Cultural Brokers: Exploring the Complexities of Historical Encounters

All too often, we are led to understand history in terms of the clash of monolithic political and cultural bodies, like states and civilizations. We assume, for example, that the conquest of the Americas was a zero-sum struggle pitting Europeans against indigenous peoples, Spaniards against Arawaks, Aztecs and Incas; Dutch against the Delaware Nation; English against Pequots; and the French against the Kickapoo in the part of the country where I live.


An Aztec representation of smallpox from what is popularly known as the “Florentine codex” to refer to the best preserved copy of “The Universal History of the Things of New Spain” by a Spanish friar and a team of Aztec assistants, compiled between 1545 and 1590 and written in both Spanish and Nuatal, a native tongue of Mexico. Were these, both Spanish and native authors, “cultural brokers”?

There is no underestimating the horrors and devastation wrought upon native peoples by the advent of European conquest and settlement. What historians call the “demographic collapse” killed around 80% of the indigenous population of the Americas between, roughly, 1500 and 1650 CE. That is almost impossible to digest. Latin America would only regain its fifteenth-century population by the 20th century, and that after a couple of centuries of migration from Europe. Most of these people died as a result of disease, most notably smallpox, which Europeans brought from Europe. Native Americans had none of the immunities that Europeans, Asians, and Africans had built up over millennia of migration, trade, and all the other social and economic vehicles which inevitably bring pathogens in their wake.

Some people call this genocide or biological warfare on a continental scale. There is some truth to those claims. During Pontiac’s War (1763-1766), the British deliberately sent contaminated blankets to their Delaware rivals.

However, history does not unfold in such a black-and-white, them-against-them manner. I know it is cliche and sometimes a way of avoiding realities, but “it’s complicated”.

The curious role of “cultural brokers” points a beam of light through some of the “cracks” in cultural encounters and illuminates their complexity. “Cultural broker” is a term used to describe people who functioned at the interstices between between groups at moments of encounter. They are conduits, mediators, and usually begin their careers as linguistic experts, translating from one tongue to another. The kinds of encounters that brought first nations (the indigenous people of the Americas) face to face with Europeans required such individuals. Even in event of a violent encounter, some kind of accommodation had to eventually be reached. Who but a translator could help facilitate such an exchange? Eventually, such translators were translating more than languages. They functioned as political, social, and cultural translators or, better yet, as brokers.


From a statue of Dona Marina in Mexico City. The statue includes figures of Cortez and their son Martin Cortez and has caused some controversy among residents of Mexico City.

The history of the encounters between Europeans and indigenous peoples in the Americans is chock full of such figures. They are often people one might not expect to carry such enormous political and cultural weight: outcasts, individuals of mixed heritage, women. One of the most famous is Doña Marina also known as La Malinche or Mallinali (d. 1529), a Nahua woman of the Gulf Coast of Mexico who was an interpreter, advisor, and mistress to the Spanish conquistador Hernan  Cortez. Their son is considered by some to be the first mestizo, or person of mixed native and European blood. Doña Marina played a critical role in the Spanish conquest of Mexico, a fact that has made her a controversial historical figure. For the Spanish settlers, however, she was unequivocally a heroine (attested to by the reverential title “Doña”). Contemporary Mexicans are divided: was she a founder of Mexico or a traitor to her people?

Being a “cultural broker” is no easy task and requires balancing a host of conflicting interests, maybe even with the person herself.

Margaret Connell Szasz edited a volume on cultural brokers in the Americas titled SzaszBetweenIndianWhiteWorldsBetween Indian and White Worlds: The Cultural Broker (Norman and Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994). She articulates the importance of the cultural broker thus: “Cultural intermediaries have contributed to the history of North America in significant, albeit unheralded, ways. Moving among the diverse peoples of the continent, they have breached language barriers, clarified diplomatic understandings, softened potential conflict, and awakened that commonality of spirit shared by the human race. Across the centuries, from the colonial era to the present, they have endured hostility as well as danger, but their persistent curiosity about “the other side” has given them the incentive to thrive on that super sensory awareness necessary for moving between and among different worlds. They have stepped outside, while others have remained within.” (21)

Some of these brokers were native, as among the Pueblo of New Mexico when confronting Spanish settlers in the 17th century. In the 18th century, contests between the Iroquois  Confederacy and the British and the French led to the emergence of the skilled interpreter of mixed heritage, Andrew Montour. In southern New England at roughly the same time, English pressure on the Algonquian-speaking peoples led the rise of Samson Occom, who helped his people adapt to the European presence and thus preserve some degree of autonomy.

I subjected my students to a very dense article on this very subject which, again, sheds light on the complexities of the colonial encounter. “Cultural Brokers and Intercultural Politics: New York-Iroquois Relations, 1664-1701:” (Journal of American History, Vol. 75: 1 (June 1988), Vol. 75, 40-67). Richter makes the broad historiographical point that the study of American colonial history is caught between two distinct trends, each valuable in its own way. On the one hand there are “community” studies which stress “the minutiae of everyday social interaction” and, on the other, the “North American perspective” which “sees the continent as the grand stage for the interaction of Indian, European, and African cultures.” (40) Richter is interested in seeing how the two perspectives might be synthesized to offer a picture that is at once true to local realities while, at the same time, connected to wider developments. Mediators, he finds, live at the nexus of the local and global. The provide for nodes of communication between worlds.

