Borderlands Borders and Global Frontiers
Borderlands And Frontiers As Zones Of Ethnic Change
Because borderlands and frontiers are zones between different human organizations, they are also zones of intense interactions of objects, peoples, and ideas. These interactions can range from very peaceful, mutually beneficial relationships to incessant warfare. Oftentimes, several types of interactions along the range from peaceful to warlike can occur simultaneously. For instance, along the northern frontier of New Spain (what is now the southwestern United States) various indigenous groups would have peaceful trading relationships with some Spanish villages while they were raiding others. This also occurred among various indigenous groups. Indeed, at times these opposite relations were not between different indigenous groups and villages but varied from family group to family group on both sides. In short, frontiers are zones of intense interactions, often of several types at the same time. These interactions can change rapidly with local circumstances. This locally variable volatility is a special characteristic of frontiers and borderlands.
These were and are zones where different products and processes mixed and intermingled, often leading to the development of new products and processes. On frontiers one process of this sort, called ethnogenesis, is especially salient. Ethnogenesis is the formation of a new ethnic group via the amalgamation of two or more previously distinct groups.
With the interactions of different peoples, interbreeding and intermarriage were not rare, even in cases in which one or both sides tried to prevent such mixing. When the mixing became sufficiently regular and frequent, it could give rise to an entirely new group. The Metís in Canada and Genízaros in northern New Spain are examples. The Metís grew from unions between French fur traders—typically males—and indigenous women. These long-term relations were mutually beneficial. French fur traders gained access to furs collected and processed through their wives' groups (such unions were frequently polygynous, with the trader having more than one wife, often from different groups). The indigenous groups gained access to European trade goods acquired through traders who were relatives and hence under considerable kinship obligation to trade fairly. In the early twenty-first century the Metís are still negotiating with the Canadian government for recognition as a people distinct from both indigenous or first nations and from European immigrants.
In northern New Spain there was an active trade in captives, both indigenous peoples captured by Spaniards during fighting and Spaniards captured by indigenous peoples; in both cases, the captives were typically women or children. Indigenous children raised in Spanish communities developed a separate identity that was neither fully Spanish nor fully of their natal indigenous group. If an individual Genízaro or his family rose to prominence, typically as a frontier soldier or sometimes through economic success, he or they could be assimilated into Hispanic society. When the United States annexed the region, the trade in captives rapidly ceased, and the Genízaro population gradually assimilated into either Hispanic or indigenous societies.
The anthropologist Frederick Barth describes another role for boundaries with respect to ethnic identity. Barth argues that ethnicity is not defined by its content but rather by the boundary or boundaries that separate one group from another. This seemingly counterintuitive view developed from studies showing that when individuals or families crossed ethnic boundaries (which may or may not coincide with political boundaries), they often changed identity. Such events are not all that rare in the ethnographic record. Furthermore, some individuals and families made such changes more than once in a single lifetime. Typically, such changes are associated with changes in ecological adaptation. Chinese farmers who moved onto the steppe and became pastoralists typically joined a nomad group and took up that group's culture. If or when they moved back and again took up farming, they again became Chinese. In such cases, not only is the border or frontier a membrane, but it also is a catalyst for identity change. As noted, such ethnic boundaries seem most common where local ecology forces changes in productive strategies. Changes in climate and especially the development of new technologies allow such borders to shift over time.
Recent research by the biologist Mark Pagei and the anthropologist Ruth Mace supports Barth's interpretation. Pagei and Mace argue that boundaries help maintain a sense of group and enhance social solidarity and cooperation, but often at the cost of promoting conflict with other groups. Thus boundaries and borders play an important role in group formation, even while generating conflict between groups.
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- Borderlands Borders and Global Frontiers - Frontier As Membrane
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