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Indigenous Borderlands of the Americas

Indigenous Borderlands of the Americas

An International Symposium sponsored by the Center for the Study of the Southwest

Texas State University | San Marcos, Texas | April 6-7, 2018

Organized by Joaquín Rivaya-Martínez, Jones Professor of Southwestern Studies

Indiginous Borderlands Symposium Map Image

The expression “indigenous borderlands” has both geopolitical and sociocultural connotations. It refers to those regions, within and beyond colonial frontiers and state boundaries, where independent and semiautonomous indigenous groups interacted significantly with people of European descent prior to the displacement, extermination, or incorporation of the former into modern states. In indigenous borderlands, native peoples exerted significant power, often retaining control of the land and being paramount agents of cultural transformation. Conversely, European conquests were typically slow and incomplete, as the newcomers, operating sometimes in a climate of violence that hindered peaceful coexistence, struggled to assert jurisdictions and implement policies designed to subjugate aboriginal societies and change native beliefs and practices. Indeed, numerous indigenous groups throughout the world remain politically autonomous, culturally distinct, and largely unincorporated to this day. Covering a wide chronological and geographical span, from Colonial Yucatán to twentieth-century Bolivia, this symposium explores the manifold ways in which natives across the Americas resisted and adapted to the intrusion of people of European descent to preserve their political autonomy and their cultural identity, thus shaping the indigenous borderlands of the Western Hemisphere.


Geoffrey Wallace
McGill University

Beeswax Extraction in the Borderland Forests of Colonial Yucatán

This paper reconstructs colonial Yucatán’s beeswax collection from primary and secondary sources. Despite constituting an important part of the colony’s economy, the harvesting of wax from wild melipona beehives remains poorly understood and under-researched. In what little literature is available it is characterized as an intensification of a pre-colonial activity whose fundamental characteristics remained largely unchanged during the colonial period. This paper challenges that notion, arguing that wax collection in colonial Yucatán should be thought of in the same vein as other intensive, forest-related economic activities that took place in American borderlands, altering patterns of movement and economic activity, and placing ecological strain on indigenous landscapes.

Melipona bees were (and remain) an important component in the patchwork of cultivated fields, succession, and mature forest commonly referred to as the Maya agricultural ‘mosaic.’ Their honey and wax was gathered both opportunistically in the wild and from hives maintained in villages. The early colonial period saw a dramatic rise in the demand for beeswax, leading to the commodity’s incorporation into tribute schedules and, later, the illegal but widely practiced repartimiento system of coercive commerce between Spanish office-holders and Mayas. Spatializing of data from archival sources in GIS indicates that this had the effect of thoroughly integrating the colony’s heavily forested southeastern borderlands into the Mexican silver economy. Several documents from the late seventeenth century indicate that this was putting some bee populations under pressure. Scientific and ethnographic research by other scholars sheds some light into the ways in which this could have been the case.

In addition to shedding light on a topic that has seen very little, this paper contributes to the historiographical trend of understanding colonization as a process that can transform landscapes (specifically, borderlands) far beyond the sight or even conception of colonizers, spurring significant changes in already-complex interrelationships between humans, insects, and forests.

Shawn M. Austin
University of Arkansas

“Indios Fronterizos” and the Spanish-Guaraní Militias in Seventeenth-Century Paraguay

Frontier dynamics in Paraguay were a crucial catalyst for creating a lasting Spanish-Guaraní colonial community. From the conquest era (1535-1556), Spaniards and Guaraní embarked on joint expeditions to engage the non-sedentary Guaicurú of the Gran Chaco, a territory so inhospitable that Spaniards believed that the land itself had conspired with Guaicurú to keep colonials from settling and conquering it. If they were not before the Spanish arrived, Chaco groups became the most dominant power in Paraguay. Guaicurú perceived of Spanish-Guaraní Paraguay as an unwilling tribute-paying population or, to put it simply, as slaves. They raided or traded with Paraguayan populations almost seasonally. Spanish officials responded to the Guaicurú threat by constructing a series of forts that dotted the shores of the Paraguay River and organized a militia composed of Spanish vecinos and Guaraní soldiers from Franciscan pueblos, secular pueblos, and select Jesuit reducciones. While the militias of the Jesuit reducciones have received scholarly attention, almost no historical work has been done on the hundreds of Guaraní soldiers from the non-Jesuit pueblos in the Asunción orbit. This unsegregated militia, composed of Spaniards and Guaraní, was the backbone of colonial defenses in the region. Unlike the militias of the Jesuit reducciones, which were used to achieve independence from the Spanish encomienda, the militias I analyze in this chapter brought Spaniards and Guaraní into great interdependence, strengthening the ties of “relatedness” or cuñadasgo that initially brought them together in the sixteenth century. This paper contributes to ongoing debates about the social meaning and political significance of “indios conquistadores” and the non-Spanish militias that sustained Spanish provinces throughout the Americas.

