By Zig Misiak
The Star-Spangled Banner is the national anthem of the United States. It was written during the War of 1812, a war I learned about in grade school. I was taught then that the US was involved in a heroic (though ironic) Battle of New Orleans, that the US capital was burned, that Dolly Madison was brave and that the English impressed American sailors from American ships. Zig Misiak’s War of 1812: Highlighting Native Nations doesn’t mention any of these events. He describes a different war. Mr. Misiak is Canadian, and the Canadian experience was distinct from the one I learned about. Both the narrative I learned as a child and Mr. Misiak’s book are accurate, and yet so dissimilar. That’s the most interesting lesson I took from this book: a reminder that information is dependent on perspective.
War of 1812: Highlighting Native Nations is a beautiful book. It is filled with high-quality color photos that constitute a virtual tour through history, Canadian history, and the flip side of US history. Although this book was written for students, I found it engaging and enlightening. I read it in two stages. The first was a cursory review of the pictures and captions. It’s hard to resist these and so I just enjoyed myself. Then I went back to read in detail Mr. Misiak’s description of events.
This is when the lesson on perspective truly hit home. For example, Mr. Misiak speaks about the United States’ “perceived violations of American sovereignty”. Certainly England thought it had a right to institute a blockade and interfere with ships in international waters (that is, stop and board neutral vessels). It would not be the first or last nation to do this. But the fact that it was done and that a US ship was fired upon, is more than a perception. Mr. Misiak describes the United States’ ambition, and aggression, in seeking to absorb Canada. That is a fact, one that was glossed over in the history I was taught. And generally omitted in my history classes was the role of indigenous Americans and their alliance with Britain in the hope of securing an independent nation west of the Mississippi.
Indigenous Americans, Canadians, and the British fought side by side during the war. The British shared with their indigenous allies the desire to stop American expansion by creating an indigenous buffer state on the US frontier. Many Canadians died defending their homeland, as did many indigenous Americans, including the legendary Tecumseh.
The war ended with the US and Britain each declaring victory. The British agreed to respect US naval neutrality and the US abandoned its ambition to take over Canada. Besides the loss of life and devastation of property, the losers in the war were indigenous Americans. With the signing of the peace treaty, US expansion beyond the Mississippi was insured and the slow, unrelenting erosion of indigenous sovereignty proceeded.
Mr. Misiak has a gentle voice, which is consistent with his respect for people of the First Nations (a term used to describe the indigenous people of Canada). It is obvious that Mr. Misiak has cultivated a relationship with representatives of the First Nations and that he wishes to share their legacy and struggle for Constitutional rights. His book, War of 1812: Highlighting Native Nations, would be a worthy addition to any library, especially if young readers have access to that library.
A. G. Moore, September 2016