Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America

Written by Michael A. McDonnell
Review by James Hawking

This well-documented study convincingly argues that Great Lakes Indians were skilled diplomats and active agents in many phases of American history.  The Anishinaabeg, a kinship-based alliance of Native American nations, tolerated and protected French traders as long as the Indians saw benefits. The straits of Mackinac, on what is now the border between the United States and Canada, was an early trade center which increased the power and prosperity of many of the Indian nations.  French support against the Anishinaabeg’s enemies, the Iroquois to the east and the Sioux to the west, had consequences in America and Europe.  Large numbers of British troops crossing the ocean influenced the European balance of power.  The taxes to pay these troops led to the American Revolution, which many Indians understood and recognized as an opportunity. Later, the so-called War of 1812 gave Tecumseh and his allies a chance temporarily to reclaim land illegally seized by American settlers.

By describing Native American alliances and structures, McDonnell helps to correct tendencies to see the Indians as helpless victims or irrational savages.