- Reconsidering Violence: Warfare, Terror, and Colonialism in the Making of the United States
Ned Blackhawk’s Violence Over the Land provides an innovative perspective on the long-term cycles of violence that have characterized the American West. In order to do this, Blackhawk links two periods that are usually studied separately, namely, Spanish colonialism and the Anglo-American conquest of indigenous people in the West, including his own Shoshone family. Instead of using conventional geographic divisions such as the Southwest, Blackhawk defines his area focus in terms of shifting social networks of alliance and enmity, of trading and raiding, of diplomacy and warfare among colonists, equestrian Utes and Comanches, and non-equestrian Shoshone and Paiute.
This is a hard-hitting, provocative, and scholarly study that has already received important awards.1 Basing his research on both Spanish and English sources, Blackhawk moves away from older anthropological notions that located “real” Indians outside of history as well as from more recent postcolonial perspectives that equate indigenous authenticity with “cultural resistance.”2 By doing so, he eschews simplistic but still influential views that oppose colonizers and colonized, self and other.3 Neither celebrating nor glorifying indigenous actions (6), he situates native groups in a dynamic context of complex alliances and conflicts with other indigénes as well as with colonial settlers and powers (Spanish, Mexican, British, French, and later, Anglo-American). He retells the history of the American West to make Indians central actors not in spite of but because of their complex entanglements with multiple groups in colonial society.
The Spanish empire on the northern frontier was a case of what Chris-tine Daniels has referred to in the title of her essay collection as “negotiated [End Page 1089] empires.”4 No Leviathan, the colonial state had to contend with multiple sovereignties on its peripheries. Indeed, during the mid-eighteenth century the Comanches “were quickly becoming imperialists on their own account” (53) while the Apache held Spanish colonists in “tributary vassalage.”5 Hence the “empires” of Blackhawk’s subtitle could be interpreted as referring not only to the Spanish, French, British, and Anglo-American, but also to those of some indigenous groups.
Blackhawk’s perspective is distinct from that of many of the contributors to the Daniels collection whose analytical orientation is based on “the paradigm of negotiation,” defined by Amy Turner Bushnell as being concerned with “mechanisms other than force that deliver balance to relationships and keep disparate societies in equilibrium.”6 Contra Bushnell, for Blackhawk, “negotiation” in the hinterlands of the Spanish empire presupposed relations of force and the shared understandings, norms, and rituals of violence that permeated day-to-day life for Indians and non-Indians alike.
In Thread of Blood, I argued that “an analysis of the social and ideological structuring of violence is a prerequisite for an understanding” of New Spain’s colonial frontier.7 Blackhawk does exactly this, making violence both the core subject and the “interpretive method” (5) of his book, and does it extraordinarily well. In northern New Spain, peace attained through trade or diplomacy and peace imposed through violence were not separate processes. Groups that allied together, such as the Spanish and the Utes in the second half of the nineteenth century, protected each other and raided enemies for horses, weapons, hides, and slaves.8 Effectiveness in warfare depended on access to horses and guns. Some groups, such as the Utes, Comanches, and Apaches, acquired these means of warfare and became formidable equestrian warriors. Others, such as the Shoshone and Paiutes, were not so fortunate. Lacking the means to defend themselves, they became a source of captives for the equestrian warriors to trade to the colonial New Mexicans as well as to other indigenous groups. Hence, violence and trade went hand in hand and had a broad impact, affecting groups such as the Shoshone and Paiutes who were not directly in the orbit of Spanish colonialism. That social groups’ lives and livelihoods can be remade by colonial processes...