Colonial Encounters, European Kettles, and the Magic of Mimesis in the Early Sixteenth and Late Seventeenth Century Indigenous Northeast and Great Lakes


Copper kettles, in high demand among indigenous communities of the Northeast/Great Lakes, became prominent items in the exchange repertoires of early Basque, French and Dutch traders. Kettles’ origin with these “Others” and its connection to a medium (copper) that had held symbolic significance for millennia led them to be used in an indigenous ‘metaphorical’ value regime influencing trade during the late sixteenth/early seventeenth century. An artisan living on the threshold of colonial encounter in Northern Michigan between 1470 and 1660 CE—having seen European goods but not having access to them—harnessed the mimetic faculty to make a small, miniature, ceramic imitation or skeuomorph of a European trade kettle. Rather than the sincerest form of flattery, I suggest this imitation was made to acquire the power of the original to fend off the colonial danger and to connect to this symbolic value regime. I suggest the “magic” of mimesis offered personal and organizational power in the indigenous Northeast/Great Lakes during early contact. This specific case speaks more broadly to how mimesis can provide a robust framework for exploring the material cultures of colonial encounter.


Earth Systems Research Center, Anthropology

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International Journal of Historical Archaeology



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© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011