Author Archives: Brenden W. Rensink

About Brenden W. Rensink

Asst. Director, Charles Redd Center for Western Studies Asst. Professor, Dept. of History, Brigham Young University

From the Bookshelf: Linking the Histories of Slavery – North America and Its Borderlands

Linking the Histories of Slavery: North America and Its Borderlands
Edited by Bonnie Martin and James F. Brooks

(cross-posted at

Students and scholars of the North American Borderlands of a certain vintage will surely have read James F. Brooks’ Captives and Cousins. In that seminal work Brooks used the framework of slavery, raiding, and kinship to discern order in the seeming chaos of the colonial Spanish-American borderlands. This topic of slavery is enjoying renewed (and much deserved) interest and again serves as a useful framework to understand the region’s history. Unfree labor – in all of its forms – rise as an essential, but oft overlooked, component in what drove borderlands histories. At times, it held the region together, at times it drove it apart. If the present anthology signals a new wave of monograph-length studies, the field is prepped for growth. The popularity of Andrés Reséndez’s new (hemispheric) The Other Slavery: The Untold Story of Indian Enslavement in America also signals that readers are ready to grapple with this important subject.

The anthology grew out workshops jointly hosted by the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at Southern Methodist University, and the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe. Those institutions deserve praise for the expenditure of considerable funds and energies to conceptualize, execute such programming and to publish its results. In the throws of undertaking a similar workshop/anthology myself for the BYU Charles Redd Center for Western Studies, I know it is no small undertaking. The potential payout, however, is immense. In this case, their hard work definitely paid off!

The volume is divided into 3 parts.

  • Part I, “Links to Early Slavery” includes two essay that link familiar contexts of African slavery in the east with indigenous forms of slavery and some of their integration with commercial slave worlds in the east.
  • Part II, “Links to Expanding Slave Networks,” moves beyond the initial interfacing of indigenous and Euro-American slaving practices/networks/commerce, to investigate extensive connections between these worlds. 6 chapters range from California to the American South, and along the southern borderlands from the southwest to Texas to Cuba – three struck me in the following ways.
    • Paul Conrad’s work explore “An Apache Diaspora to Cuba” may prove the most astounding – demonstrating how the breadth of Spanish colonial enterprises could result in captives being traded off the American mainland. The potential integrating of southwest borderlands and Atlantic world slave networks is intriguing. Considering Cuba, I immediately turned to Jace Weaver’s The Red Atlantic: American Indigenes and the Making of the Modern World, 1000-1927, to see how much slavery was considered there – a bit, not enough. Likewise, I love how Conrad unmoors us from the mainland. I felt similar excitement at being pulled into indigenous maritime experiences by Joshua Reid’s The Sea is My Country and Andrew Lipman’s The Saltwater Frontier. Conrad does not dwell much upon the extra-continental aspect or intrigue of his story, but being jarred from the familiar Apacheria where my previous readings of Apaches and slaving in the SW caused pause and encouraged me to set aside the assumptions of that familiar world. Perhaps, there was a historical experience here I truly knew nothing about (as did Reid and Lipman’s work). This is at the foundation of why Borderlands history proves so endlessly fascinating – it constantly confronts us with unfamiliar historical worlds and contexts.
    • Boyd Cothran’s work on the Upper Klamath region treats us to a glimpse at the inner working of indigenous economic, political, and diplomatic worlds. Klamaths adapted existing slave traditions to new opportunities afforded by Gold Rush developments. There is nuance here too often lacking when we consider indigenous actors – deliberate economic decision-making and political acumen. Cothran is currently working on a wonderful new project, and his Remembering the Modoc War was wonderful, but I do wish he would take this chapter and expand it into a full monograph.
    • Natale Zappia explores economic networks within the inland SW – trade and slave networks expand from inland California into Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, with Indians both slaving and being slaved. This aligns with Zappia’s Traders and Raidersa much needed contribution. Those inland California, SW, and Great Basin indigenous worlds – the Colorado Basin – are in need of more work, one of many geographic backwaters that too few people investigate.
  • Part III, “Links to Legacies of Slavery” warrants a full anthology in and of itself. The three chapters explore cultural memory of slavery in New Mexico, Twentieth Century Relocation, and Twenty-First Century sex slavery. The latter two were particularly hard hitting
    • Sarah Deer links the trauma of dislocation via boarding school and relocation programs to increased risk and occurrence of sex trafficking and exploitation of Native women. I was pleased to find that this work was included in a broader collections of essays she published in 2015, The Beginning and End of Rape: Confronting Sexual Violence in Native America. Building further, Melissa Farley explores the fraught circumstances of contemporary sexual exploitation and prostitution (legal and illegal). These two final essays deliver such a gut-punch, reminding us that the evils and horrors of history are still very much alive today. Too few of our investigations into the past succeed in drawing attention to the oft-dire present

