Michael Witgen’s “Seeing Red: Race, Citizenship, and Indigeneity in the Old Northwest” has won the 2019 Ralph D. Gray Article Prize from the Journal of the Early Republic. Named for the founding editor of the Journal of the Early Republic, the Ralph D. Gray Article Prize recognizes the finest piece of scholarship printed in its pages during the previous volume. In a competitive field, the prize committee, including Tyson Reeder (chair), Christina Snyder, and James Lewis, found that Witgen’s essay excelled because of its originality, deep research, and insightful analysis.
Witgen draws on a wide range of primary material in government documents, mission records, personal papers, and newspapers. The essay is also an outstanding piece of historical writing—a fascinating story well told. Centering on the case of Chigawaasking, who murdered a fur trader of mixed ancestry, Witgen exposes how the United States tried to surmount its tenuous power in the Old Northwest and impose authority and colonial rule. Although Chigawaasking’s victim descended from mixed ancestry, U.S. courts ruled that the case fell outside their jurisdiction because the culprit and victim were both Indians. Ultimately, Chigawaasking “got away with murder,” in Witgen’s words, acquitted on a technicality. But the deceptively simple technicality revealed a vast array of conflicting interests and power disputes in the Old Northwest. The case unmasked the myth of settler colonialism as a process of Indian assimilation and revealed it as a precarious process of Indian removal stunted by Indigenous regional dominance. Anishinaabe bands continued to exercise considerable power, and territorial officials could not risk alienating them. Witgen reveals, therefore, the paradox that U.S. officials accommodated Indigenous regional power while simultaneously perpetuating the racist assumptions that undergirded colonialism. He deftly integrates the region’s rapid changes within a longer chronological context, helping readers reconcile Indigenous resilience with the persistence of U.S. settler colonialism.
Many thanks to the prize committee members for their hard work in selecting Witgen’s article and in drafting this citation.