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'The Shawnees and the War for America,' by Colin G. Calloway

Despite the fact that American Indians have always been primary actors in the drama of American history, one major problem has been the absence of the Indian perspective in historical narrative. This is a special challenge for non-Indian historians of the colonial era, where few records of Native discourse exist.

In his new book, ''The Shawnees and the War for America,'' Colin G. Calloway rises to meet this challenge.

The Shawnees, an Eastern Woodlands people, originally occupied the region that is now Ohio, an area inhabited by Native people for thousands of years prior to European contact. They hunted along game trails as far south as Georgia, as far west as Missouri and east across Pennsylvania. For more than six decades, they engaged in a bitter struggle to protect these territories from white intrusion, and to preserve their culture and autonomy in the region.

The Shawnees began to disperse in 1648. Some migrated to the Southeast, settling in the territories of Georgia, South Carolina and Virginia. By the 18th century, they had formed a close relationship with the Creeks and were living side by side with them. In order to present a united front and strengthen defenses, they also forged complicated alliances with neighboring Southern tribes.

Others had moved into Pennsylvania, where they built large villages along the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers. These Shawnees, however, found relations with the British difficult, and soon began moving back toward Ohio. Their relationship with the French was much more equitable.

Calloway describes Shawnee political organization as ''loose,'' but characterizes their leaders as ''astute politicians and adept international diplomats.'' By the time they returned to Ohio, they had established an extensive network of allies among the Eastern Woodland tribes.

When trouble erupted between the English and French in the Ohio region, the Shawnees took the side of the French; however, Calloway contends that this was not an inevitable response. In the mid-1700s, they had forged an active commercial relationship with British traders, angering the French.

But when the French attempted to force an end to the association, the Shawnees reacted swiftly and fearlessly, letting them know in no uncertain terms that they would negotiate with anyone that pleased them. They also asked the British to help them in their efforts to retaliate against the French for attacking one of their villages. The British, however, refused the request, and by the mid-1700s, the Shawnees were once again allied with the French.

Like most tribes that stood in the imminent path of early European settlement, the Shawnees were preoccupied with preserving autonomy in their home regions and were less concerned about establishing long-term relationships with the white settlers. Calloway points out the great care they took in considering all of the political ramifications of conflicts that erupted between the Europeans. They then allied with the contender that would best serve the tribe's interests, but would switch their allegiance if the situation changed.

For that reason, they sided with the British in the American Revolution. Fully aware that the Americans would use their new freedom to occupy Indian lands, and promised protection by the British, their decision to side with England was purely pragmatic.

When the British handed over all territory east of the Mississippi, south of the Great Lakes and north of Florida to the Americans in 1783, the Shawnees' real struggle began. Viewing the tribe as ''subdued people,'' Americans demanded large tracts of land as a right of victory. According to Calloway, they regarded the Shawnee towns as ''lairs of renegades and terrorists,'' yet for the Indians, they were ''strongholds of freedom.''

Calloway asserts that the Shawnees were important leaders in an orchestrated and united defense against the early intrusive behavior of the United States. Even so, through battle after battle - some physical and some ideological - they were systematically forced off their lands and pushed farther and farther west. In the second half of the 19th century, they reorganized again in Indian Territory in the present state of Oklahoma.

Calloway ends with a brief discussion about the appropriate retelling of Native history and ponders the controversial question, ''Who should tell it?'' He cautions: ''When different historical experiences result from shared events, history becomes a contested ground where alternative versions of the past vie for supremacy, and where some people's voices struggle just to be heard.'' Although he is not Native himself, Calloway's book is a solid and dignified retelling of the history of the Shawnee Nation.

''The Shawnees and the War for America'' is the second volume of Viking Press' eight-volume series, ''The Penguin Library of American History,'' of which Calloway is the general editor. Each volume represents a work of outstanding scholarship by leading historians. This handsome set would make an excellent addition to any home library.