How the Identity of the American Southwest Was Forged

A horseman poses at Monument Valley Tribal Park in Utah in 2012. (Charles Platiau/Reuters)
In A Land Apart, Flannery Burke explores a distinctive region that is an integral part of our nation.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE A modern nation is, according to historian Benedict Anderson, an imagined community; collectively imagined by its people as limited, with clearly marked territorial boundaries that separate it from its neighbors; and imagined as sovereign, for each nation has its own political system and civic culture. It is also imagined as a community despite sometimes great internal social, ethnic, and regional variation. What binds those often disparate parts together as a whole is a common sense of history and destiny, so that, as Anderson says, “the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship.”

In the introduction to the book All Over the Map: Rethinking American Regions, Edward Ayers and Peter Onuf focus on regional diversity as a part of the American imagined community when they say that American identities are based on regions where time and space converge; places that give those who live there their identities, where people acquire their distinctive ways of speaking, and where they take on the historic burden of their region. And no matter where those people may move, they cherish memories of the regions they come from. Without regions, say the authors, there could be no country, without the parts there can be no whole. Thus regions, as diverse as they may be, are integral parts of a nation.

Flannery Burke describes those relationships and identities for a distinctive American region in her cultural history A Land Apart: The Southwest and the Nation in the Twentieth Century. As history, this book necessarily includes major events, but as cultural history it focuses more on individuals and communities as they live and interact in a common setting, and how they and others have expressed that particular place in stories and in art. The communities in this region are indigenous tribes, found in greater numbers in the Southwest than elsewhere in the country, along with descendants of Hispanic settlers whose heritage goes back to the 17th century; and descendants of Anglo settlers from the 19th century, as well as later newcomers from other parts of the country and from across the U.S.-Mexico border, all of whom make the Southwest a distinctive part of the nation. Another defining feature is the region’s aridity, an environment to which human populations have had to adapt since the earliest times, and which requires ever continuing adaptations as technology advances and as populations expand. The author devotes a chapter to this topic titled “Water Is the Earth’s Blood” and describes how the desert environment has figured in the way the Southwest has been imagined and depicted.

Regions are defined by boundaries; by those imposed by geographic and climatic conditions, and by cultural and political divisions. Sometimes those different kinds of boundaries coincide, and sometimes they cut across one another. The story of internal and geographic boundaries in the Southwest is a part of the story told here, the story of how the Territory of New Mexico was created in 1848 after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo that ended the Mexican War; how that territory was divided from other parts of the arid American West, and how it was further divided in the contentious days before and during the Civil War, and in a politically charged atmosphere afterwards, until 1912 when the separate territories of Arizona and New Mexico were finally admitted to the Union as states.

In the east–west division between the two states we see a case in which a political boundary corresponds to both historical and current differences within an otherwise similar area. Indigenous Arizona was the home of nomadic native peoples such as the Navajo and the Apache, while New Mexico was inhabited by the sedentary Pueblo tribes. Also, New Mexico was the area settled in the 17th century by a Spanish-speaking population, while Arizona was sparsely settled during that period, and therefore became more Anglo in its cultural grounding. Differences today of political orientation and industrial activity further differentiate the two states of the Southwest.

Those lines are borders. But as the author points out, the international line that divides the United States and Mexico is the line that for most people is the border. She then cites the work of borderland scholars who recognize the border for what it is: “a line in the sand, or a man-made boundary” as seen by scholars who invite us to look across that line at the interaction of two different nation states, as well as at transborder commercial interests and enterprises and the activity of everyday people that make the borderland a distinctive feature of the Southwest. In this regard she tells the story of the cross-border relations of the two countries in the early 20th century, briefly describing the Mexican Revolution and its impact on the border. A major event at that time was Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, N.M., in 1916, followed by the unsuccessful Punitive Expedition across the border in an attempt to apprehend him. She also shows how the dispute between Mexico and the United States contributed to America’s entry into World War I when the Germans, in the Zimmermann telegram, offered to restore Texas and the Southwest to Mexico if it would enter an alliance with Germany in case of war.

John J. Pershing led the Punitive Expedition and only months later in 1917 was given command of the American Expeditionary Force in World War I. As a young lieutenant in the Sixth Cavalry, Pershing took part in the last campaigns against the Apache who were led at that time by Geronimo. Pershing died in 1948 three years after the first atomic bombs were detonated in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The Southwest therefore was—as seen in the lifetime of one man—the scene of one of the last encounters in the Indian Wars and the beginning of the Atomic Age, for it was in Los Alamos that scientists gathered during the Second World War to develop the atomic bomb which was first tested in Alamogordo (both in New Mexico), a story which Burke relates in human terms in a chapter titled “Boomtowns: The Nuclear Southwest.”

Burke also shows how this distinctive region has been expressed in stories such as native American folk tales, in biographies, novels, and even comic books, as well as in the art of such painters as Georgia O’Keefe and in the adaptation of the architecture of the Native American and the Hispanic Southwest for a distinctive Southwestern style. A Place Apart is an addition to the literature on American culture and its history, but it will also appeal to anyone interested in the rich mosaic of American regions, and especially to those who live in, who know, or who are planning one day to visit the Southwest.

Glynn Custred is a professor emeritus of anthropology at California State University, East Bay, and the author, most recently, of A History of Anthropology as a Holistic Science.

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