Duke Professor Discusses Native Sovereignty

A professor of history at Duke University visited Boston College last Friday to discuss the cultural and diplomatic relationship between Native American and European settlers. The lecture, titled “Mapping Native Sovereignty in the Cartography of European Empires,” was the latest installment of BC’s Institute of Liberal Arts’ The Early Americas Seminar program.

The talk was given by Juliana Barr, who specializes in the history of early America, American Indians, the Spanish Borderlands, and women and gender, according to the Duke University website

“I would like to begin with an acknowledgment that we are gathered here in territory and lands traditionally held by the Mashpee Wampanoag, Aquinnah Wampanoag, Nipmuc, and Massachusett nations,” Barr said.  

Barr’s presentation featured a multitude of different maps drawn by European settlers. In these maps, there were clearly defined borders recognizing the territories of various native tribes.  

“Early Americanists love to talk about ‘borderlands’, and it’s become this popular term to replace ‘frontiers’ because ‘frontiers’ is seen as this pejorative,” Barr said. “Long ago, historians talked about ‘frontiers’ as a dividing line between civilization and savagery, so now we speak about ‘borderlands.’” 

“This is where my interest in power and the ground became so important, because we act like as soon as the first European put his big toe on the East coast, all of North America became ‘the borderlands,’” Barr said. “Of course it didn’t! There were 500 of them and 5 million of everyone else! It was just Europeans having to operate from these bordered domains.”

According to Barr, many contemporary history students still think of settler-native relations in racial terms, believing their connections to be “cultural encounters.” But Barr said that these relationships are better represented as diplomacy between nations. The settlers actually participating in them understood that they were negotiating with individual governments and powers.

Barr then described a hypothetical scenario, in which a lone Spanish settler riding down a highway in south Texas sees a Native American approaching on horseback. The settler’s life would have depended on knowing the difference between an Apache and a Comanche, according to Barr.

“If the Spanish had recently formed an alliance with the Apaches, then he’s fine if that’s an Apache,” Barr said. “He’s dead in the water if it’s a Comanche.”

As the United States expanded, centuries after initial contact with native nations, it acquired land that had once belonged to natives through a series of treaties, wars, and the natives’ lack of resistance to European diseases, according to Barr. 

“I’m not sure native nations consider themselves conquered,” Barr said. “I think they consider themselves surrounded by neighbors who maybe are not the ones of their choosing, but in fact, we really need to look in much more positive terms. This is the greatest story of survival and of strength.”

Featured Image by Jess Rivilis / Heights Editor