Jesse Zarley
Macalester College

“Huinca coyang:” Rethinking Mapuche-Spanish Parlamentos in Late Bourbon Chile

The interethnic treaty negotiations between the Mapuche people and the Spanish along the southern frontier of the Captaincy General of Chile known as parlamentos, koyagtun or huinca coyang, represent a quintessential case study of European-indigenous frontier diplomacy in colonial Latin America. Since the first parlamento in 1641, Spanish chroniclers and historians from the nineteenth century to the present have treated the events as everything from expensive wasteful parties and sources of indigenous acculturation to a strategy for Spanish surveillance of the Mapuche. Instead, this paper discusses the largest and most expensive parlamento, which took place in 1793, to argue how ritual treaty negotiations represented both processes and events. It examines Spanish military and ecclesiastical correspondence dating back to 1792 to reveal the tense internal diplomacy carried out by rival Mapuche leaders to host a parlamento. This analysis shows how parlamentos required, and were embedded in, networks of communication that stretched well beyond the Spanish-Mapuche frontier, and spanned most of the southern third of Chile and western Río de la Plata.

Paul Conrad

The Specter of Apache Runaways and the Afro-Indigenous Borderlands of Colonial Cuba

Borderlands were not confined to continental interiors or the edges of European empires. Stories of Apache runaways in late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century Cuba provide a vivid illustration. Spanish officials transported Apaches to the island after 1783 as prisoners of war, where they distributed them to labor in individual homes, plantations, hospitals, and public works projects. Transport to Cuba did not necessarily end their resistance to imperial aims, however. Throughout the 1790s, residents in the countryside west of Havana claimed that bands of runaway “Indios feroces,” including people believed to be Apaches, rustled livestock, burned fields, and committed dozens of murders. For years, these Indian runways—sometimes observed together with black maroons—eluded capture. The concern, interest, and debate surrounding the runaways far exceed their real threat or impact, however. Both the specter and reality of Apache escapes and interactions with enslaved Africans reveal the degree to which imperial sovereignty was contested—or feared to be contested—in a place not usually thought of as a “periphery,” “frontier,” or “borderland.” This case study raises questions about the geography of borderlands studies, and where we as scholars have conventionally looked for examples of plural or contested sovereignties.

Gary Van Valen
University of West Georgia

Indigenous People and the New Mexican Land Rush of 1815-25

In this paper, I will examine the impact on New Mexico’s indigenous people of a “land rush” that occurred under late Spanish and early Mexican rule. A portion of New Mexico’s Hispano elite became interested in new Spanish liberal theories of private landownership and began contesting Pueblo Indian land rights in 1815. Under the administration of locally-born Jefe Político (Governor) Bartolomé Baca (1823-25), a small group of the elite also acquired extensive lands on New Mexico’s eastern frontier, affecting both genízaro and Plains Indian use of resources, while continuing to seek access to Pueblo lands. Although the rush came to an end with Baca’s term of office, it had a lasting effect on New Mexican land tenure and set a pattern that would be repeated decades later.

Erick Langer
Georgetown University

Do Frontier Indians Have Land Rights? The Case of “Tierras Baldías” and Indigenous Integration in the Bolivian Lowlands, in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

This paper explores how the Chiriguanos of Bolivia dealt with their land tenure claims, and reveals the existence of the different types of land tenure among indigenous villagers and criollo hacendados on the Chiriguano frontier of the Andean foothills and the Chaco. The neat thing is that it is much more complicated than it appears and provides even "savages" with more rights than we had thought, even on such a violent and confrontational frontier such as that of the Andean foothills and the Chaco.

Cynthia Radding
University of North Carolina

Reading Cultural Landscapes through Interdisciplinary Perspectives

This paper discusses the historical construction of landscapes in the borderlands of northwestern Mexico, with a particular focus on the colonial Province of Ostimuri, bounded by the Yaqui, Mayo, and Fuerte rivers. It presents original research in historical archives, analyzed in the context of archaeological, ecological, and ethnographic literatures, to explain the formation of this space as a region and to explore both the vulnerabilities and the resilience of its peoples. Within this multi-disciplinary framework, the paper considers critically different methods of analysis and types of archival and non-textual evidence that contribute to the re-construction of historical processes of colonial encounter and cultural re-creation.