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Discover Mid-America — November 2006

Common and Contested Ground: A Human and Environmental History of the Northwestern Plains by Theodore Binnema (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001); Hardcover, 288 pages, 11 b/w illustrations, 15 maps; $29.95; 0806133619;

Indian cultures fluid and complex

For most Americans, the terms Indian and Native American still conjure pictures of distinct tribal people with easily identifiable cultures — for instance, Blackfoot, Pawnee, and Piegan. For those with a closer knowledge of Indians and Indian history, the picture is a bit more complicated, but no less representative of white ideas about Native American culture and life.

Theodore Binnema does a great service to readers of American history, and Native American history in particular. In Common and Contested Ground, he examines the complex political lives, lingual diversity, varying religious beliefs, and cultural conglomerations — as well as physical environments — that shaped the way Native Americans of the northwestern plains (Saskatchewan, Montana, Idaho and North Dakota) lived and breathed.

In writing what he calls an alternative to the “culturist preoccupations” of most 20th century historical scholarship, Binnema challenges the reader “to consider how their ‘Indian of imagination’ differs from the ‘Native American of actual experience.’” He argues convincingly that the history of the northwestern plains “between 200 A.D. and 1806 was not the story of cultural conflict, cultural clash, cultural change, or cultural continuity.” Rather, Indians migrated, traded, made war, and sought alliances with people who were often very different from themselves — still Indian but of differing languages, cultures, and religious lives.

Northwestern plains societies were intra- and interethnic. Indians defined themselves by tribes, to be sure, each with their own histories and cultural development. But cultural differences existed within tribes. Closely connected, “middle people,” or people who blurred the lines of singular ethnic distinction, were more vital to cultural change and environmental adaptation than scholars have previously explored.

This disputes the notion that tribes were assemblages of common people defining territory, claiming hunting rights, and warring or allying for those claims in static, tribal affiliations. The northwestern plains, Binnema states, “were the common and contested ground of diverse communities.” Tribal identity was one aspect of northwestern plains societies. Alliances, intermarriages, and captive takings made the fluidity of tribal lines made fertile ground for shifts in power and creations of ethnic groups. These ways of tying bonds, creating diplomatic agreements and blending ethnicities helped people adapt to natural environments and newcomers. These close relationships also influenced the inclusion or exclusion of new technologies, such as the arrival of the horse, the firearm and trade with Europeans.

At each turn of history, Binnema pays specific attention to the ways environment and wildlife influenced the building of alliances and enmities. Friends could help with survival by combining agricultural and hunter/gatherer traditions. Enemies could also become friends, particularly when new arrivals threatened to upset ecological or power balances. Meanwhile, friends and enemies heated the dynamic of social and political relations in the northwestern plains.

The horse, gun and white trader, each and all, changed social and political relations on the northwestern plains. The use of new tools for hunting and war complicated Indian societies and diplomatic relations rather than making them simpler. In Common and Contested Ground, guns and horses arrive from opposite sides of the northwestern plains, complicating social and political relations, and recreating the canvas upon which culture and ethnicity were painted.

Similarly, the arrival of white traders the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company, altered the way Indians societies interacted with one another. But at the same time, whites intermarried and sought to bind themselves into tribal networks, creating another middle people existing in and between these complex societies. Then, expanding white society moved eastern native groups into the northwestern plains, and again, the circumstances of society and interethnic and intertribal relationships changed.

This history is sometimes continuous, sometimes disruptive, but always a process. Indians were more than simply Assinaboine or Cree or Arapaho, or the pre-historical people who would become known by these tribal names. They are very real human beings with complex and interesting lives, and with complicated cultures and ethnicities as might be found in society, premodern and modern.

Redefining Indian life and showing how Indians absorbed culture as well as being absorbed by it, Binnema’s work joins Ramon Gutierrez’s study of sex and power between Indians and between whites and Indians in When Jesus Came the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500-1846.

In its view of social and political relationships, Common and Contested Ground makes a good companion to James Brooks’ look at the creation of intra- and interethnic dynamics between native groups and differing white colonial societies in Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands.

Common and Contested Ground makes fine reading for historians, history buffs and those with passing interest in Indian history. Binnema has a command of the language, understanding of the complex themes of human ethno-history, and environmental and Native American history, and the ability to relate complexity without dragging down the text or confusing the reader. It will be an important addition to anyone’s reading list.

Patrick Dobson is a Kansas City-based writer and Ph.D. candidate in history. He can be contacted at

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