- Traders and Raiders: The Indigenous World of the Colorado River Basin, 1540–1859 by Natale Zappia
Historians of American Indian history have shifted their focus in recent years from Native–Euroamerican relations to Native landscapes on their own terms. In the process, they have recast “frontiers” or “middle grounds” as Native “grounds,” “nations,” and “empires.” In his new book, Zappia furthers this work by describing an “Interior World” created by the diverse Native societies inhabiting the Colorado River Basin of North America. In showing how Native autonomy endured there for centuries after the first arrival of Europeans, Zappia’s work will prove of interest to scholars in a range of disciplines who are interested in indigenous peoples and colonialism in the Americas and around the globe. [End Page 123]
Zappia argues that Native peoples in the Colorado River basin built a political-economic system centered on long-distance trading and raiding from the California coast to the desert interior. He charts the ebbs and flows of this interior world in geographical scope and influence over time, demonstrating that it persevered for centuries in the context of colonialism due to the innovation and adaptation of the distinct Native peoples occupying the region. In this regard, he highlights a shift from the trading of such commodities as shell beads, cotton, and baskets before the eighteenth century toward a reliance on raiding other Native, Spanish, Mexican, and then Anglo-American groups to acquire and barter captive laborers and livestock from the late-eighteenth century into the nineteenth century. He concludes by tracing how indigenous peoples in the interior world faced the challenges of U.S. conquest and managed to exercise a degree of control over their homelands that has persisted into the present.
Zappia’s explanation of the interior world is made possible by his interdisciplinary approach. Drawing from archaeology, anthropology, Native oral traditions, and geography, he pieces together how the political economy of this region worked and how Native groups—the Quechans, Mojaves, Cahuillas, and others—understood the world in which they lived. In tracing commodity histories—narrating how shell currency moved from the coast to the interior, for example—Zappia paints a vivid portrait of a Native-dominated landscape that would otherwise be inaccessible in a history based solely on archival sources. At times, however, the limitations of his sources and approach are apparent. Although Zappia argues for a shift in the interior world during the late eighteenth century from trading to raiding, he also demonstrates that previous commodity trading practices continued. The division that he posits between these practices may well be overdrawn. Describing in greater detail how distinct Native communities viewed raiding and trading and how their motivations for them evolved over time might have strengthened his argument about continuity and change in the interior world more broadly. Such questions likely reflect the challenges presented by Zappia’s source material, as well as his long-dureé, multi-ethnic approach, but they also identify future areas of inquiry for scholars of the Colorado River Basin to address.
Zappia’s contributions to understandings of Native territoriality and political economy in colonial North America are substantial. He illuminates a region that has warranted more attention from historians, helping to connect the well-studied New Mexico borderlands with the missions of the California coast. More importantly, his well-theorized framework and arguments will prove of interest to scholars examining indigenous cultural persistence and territoriality in other global regions. [End Page 124]