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Indigenous Peoples and Euro-American Frontiers, Borderlands, and Borders in North America  

Brenden W. Rensink

On July 27, 1882, a group of at least seventy-five “Turtle Mountain Indians from Canada” crossed the US–Canada border near Pembina, Dakota Territory, ordered white settlers off the land, and refused to pay customs duties assessed against them. “We recognize no boundary line, and shall pass as we please,” proclaimed their leader, Chief Little Shell. Native to the Red River region long before the Treaty of 1818 between the United States and Great Britain drew imaginary cartographies across the region or the 1872 International Boundary Survey left physical markers along the 49th parallel, Little Shell’s Chippewas and Métis navigated expansive homelands bounded by the natural environment and surrounding Native peoples, not arbitrary latitudinal coordinates. Over a century later, Indigenous leaders from the United States, Canada, and Mexico formed the Tribal Border Alliance and hosted a “Tribal Border Summit” in 2019 to assert that “Tribes divided by international borders” had natural inherent and treaty-bound rights to cross for various purposes. These Indigenous sentiments, expressed over centuries, reveal historic and ongoing conflicts born from the inherent incongruity between Native sovereignty and imposed non-Native boundaries and restrictions. Issues of land provide a figurative bedrock to nearly all discussion of interactions between and boundary making by non-Native and Native peoples in North America. Indigenous lands and competing relations to it, natural resources and contest over their control, geography and territoriality: these issues underpin all North American history. Adjacent to these more familiar topics are complex stories of boundaries and borders that were imposed, challenged, ignored, violated, or co-opted. Native histories and experiences at the geographic edges of European empires and nation-states uncover rough and untidy processes of empire-building and settler colonial aspirations. As non-Natives drew lines across maps, laying claim to distant Indigenous lands, they also divided the same in arbitrary manners. They rarely gave serious consideration to Native sovereignty or rights to traditional or evolving relationships to homelands and resources. It is a wonder, therefore, that centuries of non-Natives have been surprised when Indigenous peoples refused to recognize the authority of imposed borders or co-opted their jurisdictional “power” for their own uses. Surveying examples of Indigenous peoples and their histories across imposed boundaries in North America forces historians to ask new questions about intercultural exchange, geopolitical philosophies, and the histories of nations, regions, and peoples. This is a worthy, but complex, pursuit that promises to greatly enrich all intersecting topics and fields.