In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Indigenous Borderlands in Colonial and 19th-Century Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General and Comparative Works
  • Circum-Caribbean
  • Amazonia and Brazil
  • Gran Chaco and Guaraní Borderlands
  • Southern Cone

Latin American Studies Indigenous Borderlands in Colonial and 19th-Century Latin America
Joaquín Rivaya-Martínez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 October 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 October 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0287


The expression “Indigenous borderlands” refers to those spaces of vague and porous contours where independent or semiautonomous Natives remained key historical agents after contact with people of European descent, interethnic exchanges were common, and no polity or community could exert full domination. Even though most Amerindian societies ended up displaced, exterminated, or incorporated into modern states, scores of Natives adapted to the European intrusion in ways that allowed them to preserve their independence, their sovereignty, their land, and their culture for prolonged periods, thus giving rise to Indigenous borderlands across the Western Hemisphere. In Indigenous borderlands, Natives successfully resisted European conquest and colonization, at least initially, as the newcomers failed to subjugate and acculturate them. Europeans brought deadly epidemics, environmental changes, and unprecedented competition over resources, labor demands, and warfare. Natives often responded through increased mobility, migration, military resistance, alliance, and selective incorporation of Old World species, technologies, and ideas. These strategies permitted some Indigenous groups to retain, at least partly, their distinct identity and their sovereignty into the nineteenth century and beyond, often through processes of hybridity and ethnogenesis. Even though few historians explicitly acknowledge the notion of Indigenous borderlands, the scholarship on Native agency, resilience, and power in contested regions of colonial and 19th-century Latin America has grown considerably in the last decades. This article includes a selection of works singled out for centering Natives and/or emphasizing Indigenous agency in long-lasting borderlands. Mesoamerica and the Andes have been left out to focus on other regions where Natives retained their independence and sovereignty longer, and on which the literature is less extensive. The unequal coverage of regions and Indigenous groups largely reflects the existing scholarship and the preference generally given to English-language and more recent works.

General and Comparative Works

Rivaya-Martínez 2023 problematizes the notion of Indigenous borderlands, presents several case studies across the Western Hemisphere from the sixteenth to the twentieth centuries, and discusses research avenues. Covering the colonial period, Barr and Countryman 2014 is also hemispheric in scope, although most of its chapters deal with North America. Levin Rojo and Radding 2019 is a massive anthology including numerous essays on Indigenous borderlands throughout Ibero-America since colonial times that serve as a good introduction to the respective regions and periods they cover. Bushnell 2002 challenges the dichotomy center-periphery that pervades the literature on Latin American frontiers. Guy and Sheridan 1998 spotlights the northern and southern borderlands of the Spanish Empire, and so does Medina Bustos and Padilla Calderón 2013, although some of its chapters continue the story into the twentieth century, whereas de Jong and Escobar Ohmstede 2016 focuses on 19th-century Latin America. The journal Ethnohistory has been publishing innovative scholarship on Indigenous borderlands, mostly in the Americas and often from multidisciplinary perspectives, for decades. Bernabéu, et al. 2012 deals with processes of indigenization across the Western Hemisphere from the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries. Weber 2005 discusses Spanish relations with independent Natives across the Americas in the late colonial period. Robins 2005 compares three major Indigenous insurgencies in the Spanish-speaking Americas between the late seventeenth and the early twentieth centuries.

  • Barr, Juliana, and Edward Countryman, eds. Contested Spaces of Early America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014.

    This international collaboration deals with Indigenous borderlands from Upper Canada to Argentina from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Issues discussed include colonial mapping; Native dispossession and (voluntary and coerced) resettlement; Indigenous agency in the contest for, and preservation of, ancestral land; selective adaptations to the European intrusion; and the transformation of landscapes, memory, and art.

  • Bernabéu, Salvador, Christophe Giudicelli, and Gilles Havard, eds. La indianización: Cautivos, renegados, ‘hommes libres’ y misioneros en los confines de las Américas, s. XVI–XIX. Seville, Spain: Doce Calles, 2012.

    This transatlantic collaboration analyzes the processes of assimilation, transculturation, and incorporation through which captives, missionaries, traders, and other non-Natives acquired Indigenous cultures and identities—what the editors refer to as “Indianization.” Case studies come from across the Western Hemisphere, but mostly from Latin America, between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries.

  • Bushnell, Amy Turner. “Gates, Patterns, and Peripheries: The Field of Frontier Latin America.” In Negotiated Empires: Centers and Peripheries in the Americas, 1500–1820. Edited by Christine Daniels and Michael V. Kennedy, 15–28. New York: Routledge, 2002.

