- Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States by Maria Josefina Saldaña-Portillo
In her 2016 book, Indian Given: Racial Geographies across Mexico and the United States, cultural studies scholar Maria Josefina Saldaña-Portillo utilizes the indigenous to shift the parameters for transnational studies of the Americas, inviting scholars to consider how the histories of the United States and Mexico can be viewed and understood through visual geographies created by race. Flipping the famous frontier thesis of historian Frederick Jackson Turner, Saldaña-Portillo reminds us that "[i]t is not only the wilderness that masters the colonist, but the Indian" (10). In these borderland contact zones, she contends that the real or imagined "Indian" holds sway in colonial imaginations and the mythologies of empire. As a result, "the geographies of the United States and Mexico have been produced, materially and representationally, through historical, social, and racial relation with indigenous subjects" (6). These productions can be understood in contradictory ways. The continuity of indigenous presence creates a persistent tension that undermines prevailing US histories that enshrine "the vanishing Indian" while also complicating the Indian-centered origin stories undergirding modern Mexican historiography.
Extending her analysis over five chapters, Saldaña-Portillo chronologically examines the ways the United States and Mexico have interacted with indigenous peoples historically and culturally. From the colonial era through the present, she interrogates archives and positions her work at the nexus of indigenous representation, colonial imaginations, and shifting national and historical contexts. This grounds Indian Given as an interdisciplinary text as she makes her case that representations of indigenous peoples serve as landmarks, psychic antagonists, and reminders of the resistive power of the marginalized in the face of hegemonic programs of cultural and physical domination. Neither Mexican nor American conceptions of the Indian speak to one another in perfect translation through history or culture. To deeply interrogate the shifts in perception [End Page 126] that engage with "the Indian" and "el indio" across the US/Mexico border, Saldaña-Portillo employs a wide periodization and transnational—rather than comparative—method. Indian Given is grounded in theories drawn from cultural geography and allied fields. Saldaña-Portillo draws upon Denis Cosgrove, Henri LeFebvre, Matthew Sparke, Linda Peake, and others in bolstering her transnational approach to her sites of inquiry.
In its first chapter, Indian Given pursues the indigenous figure in its many imagined iterations through colonial archives. From tame to indio bárbaro, colonists continually shifted how they perceived and portrayed indigenous peoples in order to define their new societies and landscapes. As colonial and imperial imaginations constructed space, nations, and identities on both sides of the current US-Mexico border, Saldaña-Portillo contends that these phantom Indians created the means of understanding necessary to these projects. Later Mexican and US projects perpetuated the use of these indigenous figures as the means for understanding phenomena from modernity to military interventions. These symbolic actors could then "haunt two places at once," driving violence and colonization on both sides of the border (258).
Chapter 2 considers how indigenous figures are depicted by turns as savages and saviors, fueling the economic and military projects taking place on both sides of the border. Saldaña-Portillo writes, "[r]acial geography as a critical category enables us to discern the divergent genealogies of Indian difference" that migrated from the early Mexican and American colonies well into the twenty-first century (66). As white settlers pushed into indigenous territories in the American Southwest and Mexican North, native peoples were portrayed as benign or belligerent to serve changing political and economic purposes. Analyzing colonial petitions and contemporary films like No Country for Old Men, SaldañaPortillo contends these works are sites where the United States, Spain, and later Mexico used imagined and real indigenous peoples to consolidate power and control at moments of imperial crisis (70).
In chapter 3, she juxtaposes the imagined savagery of indigenous peoples with state-sponsored programs of imperial violence in the period between Mexican independence and the 1848 Treaty...