Book Review: Native but Foreign

Rensink, Brenden W. Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in the North American Borderlands. College Station: Texas A&M University, 2018. pp. 300. Illustrated. $38.00 Hardcover.

A victim of the wickedness of a few men, whose imposture was favored by their origin, and recent domination over the country; a foreigner in my native land; could I be expected stoically to endure their outrages and insults? Crushed by sorrow, convinced that my death alone would satisfy my enemies, I sought for a shelter amongst those against whom I had fought; I separated from my country, parents, family, relatives and friends, and what was more, from the institutions, on behalf of which I had drawn my sword, with an earnest wish to see Texas free and happy. –Juan N. Seguín, 1858

Juan Nepomuceno Seguín certainly knew what it felt like to be “native but foreign.” Scion of the famous Seguín family of San Antonio, Juan worked alongside his father, Erasmo, as “cultural brokers”—to borrow the phrase from historian Raúl Ramos—who sought to mitigate differences between settlers in Stephen F. Austin’s colony and the newly independent Mexican government during the 1820s. Seguín went on to prove himself loyal to the Euroamerican settlers by signing the Texas Declaration of Independence in 1836. Nonetheless, after serving as alcalde of San Antonio, Seguín fell victim to the growing Anglo-American distrust of ethnic Mexicans during the 1840s, eventually fleeing across the Río Grande into Mexico. Although Seguín would later find himself back in Texas, he, like many other ethnic Mexicans, embodied his self-described status of being a “foreigner in my native land.” Mexican Americans were clearly a colonized people.

Much could be said for the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans across the larger U.S. West, who found themselves increasingly marginalized by Americans over the course of the nineteenth century as they sought to hold onto their own homelands. As Brenden W. Rensink argues in his compelling new book, Native but Foreign: Indigenous Immigrants and Refugees in North American Borderlands, however, historians should not overlook Natives who fled into the United States from the neighboring developing nations of Canada and Mexico around the turn of the twentieth century. Rensink’s book is comparative in nature. Over the course of about 221 pages, the author poses the following question: how did Yaquis, who historically originated in Mexico, and Chippewas and Crees, who crossed the U.S.-Canada border into Montana, prevail upon federal officials to recognize them as indigenous groups who belonged in the United States? Moreover, what does placing these histories in conversation with one another tell us about borders, migration, and belonging in modern nation-states?

Rensink begins by examining the long histories of contact, exchange and expansion in each of the three groups’ histories prior to their respective establishments of transnational presences in North America’s borderlands. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Crees and Chippewas exhibited similar migratory patterns into what later became the U.S. state of Montana. Crees, for example, followed an extensive trading sphere by the early nineteenth century that took them throughout Saskatchewan and Alberta in Canada, down to the northwest of Lake Superior, into the Pembina region along the forty-ninth parallel, and southwest to the Missouri River in modern-day North Dakota. Chippewas followed similar migratory patterns. As such, by the 1830s both groups engaged in the fur trade with various Euroamerican traders all along the line that would later become the U.S.-Canada border. Contemporaneously in the far Southwest, Yaquis remained an unconquered people in the Sonoran Desert and Yaqui River Valley. Yaquis took advantage of the relatively unpoliced Sonoran borderlands to wander north in order to escape Spanish and Mexican intrusions; eventually, Yaquis found themselves living on both sides of what Mexican as well as U.S. officials would later negotiate as the modern national borderline. As Rensink states, “arbitrary lines that went across ancient Native landscapes ascribed new realities that all had to negotiate” (37).

Negotiating borderlines during the nineteenth century oftentimes meant facing an evolving prejudice in both Montana and Arizona. For Crees, the fur trade’s collapse in the 1870s led to a devaluation of Cree contributions to Montana’s economic development. Rensink traces how federal attitudes toward Crees transformed from relative acceptance to considering them a nuisance by the 1880s. Anglo Montanans became frustrated with Indigenous border crossing, issuing various cries to strengthen the line. Contrastingly, Yaqui labor was an asset that industrial developers sought out in the Sonora-Arizona borderlands, so a semblance of tolerance for Yaquis seems to have persisted for some time. In other words, prejudice could be muted against some Indigenous based upon economic or political expediency.

