Exchange: The Culture of Things

The landscape of the Global Heartland is marked by artifacts of past and present systems of exchange: grain elevators, railways and roads, crossroad villages passed up by development, abandoned factories, gleaming office buildings and shopping malls. Before Europeans arrived, the region’s lakes and rivers were part of a system of trade that linked American Indians communities across the continent. European settlers turned Indian trails into carriage roads, and into later railways, in order to solve a problem of exchange: how to get wheat, corn, and livestock from the frontier farm to the market. They also developed a system of trading farm produce that would revolutionize diets the world over.

Along with the exchange of things and money comes the exchange of ideas and culture. Early French traders brought Jesus Christ to Native Americans along with their iron pots, guns, and wool blankets. Some Indians converted to Christianity, some rejected it, and others incorporated elements of Christian theology into their own spiritual practices. Early maps and tales of travel to the region often included images of local plants and animals descriptions of how Indians survived in North American, satisfying the demand in Europe for information about Indians and shaping the ways European settlers would imagine their interaction with their new home. In a different way, documents of the early twentieth century labor movement suggest the exchange of ideas about organizing between immigrant and American-born union activists.

These cultural exchanges were not always made between equal partners. Some buyers and sellers bring additional clout to the market. The French had firearms; commodity traders could count on a glut of wheat at harvest time as farmers rushed to cash in and settle their debts. The inequality of cultural and economic exchange has driven a number of political and social movements for reform in the Global Heartland, at times linking groups that would otherwise remain separate into communities of struggle that reshaped the terms of trade.

Related Images

Fur trade contract between François Francoeur and four voyageurs for transport of goods and purchase of beaver pelts in Michilimackinac and Chicago, 1692, Rudy Lamont Ruggles Collection, Newberry Library.

“The Garment Workers’ Strike,” International Socialist Review 16:5 (November 1915), 260.

William Henry Jackson, “Columbia Avenue in Manufactures Building, 1893 World’s Fair,” in Jackson’s Famous Pictures of the World’s Fair (Chicago: White City Art Co., 1895).

Borders | Environment | Community | Exchange | Power | Histories

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