Is Borderlands History Just Turner and Parkman Without the Racism?

I read this fascinating post the other day from historian Ann Little. Among other points, the author discusses women’s history in borderlands literature. She writes:

I am so tired of reading “new” histories of the North American borderlands and “new” conceptualizations of “empire” that read  just like anything that Francis Parkman or Frederick Jackson Turner ever wrote, except minus the racism.  Now, that “minus the racism” part is important, don’t get me wrong.  But is it really an intervention for which modern historians should be congratulated when we assume that historical Native Americans were rational and had their own politics?

Having read a whack of recent histories that address the Great Basin and Great Plains in the past few years, a region whose economy was based in large part on the trade in bodies and the labor of female slaves from the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries, I want to hear more about these captive women and less about the men who lead those raids and profit from stealing, raping, exploiting, and/or reselling those women.  Every author alive today makes this point in his book–and yet, that’s just about the extent of his analysis.  I want books written from the perspective of these women and girls, not more books written from the perspective of the dudes on the horses, whether those dudes are European, Euro-American, or Native American.  Didn’t we get enough of those books about the manly exploits of armed and mounted men in the nineteenth century?

I just spent all day Tuesday reading Pekka Hämäläinen’s The Comanche Empire, an elegant, fascinating, and provocative book that made for a terrific conversation in my graduate seminar yesterday.  But:  the author devoted about 10 pages of a 500 page book devoted to Comanche women and female slaves, the people whose bodies were the objects of violent raids, and whose bodies and labor were central to the borderlands economy.  Also:  when women come up, it’s usually in the passing expression “women and children.”  Womenenchildren–the passive objects of history, never the subjects.  Like I said:  Parkman and Turner except written from the Comanche perspective.

Good food for thought. Remember to read the rest of the post as there are other aspects to her post, including the troubling decision by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation to cancel its Women’s Studies Dissertation Fellowship Program. See the end of the post for a link to a petition to reinstate it. Finally, don’t overlook the robust discussion in the comments.

Do you agree with Little’s assessment of borderlands history? Why or why not? What borderlands histories could we point to as good examples of integrating discussions of gender and women?

Categories: Methodology | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Is Borderlands History Just Turner and Parkman Without the Racism?

  1. I completely agree with Little. We just read (again for third time in my graduate career) Hamalainen’s Comanche Empire, and my main criticism of the book is along the same lines: What’s the point of applying a Western imperial paradigm to an indigenous society whose geopolitical experience was no where near that of European powers? Yes, it’s a rehashing of the “old dead guys” — as one of my profs put it — history, and it’s a tired perspective..

  2. What do you get with a paradigm? Twenty cents.
    Not to make light of the point of this blog, but upon what theoretical structure would a feminist history of the borderlands rest? And more importantly, upon what original sources?
    After all, feminism itself is a twentieth century paradigm, rooted in a particular world-view probably not shared by native women of the Great Plains.
    And the question remains, how do we access the ideas and attitudes of a population which was not literate and whose words were never written down?
    We are not in short supply of ink and paper. If critics of the dominant and masculine paradigm are unhappy with the histories written so far, let them supply new ones, and be ready to defend them.

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