Historical analyses produced by scholars dealing with Native-colonial1 encounters in the Americas have taken many shapes and forms, including socio-cultural, Marxian, and borderlands, to name a few. The last one, the borderlands perspective, is usually an imperialistic narrative that describes how one European power or another dealt with what they perceived as their frontiers. However, an emerging historical analytical framework takes a closer look at Native-colonial borderlands and considers indigenous responses to European intrusions, highlighting Native geopolitics2 and territoriality.3 With that in mind, the following comparative essay analyzes two North American indigenous borderlands of the early contact period between 1530-1750—the Caddo in the Piney Woods of what is now East Texas and the Iroquois in the upper Northeastern Woodlands of what is today the state of New York4—and argues that indigenous societies used geopolitical knowledge to assert territoriality despite European claims to lands they did not physically control.
First, a brief discussion on what is meant by borderlands is necessary to understand the analytical process used here. In their influential essay, “From Borderlands to Borders; Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History” (1999), Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron revived the notion of borderlands that was pioneered by the historian Herbert Eugene Bolton in the early part of the twentieth century. Looking at the American Southwest, Bolton introduced the Spanish borderlands as a model of American historical interpretation. Although romanticized and Hispanocentric, Bolton’s approach looked not from east-to-west, but rather, from south-to north, countering the preeminent historian Frederick Jackson Turner’s triumphalist “Frontier Thesis” interpretation of American history.5 By the 1980s, historians like Patricia Limerick responded to the “Frontier Thesis” and initiated the “new western history” movement that argued with Turner by emphasizing race, class, gender, and the environment, all of which had been seriously overlooked by Turner and his followers.6
What’s important for our purposes here is that the reformulation of Western history breathed new life into Bolton’s Spanish borderlands. As Aron and Adelman state:
Bolton’s concept of the Spanish borderlands appreciated the extended cohabitation between natives and newcomers that prevailed on the perimeters of European colonial empires. Picking up on this insight, recent historians have substituted “borderland” for all of North America’s “frontiers” and, in doing so, have enriched our understanding of the complexity and contingency of intercultural relations. Instead of straightforward conquests, the history of North American borderland-frontiers has been rewritten to emphasize the accommodations between invaders and indigenes and the hybrid residuals of these encounters.7
Despite the divergence among scholars over the definition of the terms frontiers, borders, and borderlands, Aron and Adelman concur that a frontier is “a meeting place of peoples in which geographic and cultural borders were not clearly defined,” and that borderlands are “the contested boundaries between colonial domains.”8 Adding to Aron and Adelman, the working definition for borderlands in this essay expands beyond “colonial domains” to include the territorial claims made by indigenous societies.
A brief note on the sources is also necessary. The idea of Native-centric geopolitics is a relatively new paradigm; therefore, the historiography that explores the borderlands from this perspective is scant. As a result, the basis for my analysis is limited to those sources as well as my interpretation of the older ones, and, to some degree, what follows is partially conceptual. Borrowing from feminist Chicana scholar, Emma Pérez, the following essay draws on her “decolonial imaginary” process which she describes as being “intangible” and filled with “fragmented realities, that are ‘real’, but a real that is in question.”9
THE CADDOAN BORDERLAND
The European encounter with the Americas inaugurated one of the, if not the, most significant event in human history. Whether operating under the blessing of royal polities, sponsored by wealthy individuals, or chartered by trading companies, Europeans initiated multiple efforts to bring the vast spaces and peoples of the Americas under their hegemony immediately after contact. In the mid sixteenth century, after successfully subduing the peoples of the Caribbean, Central Mexico, and parts of South America with the help of their indigenous allies,10 the Spanish began exploring the northern frontier of the land they now called New Spain.11
Ambitious adventurers, like Francisco Vásquez de Coronado y Luján, made the first penetrations into what is now the U.S. Southwest in 1540 in order to confirm rumors of the existence of wealthy cities rivaling those of Mexico’s Tenochtitlan…
1Capitalizing the term “Native” has become acceptable in academic literature when it refers to Native Americans and will be used throughout this essay. For example, “…adoptees from other Native nations…” Jon Parmenter, The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010) xxix.
2Geopolitics here is used to mean, “the analysis of the interaction between…geographical settings and perspectives…and political processes,” as defined in: Saul Bernard Cohen, Geopolitics: The Geography of International Relations (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 12.
3Territoriality here refers to “the attempt by an individual or group to affect, influence, or control people, phenomena, or relationships by delimiting and asserting control over a geographic area,” as defined in: Robert David Sack, Human Territoriality: Its Theory and History (Cambridge University Press, 1986), 19.
5Frederick Jackson Turner is best known for his essay “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” (1893), commonly referred to as the “Frontier Thesis,” which held that the frontier was “closed,” and perpetuated the “virgin land” myth, among other things. For a recent analysis of Turner’s “Frontier Thesis,” see Richard Etulain, Does the Frontier Experience Make America Exceptional? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999).
7Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States, and the Peoples in Between in North American History,” The American Historical Review 104, no. 3 (June 1, 1999): 815.
8Adelman and Aron, “From Borderlands to Borders,” “frontiers” 815, “borderlands” 816. For an explanation on the difference between frontiers, borders, and borderlands see Bradley J. Parker, “Toward an Understanding of Borderland Processes,” American Antiquity 71, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): 77–100.
10Contrary to popular belief, the Spanish did not singlehandedly defeat indigenous American societies with horses, guns, and swords alone; without Native allies, the Spanish could have hardly survived and triumphed. European diseases, such as smallpox, weakened and devastated whole societies as well.