Either way, Indigenous people became “foreign” refugees or immigrants, which is the subject of part two of the book. Yaquis fled violence across the border during Mexico’s Porfiriato (1876-1911), a time period when Mexico’s federal government, led by dictator Porifirio Díaz, swept many natives to the margins—either through extermination, deportation, or enslavement—while characterizing them “as the antithesis to reform and progress” (57). In chapter four, Rensink chronicles a similar set of circumstances with the Crees in Montana. Crees fled a wave of state violence in backlash to Louis Riel’s rebellion (the Northwest Rebellion of 1885), finding neither popular nor official support after arriving in Montana. Thus, by the turn of the twentieth century, we see similar tales of displacement, transborder movement into the United States, and lack of belonging in both northern and southern borderlands spaces.

Parts three and four of the book are where Rensink’s comparative analysis really starts to bear fruit. Rather than examining isolated cases—like how the Plains Métis became “American” by choosing to stay in Montana after the Northwest Rebellion, as other scholars have previously done—Rensink’s comparison of how the Crees and Chippewas in the north and the Yaquis in the south struggled to carve out homelands in the United States displays how these processes are contingent upon how dynamic histories play out in specific borderlands spaces. Transnational Crees, for example, exhibited desires to take out U.S. citizenship as early as the turn of the twentieth century, even when the Canadian government expressed a willingness to accept them in lieu of any level of tolerance at the local level in Montana. After 1908, though, Crees and Chippewas gained important allies in Progressive Era Montana, such as former state legislator Frank Linderman and his friend and newspaper publisher William Bole, who successfully lobbied the federal government to the point of President Woodrow Wilson signing a bill that created the Fort Assiniboine Reservation in September of 1916.

The process of claiming belonging took much longer for Yaquis in the Southwest. Yaqui refugees may have crossed the border to great relief during the Mexican Revolution’s many tumults, where they established strings of communities that reflected the establishment of a new Yaquimi in Arizona. Nonetheless, employment in agriculture and mining, which replaced steady employment by railroad companies during the earlier part of the twentieth century, dried up by the 1940s and 50s in the face of increased mechanization. As Rensink chronicles in chapter seven, though, their legal presence and belonging always remained in question in Arizona during the first half of the twentieth century while they played these indispensable economic roles. This, of course, is a typically American story—certain “foreign” groups are desired for their labor alone. Still, the public performance of Yaqui culture through elements like religious ceremonies helped assert their presence and belonging. It wasn’t until the creation of the Pascua Yaqui Association (PYA) in 1963 with the help of Representative Morris Udall and the famed Arizona anthropologist Edward Spicer that Yaquis found a way forward at the federal level. Finally, U.S. President Jimmy Carter signed a pair of bills into law in 1978 that effectively recognized the Pascua Yaqui Tribe at the federal level, given that PYA and non-PYA Yaquis enrolled in short order. New hurdles lay in the future, though, such as exerting greater control over land, asserting political sovereignty, and passing a tribal constitution (the latter only occurring in 1988).

As Rensink concludes, “Yaquis consistently adjusted to new identities that allowed them to survive in borderlands on their own terms” (217). Such has been the case for any group seeking to prove its own legal validity (and, by implication, equality) to the maturing nation-state since its inception during the late-nineteenth century. Rensink’s book displays how border crossing has “entailed new contests and evolving identities for these peoples” over time (219). Indeed. With the rise of neo-nationalism in the western world during the 2010s—whose most relevant iteration here is perhaps U.S. President Donald Trump’s ongoing quest for a “big, beautiful wall” along the U.S.-Mexico border—these questions of border-crossing, claims to belonging and gaining recognition from the nation-state will continue to play out in modern borderlands for some time to come. Rensink’s Native but Foreign is a timely book that will help reinforce the humanity and lived experiences of people seeking shelter and crossing into a nation that is supposed to be the greatest democracy on Earth.

Tim Bowman

West Texas A&M University

Categories: Book and Journal Reviews | 1 Comment

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  1. Pingback: Canadian History Roundup – Week of February 9, 2019 | Unwritten Histories

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