[Cross-posted from New Books in Native American Studies] The birth of the American republic produced immense and existential challenges to Native people in proximity to the fledgling nation. Perhaps none faced a greater predicament than the Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (popularly known as the Iroquois). Divided by the U.S.-English conflict, their landbase ransacked by American soldiers and speculators, their once considerable political power reduced, and their culture threatened by an influx of zealous missionaries — such is what historian Matthew Dennis in his powerful new book, Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), has termed “the colonial crucible.”
Yet, Dennis persuades us, “the Seneca story is not mere prologue.” One of the Six Nations residing in what became western New York State, the Seneca adapted to the invasion of their homeland, building upon elements of their culture and selectively embracing change to survive the economic and political transformations of the post-Revolutionary period. The revelations of the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake, blended with elements of Christianity, yielded a new and powerful religion that rejected white degradation. But in the process, the prophet challenged the powerful position of women in Seneca society, as accusations of witchcraft – newly focused on women – led to violence.
As western New York continues its decades long process of deindustrialization, losing population with every closed down factory, the Seneca Nation remains, vibrant as ever. Matthew Dennis’ fascinating new book helps us see just how they did.