Of Borderlands and Frontiers: Crosscurrents and Divergences within Borderlands History and Settler Colonial Studies

AHA Session 169
Society for Advancing the History of South Asia 11
Sunday, January 4, 2015: 9:00 AM-11:00 AM
Lenox Ballroom (Sheraton New York, Second Floor)
Lorenzo Veracini, Swinburne University of Technology
Erik Altenbernd, University of California, Irvine
Manan Ahmed Asif, Columbia University
Lisa Ford, University of New South Wales
Karl Jacoby, Columbia University
Stacey Van Vleet, University of California, Berkeley

Session Abstract

“Anchored in spatial mobility, situational identity, local contingency, and the ambiguities of power” is how Pekka Hämäläinen and Samuel Truett describe borderlands historiography in their recent article, “On Borderlands” (2011). Writing primarily (but not entirely) about North America, Hämäläinen and Truett go to some lengths to contrast and dislodge the concept of the borderland from that of the frontier—especially the nation-state bound notion of the frontier promoted by Frederick Jackson Turner. In Hämäläinen and Truett’s words, “If frontiers are spaces of narrative closure, then borderlands are places where stories take unpredictable turns and rarely end as expected.”

Patrick Wolfe, the Australian scholar of settler colonialism, could not agree less. In a recently published essay of his own, Wolfe argues that “the concept of the frontier has the virtue of expressing the protean fact of a historical coming together of societies that had previously been mutually discreet.” Siding himself with Frederick Jackson Turner, Wolfe goes one step further by contending that the frontier offers clarity rather than closure. “The end of frontier,” Wolfe argues, “marks the end of the centuries-long process whereby Natives have been being transformed, spatially at least, from outsiders into insiders. They have become surrounded by, and contained within, settler society.”

This roundtable seeks to address this analytical disjuncture by opening a dialogue between historians of settler colonialism and borderlands history. It aims to address not just differences between the two fields, but to highlight their similarities as well.

Despite having roots in different mid-twentieth-century historiographies, both fields actually have quite a lot in common. Both fields, for instance, have only recently emerged as broad-based fields of historical and interdisciplinary research with increasingly globalized scopes and foci, including the problems and legacies of settlement/migration, empire, state-formation, intergenerational conflict and violence, and race formation at the edges or peripheries of larger centralized polities.

Their similar trajectories aside, the two fields differ in ways that go beyond terminology. Whereas borderlands scholars emphasize fluidity, hybridity, syncretism, and other ambiguities of identity and power at the edges of nations and empires, scholars of settler colonialism, in often unambiguous terms, posit a stark and  lasting frontier—an irremediable binary of difference—between indigenous peoples and invading settlers. Where borderlands scholars aim to uncover and reveal the complexities of multiculturalism, scholars of settler colonialism aim to uncover and reveal the operative (and oftentimes ongoing) logic of native elimination that pervades settler societies both at their core and their peripheries.

What is the current state of historiography on borderlands and settler colonialism? What regions of the globe, and what periods of history, do the fields have in common? In what ways might the fields benefit from dialogue with one another? How, for instance, do we identify who is indigenous and who is not in a borderland? To what extent do the fluid social forms of borderland regions challenge the logic of elimination? To what extent are borderlands produced by settler colonial projects? These are some of the questions this roundtable proposes to discuss.

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