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Landscapes of Power and Identity undertakes two challenges that speak to the heart of the historical discipline: the comparative study of two separate colonies within the Spanish American imperium and the conjoining of environmental and cultural history.
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Why compare these two regions that, at first glance, appear so dramatically distant from each other? As I pondered this question I knew that it would prove imperative for a project of this nature to choose carefully those historical problems and geographic areas that lent themselves to comparison and, in turn, became enriched through the comparative exercise. Through the research process I became convinced that Sonora and Chiquitos are not merely case studies of colonial formations in the Americas; rather, their histories together illustrate the cultural and environmental complexities of frontier societies better than each could do alone. 6 Placing their stories between the covers of the same book builds a stronger narrative of borderlands, underscoring their porous quality as zones of contact among different biomes and cultures. In order to account for both the similarities and the differences of these two regions, the first obvious explanation pointed to the environmental contrasts between the Sonoran Desert and its mountainous borderlands and the Chiquitano forests and savannas. Geographical settings do not prescribe historical transcripts, however, and the search for explanations requires multiple lenses since the environments of these two colonies were created over millennia of human interaction with the physical surroundings. Their individual stories respond to distinct climates and terrains, to be sure; yet at the same time, they comprise different constellations of power, which emerge historically in different temporal rhythms.
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The second challenge this project addresses is found at the crossroads of environmental and cultural
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history. Its purpose is to interpret the environment as part of the social and cultural domains of historical inquiry while avoiding both geographical and cultural determinisms. It is based on the conviction that the environment does not merely provide the scenic backdrop to the human drama but that it is, rather, integral to the historical narrative. Nature comprehends the physical environment—with its constraints of topography, climate, hydrography, and biota, as well as humanly crafted landscapes and the cultural meanings they inscribe.
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The methodology employed in this work builds a historical dialogue between natural and cultural processes that is attentive to changes in the environment over time.
Introduction: Savannas and Deserts: Two Histories of Cultural Landscapes
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The texts from which these passages were taken illustrate the tension between human and natural agency that provides the foundation for this book. It is based on two simple premises: first, that people create the landscapes in which they live even as their cultures are shaped by their physical surroundings; and, second, that geographical differences matter in the course of human events because history occurs and is recorded in both space and time.
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Writ large, environmental history centers on themes of technology including societal achievements of horticulture, irrigation, and pastoralism; broadly differentiated settlement patterns; demography and epidemiology; and continental “exchanges” of flora, fauna, and
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Environmental historians address the consequences of imperial conquests for colonized peoples and landscapes, as well as the genesis of environmental policies put into practice in European overseas colonies.
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Culture, defined broadly, refers to values and systems of thought, as well as to the material conditions of living that are integral to the historical construction of social and political relations. The present study relates outward expressions of culture documented in texts, imagery, pageantry, and language to the material cultures exhibited in the economy and ecology of two specific colonial societies. As used here, culture-in-practice becomes both the object of study and the means of inquiry, referring to cultural formations viewed in historical processes of change and development.
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The term cultural ecology , as used here, explores human ecological relationships over time in two specific colonial contexts. 13 These dual histories of imperial and ecological frontiers develop the concept of cultural ecology through the associations between human societies and the material worlds they create, which are perceived in the layered moral and historical meanings of particular geographies and landscapes.
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Culture and nature, then, are necessarily conjoined in historical processes of reciprocal adaptations. Human creativity and its consequences set in motion social and economic forces of production and reproduction, destruction and renewal, with multiple repercussions for both nature and society over time.
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The term social ecology , closely linked to the broad definition of culture employed here, conveys the linkages between human and material resources and the political implications for their possession and use by competing social groups.
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It is foundational for the thesis of this book, which brings together nature, culture, and political economy to argue the centrality of the environment to stories of power and colonial confrontation.
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Landscapes provide the unifying framework for this comparative history. Understood as lived spaces created by human labor, landscapes emerge from ecological and cultural processes that have the power to transform deserts, savannas, forests, and streams through both human and natural agency.
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The material and symbolic significance of landscapes develops with the productive labor that has modified the physical environment and created historical memories. For many indigenous communities of past and present times, the locations of gardens and villages evoke legends of their ancestors and stories of lived experiences in reference to migrations and to the fusion and separation of families.