Much of this volume unfolds in traditional southern “borderlands” worlds, but there is some variance in geography and themes that link the borderlands to other context. I would like to see more of this. The preponderance of southern focus perpetuates familiar narratives while other possible locations for the study of unfree indigenous labor are passed over. Cothran and Zappia’s California treatments introduce some new regions. However, what of the northern borderlands? What of the Great Plains, Pacific Northwest, Canada? Benjamin Madley recently published an article in the Pacific Historical Review that conceptualizes slavery in more nuanced terms – “unfree” labor. (See Benjamin Madley, “Unholy Traffic in Human Blood and Souls”Systems of California Indian Servitude under U.S. Rule.” Pacific Historical Review 83 (November 2014): 626-667). There is a rich field to be plowed here – the various forms of “slavery” or “unfree” labor in indigenous North America (too little Canada in a book on “North America”!). Perhaps with this and other new work, historians of the North American West and indigenous peoples will pause to consider how systems of unfree labor may actually be a part of stories they are telling, but hadn’t thought to consider them.

Much thanks to James Brooks for mailing me a copy of this book to review and to the hard work of its contributors. Borderlands, West, indigenous, and other scholars should all take note of this anthology and start googling around for concurrent or upcoming work by its authors.

Categories: Book and Journal Reviews | 2 Comments

Q&A with Michel Hogue about “Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People”

On October 5, 2015, the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University hosted Michel Hogue (Associate Professor of History at Carleton University in Ottawa) to speak about his new book, Metis and the Medicine Line: Creating a Border and Dividing a People. You can watch the video of that talk below. His book was published in 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press with the aid of a Redd Center grant. Ever one to remind our community of scholars that there are borderlands to the north as well, I highly recommend his work and thankfully I am not the only one singing Hogue’s praises. Since its publication and his talk for the Redd Center, Metis and the Medicine Line has won the Stubbendieck Great Plains Distinguished Book Prize, was a finalist for the Canada Prize in the Humanities, and is still a finalist for the prestigious Sir John A. Macdonald Prize (winners to be announced on May 31).  Prof. Hogue was kind enough to participate in a Q&A below about the book. Questions by Brenden W. Rensink, responses by Michel Hogue.


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Q&A with James F. Brooks about “Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre”

On February 25, 2016, The Charles Redd Center for Western Studies annual Annaley Naegle Redd Lecture was given by James F. Brooks, a Professor of History & Anthropology at the University of California – Santa Barbara. He spoke on his recently published Mesa of Sorrows: A History of the Awat’ovi Massacre. Students and scholars of borderlands, indigenous, and southwest histories will be familiar with Brooks from his award-winning Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship and Community in the Southwest Borderlands andother important works. To accompany the video of the lecture, Professor Brooks was kind enough to also participate in a short Q&A below. Questions by Brenden W. Rensink, responses by James F. Brooks.

Read some of my own thoughts on the book at my “From the Bookshelf” series.


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Q&A with Sujey Vega about LDS Latinos and Ethnic Religious Belonging in Arizona

On March 10, 2016, the Charles Redd Center for Western Studies at Brigham Young University was fortunate to host Sujey Vega, an Assistant Professor of Women and Gender Studies, Arizona State University. Prof. Vega works at the intersections of gender, ethnicity, and religious communities. Her current work explores the experiences of Latino members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormon) in the politically charged atmosphere of the Arizona borderlands. Her lecture for the BYU Redd Center, entitled The Desert Diaspora: An Exploration of Latino Latter Day Saints and Their Ethnic Religious Belonging, can be viewed below in its entirety. To help offer more context for her work, she was kind enough to participate in a short Q&A, posted below, her current projects in Arizona and recent monograph, Latino Heartland: of Borders and Belonging in the Midwest (NYU Press, 2015).  Questions by Brenden W. Rensink and responses by Sujey Vega.


