Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)




Joshua Piker

Committee Member

Paull Mapp

Committee Member

Kathleen Bragdon

Committee Member

Jenny Pulsipher


A Meaningful Subjection: Coercive Inequality and Indigenous Political Economy in the Colonial Eastern Woodlands, 1000-1650 A.D., offers an interpretation of Indigenous- European relationships in eastern North American during first contact and early settlement as significantly informed by Indigenous political economy. A Meaningful Subjection analyzes underemphasized features of early-historic period Indigenous politics, such as jurisdiction over the corporal and capital punishment of thieves, traitors, and adulterers, and contextualizes them within more well-understood features of Indigenous economies, such as prestige good inequalities. My primary contribution is an assessment of the structuring influence coercive Indigenous inequalities exercised upon historical developments such as: the reception of early European explorers; the formation of imperial strategy; the subsistence of early English colonies; the adoption of European material culture by Indigenous elites; and the creation of diplomatic relationships between settler and Indigenous polities. I begin A Meaningful Subjection (Chapter 1) by analyzing excavated Late Woodlands village sites and burials, evaluating the evidence for political structure and material inequality within precontact eastern woodlands societies. This chapter then surveys the documentary record produced in the first half-millennium of contact (ca. 1000-1585) between Europe and North America and compares the reported evidence of coercive kingdoms throughout the east coast against the archeological record, concluding for the general veracity of these reports. Moving then across the Atlantic (Chapter 2), I analyze the European reception of contact reports and their integration into plans for empire. Here, I argue that European intellectuals called upon a specific, Latin-derived vocabulary to describe coercive authority and territorial jurisprudence outside of mass- scale, depersonalized polities: the terminology of diminutive kingship. This chapter concludes with an analysis of how diminutive kingship was seen as a strategic vulnerability in the political geography of North America. The following three chapters all return to the eastern woodlands to survey the historical implications of the reality of coercive Indigenous polities and their recognition by Europeans. The first of these (Chapter 3) analyzes early settlement efforts in the Chesapeake and interprets that region as one in which colonization schemes of Europeans experienced relative struggle due to encounters with unanticipated regimes. Englishmen in the Southeast arrived woefully unprepared, both intellectually and materially, to confront the centralized Powhatan polity, and their colony succeeded only after that polity was splintered into more easily manipulated units. Settlement was more easily accomplished in New England, as my final chapter (Chapter 4) demonstrates, where small-scale coercive polities already predominated. In both New England and in post-Powhatan Virginia, Englishmen were able to rapidly construct diplomatic relationships with Indigenous groups which were then violently mobilized against those —both in-group members and foreign enemies—who resisted the new settlers. Across the eastern seaboard, English colonies took root in North America on the back of coercive Indigenous regimes.


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Available for download on Monday, August 27, 2029