Karen L. Marrero, Detroit's Hidden Channels: The Power of French-indigenous Families in the Eighteenth Century (Non-fiction)
Review by James LaForest

KAREN L. MARRERO, Detroit's Hidden Channels: The Power of French-indigenous Families in the Eighteenth Century, East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2020. ISBN: 9781611863598.

reviewed by James LaForest

The academic community and the French-Metis borderlands of Windsor-Detroit are fortunate to have a scholar such as Karen Marrero. She descends from the families of the complex early culture of French North America, of which colonial Detroit was a microcosm, and so she has a personal connection to that of which she writes. She has chosen to intelligently explore this culture in all of its complexity to the benefit of thousands of people whose ancestry is traced to the “ribbon farms” and “hidden channels” of Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River region. 

Dr. Marrero is not the first to address the early history of Detroit as a dynamic cultural phenomenon. She is part of an academic community of scholars such as Jay Gitlin, Guillaume Teasdale, Catherine Cangany, Susan Sleeper-Smith, Marcel Beneteau, and many others who have elevated this region’s story during the past 25 years. They illuminate the area’s importance as a French, French Canadian, and Metis economic, religious, diplomatic, and military presence in New France, Great Britain, and the United States of America, respectively, from the 17th through the 19th centuries. In addition to these contemporary scholars, independent scholars, genealogists, and local historians have steadily kept the story of Detroit from lapsing into obscurity since the late 19th century. 

With Detroit’s Hidden Channels: The Power of French-indigenous Families in the Eighteenth Century, Marrero sets out to explore the largely untold history of mixed French and Indigenous families that were part of the cultural fabric of seventeenth and eighteenth century Detroit. As a metaphor for the marginalized Metis families who were part of that cultural fabric, the title refers to the Chenail Ecarte, or hidden channel, a series of rivers and tributaries along Lake St. Clair and the Detroit River. This estuary is part of the “French River World,” the waterways of New France which were both the means and conveyance of trade in the colonial era. Just as the hidden channels were part of the cultural landscape, hidden identities were part of the social landscape. Families such as the Roy family were important to the development of early Detroit and the fur trade, but their contributions have often been overlooked by historians and genealogists. 

In her acknowledgements, the author states that she was not “fully aware until very recently that this book has two histories.” She is referring to the history that could be read in its pages, but also to her own personal history and the way the writing of the book changed her. That statement is amplified throughout the work, as it evolves from “an examination of the French and Indigenous families of eighteenth-century Detroit” to focus more specifically on the experiences of the women in those families and to examine historical documents, speeches, and personalities through the lens of gender. Ultimately, the compelling story of women in colonial Detroit seems hidden in the context of a Gender Studies critique. 

Indeed, Dr. Marrero’s work is as complicated as the history it seeks to uncover. Upon reflection, the work has the feel of a standard historical reading with a gendered overlay; it is almost as if a book was written and then rewritten to conform to more contemporary academic fashions, and there is less continuity between the two writings than one might expect. Examples of gender theory jargon appear unexpectedly, almost jarringly. For example, in explaining her intentions for chapter 2, Marrero writes that colonial French Detroit was a place that “allowed for the performance of a range of gendered behaviors by both men and women.” For some readers, such statements are less explanatory than they are opaque and distracting.  

Later, this idea is expanded with a discussion of breasts and breastfeeding. Marrero references historian Gilles Havard in claiming that French imperial records include many examples of the breast as a metaphor for imperial officials, representing succor and protection. The peace pipe, or calumet, is presented as a breast which was offered by the French for Indigenous men to suckle. Men become “father-nurturers,” while Cadillac “modeled both feminine and masculine characteristics in his efforts to keep his Indigenous allies ready for war.” Women become “markers of men’s rootedness,” utilizing “transecting gender norms available at Detroit.” Later, this process of men acting out female roles via “breasts” is referred to as a “metaphorical transgendered authority.” This is not history. It is gender theory, funded by the public purse. (Marrero is a professor of North American History at Wayne State University.) 

Conversely, Marrero provides good examples when presenting straightforward history. In chapter 4, she presents well the development of kin networks so important to the fur trade and political identities in the “Upper Country.” Further, she illustrates well how members of the kin networks had personal agency in conducting their affairs, not relying on officials to provide or mediate for them, and how this extended to all of the habitants who were often seen as operating outside the constraints of church and state. Marrero excels in fleshing out the roles of French, Indigenous, and Metis women as key players in trade and diplomacy.

This alone begs the question of why gender theory is necessary when history speaks so well for itself. Gender studies and linguistic analysis as found in this work impose modern interpretations onto historical figures. In so doing, contemporary academia removes the agency of Indigenous and female members of these societies, forcing them to speak through a metaphorical discourse understandable only to a few modern practitioners. It resembles a sort of role-playing that recasts our ancestors as unrecognizable caricatures created by modern theorists. There is much to admire in this book, but ultimately the jargon and theory stand out, undermine it, and will not resonate with most readers.