Faculty Author Q&A: Elizabeth Ellis on “The Great Power of Small Nations”

February 25, 2023

Elizabeth Ellis is Assistant Professor of History. Her book “The Great Power of Small Nations: Indigenous Diplomacy in the Gulf South” was published in October 2022 by University of Pennsylvania Press.

How did you get the idea for this project?

This project emerged from my collaborative work with the Pointe-au-Chien Indian Tribe of Louisiana between 2006 and 2010. In that era, I was living in New Orleans, and this Native nation was applying to the federal government for recognition. Because the Pointe-au-Chien’s ancestors evaded removal and did not sign treaties with the United States, their people did not have nation-to-nation relationships with the United States. So, today, they do not have the same rights or protections for their people or lands as someone like myself, who is a citizen of a federally recognized tribal nation, does. As part of their application process, they had to write a history of their people and provide the Bureau of Indian Affairs with abundant archival evidence detailing this history. That’s where I came in. I am Peoria, not Pointe-au-Chien, but I have long been committed to supporting the rights of Native peoples, and in this case I could help be doing archival research. My task was to find colonial documents that would help us understand the early history of the region and the many different Indigenous peoples who lived in the lands that are now Louisiana and Mississippi. As I worked through the archives, I found incredible stories of Native power, Indigenous innovation, and the survival of Native American nations were unlike anything I had heard of. In part, I ended up writing this book because I wanted to understand how these small, southern, Native nations could possibly have been so powerful during the eighteenth century.

How has your project developed or changed throughout the research and writing process?

My research was initially only focused on early Pointe-au-Chien history, but I quickly realized there was a much bigger story about Indigenous power and survival hidden in these archives. So, instead of just focusing on 20th century federal recognition, or on only one Native nation, the Great Power of Small nations examines the early histories of more than 10 different Native nations, and it explains how Native Americans fundamentally shaped colonial Louisiana and the Gulf South writ large.

What questions for future investigation has the project sparked?

While working in these archives, I became very interested in Native American paintings and tattoos, so I’m now working on a project on the meanings of Indigenous imagery and art in early North America.

Why should people read this book?

If you want to understand Indigenous history beyond removal, and you’re interested in how Native people influenced empires and nations in early America, this book answers some of those questions. Too often we imagine that Native experiences are homogenous, that Native people were powerless when they confronted European settlers, or that these stories all end with forced dispossession or death. This history unearths another, less well known story or Indigenous resilience, savvy diplomacy, and innovation that enabled Native southerners to remain in their homelands despite centuries of colonial challenges.

Learn more about other publications by Princeton University faculty in the humanities by exploring our Faculty Bookshelf.

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