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Categories: Interviews | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

Borderlands and Transnational History at the 2015 Western History Association Conference

Each year I like to make a list of the borderlands and transnational history panels at the Western History Association annual conference. This year we will be in Portland and with the conference theme of “Thresholds, Walls, and Bridges,” there are sure to be lots of good topics! As always, there are some very tough decisions to make with some painful double-booking. I swear, it seems to get worse every year – multiple must-see panels all booked at the same time. Perhaps this is a good sign. Either my interests are ever-broadening and everything looks amazing, or there is simply more and more great work being done. Its probably a bit of both.

Here’s the breakdown: I am listing entire panels, even if only 1 paper is relevant to borderlands or transnational history. Also, I am interpreting these concepts broadly, but not too broadly. Often, conference theme buzzwords tend to creep into panel and paper proposal titles in ways that don’t always fit.. If there are any I miss, feel free to comment below. See you there!

Originally posted at my blog,
Re-posted here for everyone’s benefit.

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Categories: conferences | 1 Comment

Borderlands and Transnational History at the 2014 Western History Association Conference

The Western History Association will hold its 54th annual conference in Newport Beach, California on October 15-18.

  Like last year, I have gone through the preliminary program to highlight panels deals with Borderlands or Transnational history. The conference theme is “The West & the World” so hopefully that will lend to some good transnational themes. I was on the program committee for this year’s conference and there are some great panels lined up, including some non-Borderlands ones that I might highlight in a later post. As always, the timing of the panels causes conflicts. In some time-slots there are multiple relevant panels, and in others, none. Overall, there do not seem to be as many as last year, but there are some other non-borderlands panels that look excellent and will make up for it! Plus, it can’t be borderlands all day and all night, can it?

Read the list here.

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Bizarre Borders on the Zigg-Zaggy U.S. Canadian Border

Here’s a great video by the CGP Grey people people about some things you may not have known about the creation of the U.S. Canadian border, and how imprecise it is.

Via NPR:‘Don’t Touch Me,’ Said Canada. ‘I Won’t!’ Said The U.S.A. So They Moved 20 Feet Apart

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On Comparative Methodology, My Book Manuscript, and Haake’s The State, Removal and Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Mexico

This was originally posted at as a part of an ongoing book review series, “From the Bookshelf.”
The content is not explicitly borderlands but seems relevant to the field.

Back when I was working on my dissertation, I was put in contact with a scholar in Australia – Claudia B. Haake – as her recent monograph was relevant to my research in its content and methodology. Her book, The State, Removal and Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Mexico, 1620-2000, is a comparative treatment of the forced removals of Lenapes (Delawares) by the United States, and Yaquis by Mexico.  As 1/2 of my dissertation dealt with Yaquis crossing the U.S.-Mexican border into the United States, the related scholarship on Porfirian forced removal (enslavement, actually) of Yaquis to the Yucatan was an important backdrop for explaining the flight of Yaqui refugees to Arizona and other points north. The content of her book highlighted some very useful sources that I had yet to uncover.
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Categories: Book and Journal Reviews, Methodology | 1 Comment

American West Center CFP – WESTERN LANDS, WESTERN VOICES: The American West Center at Fifty


The University of Utah’s American West Center is celebrating its 50th year and hosting a symposium to mark the occasion.  The focus is on public history and humanities and promises great potential exploring ways in which Western scholars can better engage and connect with the Western public.  Come one, come all!  The autumn leaves along the Wasatch Front will be gorgeous, I (Brenden) would be happy to lead hikes or tours, etc…  Utah in the fall is just wonderful.  I hope to see a lot of you here!  Linked here are PDFs of the Call for Proposals and Participants and a nice full-color Poster you can print out and post in your respective departments or places of work.  Please share and spread the word!!! Continue reading

Categories: Calls for Papers | 1 Comment

Bridging National Borders in North America, Summer Institute at the Newberry Library

The Newberry received an NEH grant to host a summer institute that just sounds amazing.  I presented there last year at their Borderlands and Latino Studies seminar series and it is a fun place.  3 weeks in Chicago – sounds like a fun way to spend the month of June.  Sign up y’all. Continue reading

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