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What an Indigenous perspective on U.S. and Mexican history reveals

Even when they were at war, the U.S. and Mexico had much in common

Mexican politician Gerardo Fernandez Noroña holds up a map of the U.S. in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York on Jan. 4, 2017. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
7 min

It was 175 years ago this month that the United States ended its brutal invasion and war with Mexico through the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the United States, that war is easy to overlook, even though it came to define the country’s modern southern border (along with the Gadsden Purchase of 1854). The 1848 agreement ended a two-year long war and effectively ceded over half of Mexico’s national territory to its northern neighbor. Through the treaty, the United States acquired much of what is now California, Nevada, Utah, New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, as well as parts of Oklahoma, Kansas and Wyoming.

The war, and the treaty that ended it, helped make the United States a continental power, stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and it continues to shape the politics surrounding the United States’ southern border.

Although the war and its aftermath are central to the histories of both the United States and Mexico, they are remembered in dramatically different ways. In Mexican primary schools, children learn of the war as “la intervención estadounidense,” or the U.S. intervention, and it is a source of much nationalist resentment. By contrast, the war is scarcely acknowledged in U.S. popular memory. The California Gold Rush and the completion of the transcontinental railroad stand out in U.S. histories of westward expansion, and they are treated as natural and inevitable, rather than events made possible by a war of aggression. Despite the substantive differences in the way the two countries remember the treaty, these national narratives are both framed in patriotic terms, whether as victims of an unjust war or inheritors of manifest destiny.

But on this anniversary, as people in the United States continue to debate how to teach its history, it is long overdue that we move beyond these nationalist narratives and instead consider the war and treaty from the perspective of the original inhabitants of this continent. If we examine the treaty from an Indigenous perspective, we see striking parallels between the two warring countries. Both held racist views of Native peoples, both sought to seize Native land, and both were willing to use law and genocidal violence to achieve their aims.

In 1848, the U.S. and Mexico were relatively young nations, achieving their independence in 1776 and 1821, respectively. And despite their official rhetoric, neither nation fully broke with the logic of the colonial powers from which they were birthed.

Both nations inherited ideologies of racial hierarchy and supremacy, a desire for native land and the practice of chattel slavery. Both governments struggled, due to the persistence of powerful Indigenous nations, to impose their rule on the lands and people of what is now the U.S. southwest and state of California.

The land the United States acquired through the treaty had been part of colonial New Spain and then Mexico after 1821. The Spanish and subsequent Mexican governments struggled to control what constituted the northernmost periphery of their territory. The great Pueblo revolt of 1680 is just one example of effective Indigenous challenges to colonial rule.

Upon independence, the new Mexican government trumpeted republican ideals of liberty and equality, yet these were frequently turned against Native peoples’ collective land rights in the name of private property. And while authorities rhetorically paid homage to the ancient Aztec civilization, they promoted policies of assimilation and the teaching of Spanish, to the detriment of Native languages. Federal officials exercised formal sovereignty over the land, yet powerful Native nations such as the Kiowa, Pueblo, Apache, Comanche, Yaqui and Diné persisted in running their own affairs, taking advantage of their distance from the Mexican capital and the legacy of the Spanish república de indios system, a colonial policy that allowed for forms of Indigenous self-governance.

But while the new government formally moved to abolish slavery in 1829, the practice persisted, particularly in the northern peripheries, entrapping both African-descended and Native peoples.

Native nations faced colonial encroachment from the south but also from the east. In the mid-1830s, the movement for Texas independence, a settler project that sought to preserve slavery and consolidate U.S. power, encroached on Comanche and other Native lands. Thus, by the early 1840s, Native nations confronted hostile colonial powers in almost every direction.

Increasingly, Comanches, Kiowas and Apaches found few reasons to negotiate with Mexican authorities and instead opted to attack Mexican settlements on Native land. Across what was then northern Mexico, Indigenous raiders led coordinated attacks on Mexican towns, in what historian Brian DeLay has described as a “War of a Thousand Deserts.” The result of effective Indigenous raiding was the creation of “deserts,” abandoned and destroyed settlements. Mexican authorities denounced the attackers as “indios bárbaros,” an epithet that U.S. authorities fully agreed with.

In hindsight, the effectiveness of Indigenous raiding of Mexican settlements put the Mexican federal government in a much weaker position in 1846 when the United States declared war. Nonetheless, the U.S. intervention took longer than expected. The United States only could declare victory after pushing deep into Mexican territory, bombing civilian neighborhoods in the port city of Veracruz and occupying the capital, Mexico City.

With the signing of the treaty, these Indigenous lands became formally part of U.S. territory. Yet many Native peoples continued to attack settlements, on both sides of the new U.S.-Mexican border. Article 11 of the treaty, which mandated that the U.S. government was obligated to protect Mexican territory from “savage tribes,” is a testament to the persistence of this Indigenous power.

In what is today Arizona and New Mexico, the treaty reduced the autonomy of many Native nations. As Yavapai-Apache historian Maurice Crandall observed, in 1848 “the United States had never considered Indians as citizens.” In this context of a new colonial government, Native nations sought to maintain practices of local control, whether that involved advocacy for U.S. citizenship or forms of legal protected status. Native peoples had an ambivalent view of citizenship and electoral politics; some advocated for citizenship as a strategy of community empowerment, others eschewed it as another form of subjugation into a colonial project. In California, the Constitutional Convention quickly moved to deny Native people the right to vote. And during the Gold Rush, Native peoples experienced levels of state-sanctioned settler violence that approached genocide.

While the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo offered formal protections to former citizens of Mexico who now found themselves living in U.S. territory, in reality these individuals — Indigenous and otherwise — struggled for decades to have their land rights and languages respected. California enacted taxes on “foreign” miners, which targeted Spanish-speaking residents, and Native peoples increasingly found themselves denied rights to land, citizenship and education in the new U.S. territories.

The two young countries were not identical, but both pursued colonial strategies informed by anti-Indigenous racism. In this sense, Native peoples confronted two competing colonial projects aimed, at best, at their subordinated incorporation into these nations and, at worst, at their extermination. For centuries, and on whichever side of the U.S.-Mexico border they found themselves, Native peoples have fiercely and creatively defended their communities and lands. That defiance continues.

Today, as we reflect on the legacy of the 1848 treaty and the national borders it created, we would do well to consider from what vantage point we narrate this history and its meaning. If we move beyond national stories and center the histories of Indigenous people, these events look very different. How we remember this history is just as important as what we remember. Nationalist perspectives make it impossible to imagine a world without borders and the racism and inequality that they perpetuate.