Manituana is based on the fascinating and true story of the Iroquois during the American War of Independence in the 1770s.
Its characters are drawn from that history, including the central figure of Joseph Bryant or Thayendanegea, a Mohawk. He is fluent in English and the languages of the Six Nations because his sister Molly was the “wife” of Sir William Johnson, the Irish superintendent of Indian affairs for the British Crown. Through him the cultures are straddled and through him the sorry tale is largely told.
As tensions mount in the run-up to the war, both sides court the Native Americans. Most of the Six Nations of the Longhouse ally themselves to the British, with whom they have signed treaties and who promise to protect them from the increasingly aggressive incursions into their territory by American settlers. But two Nations do not. As a result, Nation fights Nation in a white man’s war that was never going to bring the Iroquois anything but suffering and loss.
Manituana paints a vivid picture of life at the time and successfully weaves together the culture, traditions and particularly the languages of the Six Nations and the various European settlers living among them. It challenges many myths, showing, for example, that the brutality of the white settlers often surpassed the war rituals of the Iroquois.
The book is most powerful when Joseph Bryant joins a delegation that travels to London, hoping to secure support from King George III. While the delegation are being feted by polite society, the “Mohocks” of Soho – (impoverished Cockneys) write them a letter. They ask to be accepted as the Seventh Nation so that “the Indians of London and Westminster shall be granted hunting rights, from sunset to sunrise, on the left bank of the Thames, in the reserves between Hyde Park and Tower Hill”.
This letter, also a warning to Thayendanegea and company, is the heart of the novel.
“So-called honest men, in fact, see us as savages and like to attribute to us the most cruel misdeeds, before remembering us when they need cannon fodder.
“For a while we too were a proud and courageous people…but the honest men stole our land, and with it forests, trees, animals and waters, forcing our grandfathers to live in unhealthy districts and become servants…a fate that the English in America would also like to reserve for your people.”
For all its many strengths, the book doesn’t entirely work. Too often the narrative is interrupted or disturbed by diversions into Mohawk dreams and overly detailed descriptions of 18th century life or Iroquois culture. In many places the book wears its research heavily. Sometimes the politics are confusing or glib or naïïve. Perhaps this is the consequence of writing by committee – Manituana is the latest book by the collective of Italian autonomists known as Wu Ming (“anonymous” or “five names” in Mandarin) or Luther Blissett (for the novel Q). Perhaps the translation lets it down.
What is certain, however, is that Manituana introduces us to some extraordinary women and men from a little known chapter of history, which exposes the ever grubby and cruel nature of colonialism and capitalism.
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