Forceful Politics: Performative Violence as Indigenous Discourse across North American Borderlands

AHA Session 130
Friday, January 8, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 311/312 (Hilton Atlanta)
Karim M. Tiro, Xavier University
The Audience

Session Abstract

This panel interrogates performative violence as a deliberate and sophisticated means of cross-cultural negotiation between Indigenous peoples and Europeans in early North America. Our analyses of colonial encounters in the Lower Mississippi River Valley, the ridges and valleys of western Pennsylvania, and the ranges and basins of the northern Chihuahuan Desert, suggest that Indigenous-European violence was frequently a product of shrewd political calculation and execution on the part of Native peoples. Viewed in this way, the phenomena of violence becomes less chaotic and internecine; instead, Indigenous performances of violence served as a means to acquire, reclaim, or maintain political authority over Europeans and neighboring Indigenes.

“Forceful Politics” makes valuable contributions at a critical juncture in borderlands studies of North America. As early as 2002, beginning with James Brooks’ Captives and Cousins, historians of Indigenous-European encounter have worked to find meaning in episodes of violence–a difficult task considering that much of our available documentation describes that violence in terms that are prejudicial of Native cultures and polities. Over the past two decades historians have continued to re-evaluate these colonial sources and have analyzed this violence to demonstrate interethnic kinship formation and Indigenous-initiated depredation on neighboring Native and European groups. These papers build on the pathbreaking works of scholars like Ned Blackhawk, Juliana Barr, and Pekka Hämäläinen and challenge notions of violence as an unstable socio-political system paying unpredictable dividends, or as an inevitable (and therefore uncontrollable) aspect of colonial encounter. 

Rather these three papers demonstrate that Indigenous groups across North America made calculated decisions about when, how, and where to enact specific forms of violence in order to capitalize on political opportunities. In the course of doing so, Tunicas, Delawares, and Faraones seized control over the discourse of violence through performances that were designed to manipulate the geopolitical configurations of which they were a part. These peoples understood violence as a form of negotiation and meaning-making and quickly demonstrated a profound literacy far in advance of their European and Indigenous neighbors. In the Lower Mississippi Valley,  petites nations peoples went to tremendous lengths to publicize their military encounters. By cultivating reputations as formidable warriors with a strong control of their territory they were able to gain political leverage in their encounters with other Native and European polities. Delawares “reorder[ed] the colonial world in which they lived by reshaping settlement, initiating negotiations for loyalty, and redefining frontier political relationships.” Faraones dismantled the Spanish imperial landscape, forced the removal of colonists from their homes, and enforced a kind of internment of them at El Paso del Norte by means of violence performed through a variety of media. All three of these papers explore how Native peoples used violence to deal with the migration of foreign empires and settlers into their homelands. By carefully engaging in conflict with their new neighbors Delawars, Faraones, and petites nations forced newcomers to negotiate on their terms and in many cases managed to successfully protect their territories.

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