- Decolonizing the BorderlandWichita Frontier Strategies
borderlands, ethnohistory, historical archaeology, indigenous agency, Wichita tribe
Between 1541 and 1845, Natives of the southern Great Plains participated in a widespread political and economic region, a borderland, that stretched across New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma and included western Arkansas and Louisiana. A succession of European or Euro-American polities—first Spain and France, later Mexico and Texas, and then the United States—laid claim to these lands. Yet Native peoples like the Wichita, Comanche, Plains Apache, and others remained independent, and the Southern Plains existed outside colonial or state dominion for centuries. Instead, a borderland arose out of the interaction of a multitude of autonomous indigenous and European societies. While certainly Native-European relations were important, relations between Native societies were significant as well, involving alliance or conflict, raiding or trading, and various struggles for territorial and economic dominance.
Ironically, the independence of these Native peoples acts today to diminish their historical legacy. Unlike the plethora of European documents associated with more fully colonized or missionized Indians (e.g., those in Mexico or New Mexico), the documentary record of Southern Plains peoples frequently consists of episodic accounts or vague reports left by itinerant European observers. Archived sources typically include scant information on a group’s internal political and social organization or details of the political relations among Native groups of the period. Nor do sources assess in any detail how European interaction altered a people’s society, economy, or culture. But if thick description is absent in the archive, ample material culture can be found on the land. Archaeological data permit investigation of Native lives overlooked, unknown, or obliquely noted by European observers. The archaeological record offers opportunities to understand the chronological development [End Page 259] of these societies independent of, and then in interaction with, European colonials. More sustained archaeological investigations potentially complement and refine historical analyses. Using alternative methods, archaeology opens new lines of research for understanding indigenous peoples living beyond the control of European colonials.
In this essay, we briefly outline the activities of Wichita peoples, residents of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, with selected archaeological data from approximately 1450 until 1800. We examine not only changes but also apparent continuities. Indeed, as a number of theorists point out, explaining continuity during times of considerable social transformation can be more challenging than explaining change.1 By combining extant historical accounts with archaeological site information, material culture, and paleobotanical evidence of environmental changes, we seek to trace the Wichita across prehistory into the contact and colonial era, thereby complementing historians’ efforts.2 To better contextualize our findings, we revisit historian Herbert E. Bolton’s model of the “Spanish borderlands” to demonstrate how a “decolonized” borderland model can better explain Native-European relations.
As part of this revision, we illustrate how the Wichita pursued their own frontier strategies in coping with outsiders. Analysis of archaeological data reveals that Native actions appear more purposive and less reactive than earlier scholars might have assumed. Just as European powers had colonial strategies (or “policies”) dictating how frontier officials interacted with Native cultures, so too did Natives implement strategies of their own. Archaeological evidence from earlier periods reveals how practices predating Europeans strongly influenced the Wichita’s later strategies. As we will argue, while conventional wisdom suggests that the arrival of the Spanish and French greatly impacted Wichita society, archaeological evidence indicates how the strategies of other peoples, such as the Comanche, had tremendous salience for eighteenth-century Wichita life. Within these multiple fields of interaction, the borderland’s history developed.
Decolonizing the Borderland
Bolton first defined the Spanish borderlands in 1921.3 Focusing on the Spanish heritage of American states in the Southwest and Southeast, he emphasized how European rivalries between Spain, France, and England served to shape borderland history. Unfortunately, he portrayed indigenous peoples as either passive objects of missionization or rebellious barbarians, but never as actors on par with Europeans.4 In a later synthesis, Bolton’s student John F. Bannon went further, dismissing Natives such as the Comanche and Wichita as “borderland irritants.”5 In these and other...