Behind the Research: Elizabeth Ellis Illuminates Native American Histories

Written by
Princeton Alumni Weekly
Jan. 20, 2023

Assistant professor Elizabeth Ellis, the first specialist in Native American studies to join Princeton’s history department, describes her path to becoming a historian as “haphazard.” Growing up as a citizen of the Peoria Tribe of Indians of Oklahoma, she recalls, “I was familiar with one very specific narrative of Native American history” based on forced removal and assimilation. While attending college at Tulane University, she collaborated with members of the Pointe-au-Chien Tribe of Louisiana, who were applying for emergency support in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, as well as federal recognition as an independent nation.

The experience was revelatory: “I did not realize that there were tons of Native peoples who remained in Louisiana and the Southeast,” evading removal for hundreds of years, says Ellis. Her awakened interest in this topic led her to pursue a Ph.D. in history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Ellis' Work: A Sampling

Untold Histories

Ellis’ recent book, The Great Power of Small Nations: Indigenous Diplomacy in the Gulf South, examines Native nations in Louisiana, Mississippi, and eastern Texas during the 18th century. As she describes, these nations were “able to survive colonization, build really powerful polities and networks, and shape the development of the lower Mississippi Valley” throughout their early encounters with European settlers. Ellis argues that these nations relied on “incorporative political frameworks,” creating strong alliances with neighboring Native nations that allowed them to defend their territories collectively and evade forced removal and assimilation. Ellis mined archival records, Native oral histories, and archaeological evidence to create a rich portrait of these nations and their approach to diplomacy.

Read more at Princeton Alumni Weekly (PAW).

Photo Credit: Zoë McWhirter