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Historical Geography

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Indigenous peoples -- Social life and customs, Historical geography


In my work with the tribes and First Nations of western North America, I am told the same stories again and again. In intricate and sometimes gruesome detail, I am told how the white world, in its efforts to occupy and claim the western half of the continent over the last two centuries, employed myriad strategies—strategies of conquest—to separate indigenous peoples from their lands. And in these stories, tribal members, no matter their levels of education or backgrounds, recognize that the military conflicts, genocide, territorial dispossession and displacement, and enforced marginalization that has characterized Indian-white relations over this period cannot be understood without an appreciation of factors that are, at their core, deeply geographic. The land and its resources provided the arriving colonizers with motive; every conflict had its geographic locus and its geographic objectives. For the Klamath— whose reservation was repeatedly subdivided and ultimately eliminated during the 20th century, and whose contemporary elders were raised by a generation who could recall the infamous “Indian hunts” that were carried out by militias to clear the way for white resettlement—the history of territorial conquest is remarkably fresh in their collective memory. To discuss the cataclysmic effects of colonialism and conquest within the lives of aboriginal peoples without acknowledging their emergence from the geographical desires of the Western world, they suggest, is nonsensical.

If the “strategies of conquest” that characterized this history were diverse, so too were they interdependent. Importantly for this issue of Historical Geography, the physical removal of indigenous peoples was in many ways contingent upon the textual removal of indigenous peoples (and perhaps vice versa). The ubiquitous presence of aboriginal societies in North America, in the wake of the Enlightenment, placed both physical and moral limits on the ambitions of European peoples. By crafting myths that depicted aboriginal societies as inferior, primitive, and brutal, the moral obstacles to displacement could be largely overcome. Thus, if conquest was propelled by the largely material desires of European peoples, it was supported by a host of relatively incorporeal racial and ethnic fictions. Tribal members, like critical scholars, are keenly aware that textual representation played an important role within the conquest of North America. Genteel racism, encoded in the utterances and writings of distant peoples, was as much to blame for the displacement of indigenous peoples as were rural militiamen, shooting at fleeing families from horseback. Clearly, the issues of representation and indigenous identity are inseparable from the larger debate surrounding aboriginal land and resource rights.


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* At the time of publication Douglas E. Deur was affiliated with the University of Nevada in Reno.

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