Richter focuses on relations between the English and the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy in New York during the latter half of the 17th century. Looked at exclusively from the point of view of great power politics, the fate of the Iroquois in alliance with the English against the French in the 1670s and 1680s appears as one of unmitigated disaster for the Iroquois. However, looked at more closely, the large scale alliances are revealed to have depended on a complex web of dealings between native communities and between European communities and, conversely, an array of rivalries between native communities as well as rivalries between European groups. Only skilled brokers could navigate these treacherous political and cultural waters.


This French reproduction of Iroquois pictographs illustrates native conceptions of political brokerage. Here the Bear Clan speaks across a council fire to the Turtle Clan. From Richter, “Cultural Brokers”, 62.

This story has many chapters and I will limit my comments here to the central role played by a Dutch community, living under English rule in and around Albany, and a group of Iroquois bands. All these communities lived on shifting borders between the French-dominated north (around Quebec) and the English-dominated area of what is today New York state. The fate of the Dutch community was shaped by a coterie of local Dutch cultural brokers who tied their fortunes to those of the English. The premier Dutch figure in this project was a Peter Schuyler (d. 1724) who got himself appointed as a deputy to the English governor at the time. He ran up against members of an older Dutch community who resisted English control. As Schuyler’s group ascended, they become key intermediaries between the Iroquois nations and the English. The Dutch “anglicizers” were aided in this effort by an interpreter named Hilletie, a woman of mixed Mohawk and Dutch parentage. “By 1680, her bicultural background and linguistic talents had come to the attention of the Albany anglicizers, who could always use someone fluent in both Dutch and Mohawk. Although her twin handicaps as a woman and a metis [the offspring of European and native parents] prevented her from ever becoming an equal to [her Dutch counterparts], Hilletie possessed the ideal credentials to mediate between Dutch anglicizers and Iroquois anglophiles, and by the early 1690s the province was regularly paying her a salary for her services.” (53)

What is the use of a term like “European” when we are speaking of members of the Dutch community who are divided into pro- and anti-English factions while the French and the British are at each other’s throats?

And what of the Iroquois? They were divided into three factions, anglophiles, francophiles, and neutralists. In the end, the outcome of relationships between the Iroquois and the English depended, at least from the Iroquois perspective, on the result of internal, inter-Iroquois, political struggles. Key to this maneuvering was an an alliance between Dutch anglicizers and Iroquois anglophiles facilitated by cultural brokers like Schuyler and Hilletie.

In the end, the Iroquois and the Dutch were deeply involved in a continental war. When the war between the French and the British ended, however, the Iroquois were marginalized. Their English and Dutch allies turned their attention elsewhere. This, in turn, led to the breakdown of the brokerage system.

Concludes Richter, “The rise and fall of the late seventeenth-century Anglo-Iroquois alliance and of the political factions and mediators who helped create it illustrate the complexities of interactions among the people and polities of colonial North America. Neither a focus on monolithic European empires and Indian tribes or on isolated localities can fully convey the texture of colonial history, nor can the empires and the localities be understood apart from one another. All colonial Americans– Indian, European, and African– lived in ‘little communities’… A faithful reconstruction of the larger whole that the native and European peoples of early America shared, therefore, requires simultaneous attention to the broad North American context, to the internal dynamics of local communities, and to links between the two levels of experience. The Albany anglicizers and the Iroquois anglophiles exemplify those links. As members of local political networks and as brokers between their communities and the outside world, they struggled and allied with imperial officials and with similar individuals elsewhere to serve the interests of their compatriots, their particular political factions, and themselves. Their behavior in the small-scale politics of their little communities shaped the global imperial struggle during the late seventeenth century.” (66-67)

It goes without saying the phenomenon of “cultural brokers” and of the intersection of local and global history that they represent is of consequence to many other parts of the world. In the part of the world that I study, I am immediately reminded of the role played by “eastern” Christian dragomen (translators) of late Ottoman period. Or, perhaps of the ulama  and ayan of Arabo-Islamic history who often mediated between the central state, often in the hands of Turkish overlords, and the native Arab urban population. Albert Hourani famously dubbed this “the politics of notables”.

Can you think of other examples of “cultural brokers”?


About Steve Tamari

Ever since I was a child I wanted to blog. Here goes. I have crossed many borders and boundaries. My father is from Jaffa, Palestine and my mother is from Little Rock, Arkansas. We lived in the United States, Algeria, East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), and Haiti as I was growing up. Since then, I've lived in Greece, France, Palestine/Israel, Syria, Germany, Lebanon, and, now, southern Illinois. I study the Middle East and Islam and I live in the Midwest on the edge of the Bible Belt. I am a Quaker (and a pacifist) and I am attached to my students, many of whom serve(d) in the military. There are other contradictions and ambiguities in my life and in our world that I want to explore here. Please give me your feedback.
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One Response to Cultural Brokers: Exploring the Complexities of Historical Encounters

  1. glcraig says:

    A really interesting post, Steve. I hadn’t heard the term “cultural broker” before, but I’m on the lookout for figures like that in my own research and writing. (I write historical novels and have one about the impact, at the individual level, of the conquistadors coming to stay in pueblo country.)
    Gretchen Craig

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