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Friday, June 15, 2018

Review of Daniel K. Richter’s Ordeal of the Longhouse

     Daniel Richter did not set out to write a book about the Iroquois. In taking on the daunting task, he constructs a compelling history of people who “found themselves caught up by economic, political, and demographic forces over which they had little control”. Richter explains how the Iroquois met these challenges or ordeals, often with unique geographical and cultural advantages, with adaptation and changes unlike other people in the region. These were not unique advantages to the Iroquois. What set them apart from others was their ability to hold on to these advantages for so long.
     Richter treats the Iroquois as if they were newly come to North America, placing them on the same footing as Europeans. Additionally, he cautions the reader against reading the phrases “the Iroquois” or “the Five Nations” as a singular or uniform entity but as a leader or collective of leaders and persons working within their self-defined political authority. Richter’s premise was to re-envision the Iroquois’ creative adaptations to situations by highlighting what he calls “a double trio of geographical and cultural advantages”.
     By Richter’s own admission, the seventeenth and eighteenth century politics and policies of the Iroquois descended into a confusing array of system, people and points, all in flux. While he authored a survey of primary source materials, he sought to maintain the flavor of the thoughts and ideas of the Iroquois. Throughout, Richter stays true to making the voice of the Iroquois audible in his work.
To this end, this book is punctuated with 22 plates, 7 maps, methodological comments, 104 pages of notes and 26 pages of biographical information. At one point Richter labels his own work “slim” and “pedantic”. He could added “humble”. The Ordeal of the Longhouse is well paced, excellently reasoned and designed, while remaining accessible to the average reader.
     Richter's “slim” book is rich in detail, wonderful in exposition of the plight and firmness of the Iroquois culture against the wave of European forces arrayed against them. Richter weaves an excellent story of historical facts and apt observation and analysis.


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