social organization, authority, and identity.
This text successfully argues for the agency of the French and Natchez which can be clearly seen through the earlier interactions between the two groups. Milne demonstrates how their relationship was initially seen by both parties as mutually beneficial. The Natchez welcomed the French settlers into their tribe and the French found fast allies with the Natchez who would help them to build their settlement. Neither greeted the other with great hostility upon their initial encounter or in the several months that followed, as was the case in some other Native-European exchanges. Rather, each party recognized a potential partnership, which would soon be taken advantage of by the French. This text is would be a great compliment to the works of Daniel Usner, is thoroughly researched, and provides a fresh perspective on Native-European exchanges.