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The ecological, ethnic, and geopolitical boundaries that intersected both of these provinces belie a fixed notion of regionality and lead us to examine the historical construction of space comparatively over time. 27 Peripheral regions developed webs of exchange and dependency that tied them to colonial centers as well as to the European metropolis. Colonialism gave rise to multilayered political hierarchies because, in practice, the sites of imperial power were decentralized across distinct nodes of military, administrative, and ecclesiastical authority in the colonies.
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In chapter 1 , it asks how the colonial encounters were conditioned by the natural settings, technologies, and cultural expectations of the Sonoran and Chiquitano peoples.
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Chapter 2 asks how markets operated in each of these regions and how they intersected with wider commercial networks. What were their repercussions for control of labor, technology, and distribution of wealth?
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Chapter 3 explores the different meanings that competing social actors among colonizers and colonized ascribed to the notions of territory and property as spatial “goods” with economic and jurisdictional values. How did they create and defend cultural landscapes?
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Chapter 4 takes up the different social divisions in Sonora and Chiquitos, conventionally indicated by ethnicity, class, and gender. In what contrasting ways are mestizaje (racial mixture) and transculturation meaningful for both regions? How are social and environmental differences mutually implicated in the changing quality of ethnic identities? Chapter 5 turns to the exercise of power in the histories of local governance and during episodes of open conflict and violence in both these frontier provinces. Military narratives of contested boundaries speak to both the environmental contours and the spatial dimensions of defending an empire against elusive “enemies,” while native rebels challenge the locus of authority in mission communities.
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chapters 7 and 8 carry these stories into the nineteenth-century formation of the Mexican and Bolivian nation-states and focus on the tension between indigenous communities and the Creole societies that assumed control over the institutions of government and on the external relations that challenged the colonial boundaries of Sonora and Chiquitos and redefined their spatial dimensions as regions, respectively.
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Even as the newly declared nation-states of Mexico and Bolivia, arising after two decades of warfare and civil strife, undertook to sculpt “imagined communities” through national constitutions, flags, and other symbolic emblems, their boundaries were contested by the flow of contraband trade, by colonization schemes—sponsored and clandestine—and by the reassertion of ethnic polities within and across national borders.
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The chronological limits established for this comparative study do not define identical periodizations for each of the regions. Rather, within a common temporal framework, Sonora and Chiquitos present different processes of historical continuity and, conversely, moments of rupture in their institutional, spatial, and cultural networks. Placing their histories in comparative perspective within the covers of the same book helps to highlight the significance of episodical changes as these occur, and to distinguish points they have in common and where they diverge
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Distinct cultural identities endured in both regions through systems of cultivation adapted to the environment and the religious expressions of folk Catholicism, traditions that are themselves historically changing and reinvented over time, serving to demarcate sacred landscapes and ethnic territories.
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This comparative history speaks to current debates that reach across disciplines in history, geography, and anthropology concerning different methods and conceptual frameworks for writing about imperial systems and frontier societies. The shift from world-systems models to postcolonial studies as organizing principles of research has contributed to creative cross-regional discussions of imperialism, human agency, and the lived experiences of hybrid colonial societies.
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Latin American(ist) scholars have broadened the discussion, employing postcolonial theories to challenge long-standing assumptions of periodization, national identity, and colonial oppositions. 34 Together with students of other imperial systems, they address problems of racializing categories and cultural misreadings across colonial frontiers. Nevertheless, the relatively greater longevity of the Ibero-American empires, spanning nearly half a millennium and grounded in settler colonies, opens alternative perspectives on the Renaissance and the Counterreformation, the imperial state, and the complexity of colonial societies.
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Landscapes of Power and Identity takes up the challenge to build an integrated narrative that is attentive to long-term processes of change, while avoiding triumphalist epics or foregone conclusions. This book weaves together multiple story lines of diverse (and warring) Indian societies and of their rival colonial overlords in order to show the specific conditions of cultural and material production that work changes in human and natural environments.
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The foundational questions that guide this study focus on how partially colonized peoples advance their claims for physical and cultural survival, how they reconfigure their territories in the face of colonial imperatives for the displacement of people and the appropriation of resources, and how their identities evolve historically.