This Teaching the JAH segment was created by Robert Michael Morrissey with the assistance of David Horst Lehman.
Rethinking early Native American history is a difficult enterprise. Myths and stereotypes are well entrenched in American lore, and historians have few sources to use to tell a different and more balanced story about native peoples— especially about those who lived in the continental interior, away from centers of colonization.
To rethink the history of the Illinois we can, of course, use the traditional sources of colonial history: the writings of European colonists who encountered and lived among native peoples and witnessed their actions. These sources, however, are few in number and imperfect. French colonists who came to Illinois in the late seventeenth century and witnessed life at the Grand Village of the Kaskaskia often lacked a full context to interpret what they were seeing. Like many European writings from the colonial period, their eyewitness accounts also reflect biases, hidden agendas, prejudices, and outright misunderstandings.
We do have other sources of information to supplement the colonial writings. Archaeology, linguistics, and material culture can add to our understanding and do not share the same problems as written sources. And if these sources can help us begin to recover history from an Illinois perspective, we can also learn a lot about Indian actions and motivations simply by considering natives’ specific ecological and geographical settings. The Illinois moved several times in the 1600s, and the places they chose to settle were quite distinctive. By considering the nature—in some senses literally—of the Illinois’ village locations and their movements, and by combining this consideration with what we know from other sources, we can begin to understand the Illinois’ reasons for what they were doing. When we imagine native perspectives and motives, we can see how Illinois’ movements and settlements provided certain advantages and may even have been part of a proactive political strategy. At the very least we can foreground the Illinois’ agency and reject the notion that they were simply reacting to other groups, or that they were merely “refugees” during this dynamic period.
The following six segments are meant to further your discussion of the Illinois and to aid in examining the challenges of recovering the history of indigenous people in early America. While we may never be able to recover the past fully from the point of view of the Illinois, their story provocatively suggests that we need to rethink Indian action and tell more complex stories of power in early America.