A Story of Native Persistence in the Great Lakes Region

History Professor Michael Witgen brings the success of the Anishinaabeg to life in his new book, “Seeing Red.”

Eve Glasberg
May 03, 2022

Against long odds, the Anishinaabeg, a group of culturally related Indigenous peoples in the Great Lakes region of the U.S. and Canada, resisted removal, retaining thousands of acres of their homeland in what is now Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. Their success rested partly on their roles as sellers of natural resources, and buyers of trade goods, which made them key players in the political economy of plunder that drove white settlement and U.S. development in the region.

But, as History Professor Michael Witgen demonstrates in his new book, Seeing Red, the credit for Native persistence rested with the Anishinaabeg themselves. Outnumbering white settlers well into the 19th century, they leveraged their political savvy to advance a dual citizenship that enabled mixed-race tribal members to lay claim to a place in U.S. civil society. Telling the stories of mixed-race traders and missionaries, tribal leaders and territorial governors, Witgen—a citizen of the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe—challenges our assumptions about the inevitability of U.S. expansion. 

Columbia News caught up with Witgen recently to ask him about Seeing Red, as well as what books he’s read lately, and what he reads when he’s writing.

Q. How did you come up with the idea for this book?

A. I felt there was a real gap in the historical literature about the history of Native peoples in the early American republic. Too often this history centers on Indian removal, and excludes the story of the many Indigenous nations that avoided removal, and fought for the preservation of their land and sovereignty as the republic expanded into territory west of the original 13 states in the Union.

Seeing Red by Columbia University Professor Michael Witgen

Q. Can you see lessons for the struggles of some mixed-race Americans today in the challenges of the mixed-race members of the Anishinaabeg that you write about in Seeing Red?

A. After the American Revolution, mixed-race Anishinaabeg had to fight to be included within the social contract of the republic as citizens. Until the 20th century, enrolled members of Indigenous nations were not automatically given U.S. citizenship. And yet, they also had to fight for their rights and status as Native peoples. Citizenship is no longer an issue for Anishinaabeg peoples, mixed-race or otherwise, but the fight to preserve Indigenous sovereignty continues.

Q. What books have you read lately that you would recommend, and why?

A. I read and taught Samantha Seeley’s Race, Removal, and the Right to Remain: Migration and the Making of the United States, a brilliant history of the early American republic. I also recently read Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, the 2021 Pulitzer Prize fiction winner, and a beautifully written story about her family’s fight resisting the U.S. government’s attempt to terminate the Turtle Mountain Ojibwe Reservation community in North Dakota in the mid-20th century.

Q. What do you read when you're working on a book, and what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?

A. I always read fiction when I am writing; it helps me to think about the craft of writing. There is not really anything I don’t read specifically when I am working on a project.

Q. What are you teaching this semester?

A. I am teaching a lecture class, The Battle for North America: An Indigenous History of the Seven Years’ War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812, and an undergraduate seminar, Indians and Empires in North America.

Q. You're hosting a dinner party. Which three academics or scholars, dead or alive, would you invite, and why?

A. I am inviting W.E.B. Du Bois, Trinidadian historian and journalist C.L.R. James, and Native American activist and writer Zitkala-sa, because I would love to get their collective take on the last decade or so of U.S. history and politics.