    Bushnell rejects traditional paradigms that emphasize European imperial power and Indigenous victimization in Latin American frontiers. Using 17th-century Spanish Florida as an example, she proposes to look at understudied areas and periods often labeled as peripheral through the lens of negotiation. A theoretically rich essay that offers alternative definitions to key terms and proposes a new typology of frontiers.

  • de Jong, Ingrid, and Antonio Escobar Ohmstede, eds. Las poblaciones indígenas en la conformación de las naciones y los Estados en la América Latina decimonónica. Mexico City: El Colegio de México, 2016.

    This Spanish-language anthology explores how Indigenous peoples adapted to the consolidation of Latin American nation-states and reacted to the “second conquest” by Latin American republics in the nineteenth century. From northern Mexico to southern Argentina and Chile, Natives claimed individual and collective rights and negotiated new identities and classifications. This work offers useful analytical and methodological considerations.

  • Ethnohistory. 1954–.

    Many journals publish solid scholarship on Indigenous history, but Ethnohistory stands out for centering Native agency and perspectives, for its multidisciplinary outlook, for its attention to Indigenous borderlands, and for its overall quality. Originally focused almost exclusively on territory within the present United States, it has substantially diversified over time to encompass the entire hemisphere and beyond.

  • Guy, Donna J., and Thomas E. Sheridan, eds. Contested Ground: Comparative Frontiers on the Northern and Southern Edges of the Spanish Empire. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1998.

    A collaborative effort by anglophone scholars that explores the constant negotiation of power between Natives and Hispanics through violent and non-violent means across the northern and southern fringes of the Spanish Empire in the Americas. Issues discussed include Spanish conquest, Native resistance, Jesuit missionization, Indigenous raiding, ethnicity, gender, and the socioeconomic and cultural impact of the introduction of Old World livestock.

  • Levin Rojo, Danna, and Cynthia Radding, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Borderlands of the Iberian World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2019.

    A fundamental, comprehensive state-of-the-art volume on the borderlands of Spanish- and Luso-America with important conceptual contributions by a select multinational team of scholars. Most chapters center Indigenous agency, and many situate the studied borderlands within broader socioeconomic and political contexts. Themes explored include the transformation of pre-contact Indigenous borderlands; and Native resistance, adaptation to, and influence on Iberians through exchange; ethnogenesis; knowledge production; and other processes. Available online through purchase or subscription.

  • Medina Bustos, José Marcos, and Esther Padilla Calderón, eds. Indios, españoles y mestizos en zonas de frontera, siglos XVII–XX. Hermosillo, Mexico: El Colegio de Sonora, 2013.

    Conceived as an expansion of Guy and Sheridan 1998, this Spanish-language anthology focuses on Indigenous contributions to the formation of frontier societies in Latin America. Most chapters deal with New Spain/Mexico. Themes discussed include Native resilience, the persistence of unconquered Indigenous communities, systems of forced labor, and conflict and negotiation between Natives and non-Natives.

  • Rivaya-Martínez, Joaquín, ed. Indigenous Borderlands: Native Agency, Resilience, and Power in the Americas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2023.

    A fundamental work by a select international team of scholars that centers Indigenous peoples as pivotal historical agents in long-lasting borderlands across the Americas. Contributions emphasize the fruitfulness of multidisciplinary approaches; showcase Native agency, resilience, and sovereignty; highlight the historical relevance of charismatic Indigenous leaders; and expose the ways in which colonial discourses often project distorted views of the Native past.

  • Robins, Nicholas A. Native Insurgencies and the Genocidal Impulse in the Americas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005.

    A comparative analysis of three important Indigenous uprisings: New Mexico’s 1680 Pueblo Revolt, the 1780–1782 Great Rebellion in today’s Peru and Bolivia, and the so-called Caste War of Yucatán that extended from 1849 to 1903. Robins casts all three as nativistic revitalization movements, both millenarian and genocidal in nature. A multilayered, thought-provoking reading that is ideal to spur debate in the classroom.

  • Weber, David J. Bárbaros: Spaniards and Their Savages in the Age of Enlightenment. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005.

    A masterful classic exploring how independent unacculturated Natives (whom Spaniards called bárbaros) retained their autonomy and sovereignty on the many frontiers of the Spanish Americas. Beginning in the 1760s, enlightened Spanish officials tried to implement policies that generally favored diplomacy over military conquest to achieve a stronger control of the frontiers while minimizing expenditures. On the ground, however, this often translated into de facto Spanish recognition of Indigenous power.

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