In this paper I review some of the understandings of frontiers and borders in a deep global and historical perspective to shine some light on contemporary issues. In particular I seek to sort out what is really new in the 21st century, what is typical of the modern era – modern as in the modern world-system – and what is a continuation of older processes that may stem back as far as the invention of the state at Ur some five millennia ago. I must caution, however, that this account is colored by the larger project of which it is a part. That project is a broad comparative study of frontiers, driven by variance maximizing strategy to begin to define the “universe” of frontiers (for elaboration of this theme see Hall 2009). This project is a first step in trying to extract salient characteristics of frontiers that might be useful in a boolean analysis (Ragin 1987) of frontiers, akin to John Foran’s (2005) of third world revolutions.

            Thus, the comparisons of the American Southwest, a frontier at least with respect to European states since 1542 or so – and much older if one looks at inter-polity frontiers among indigenous populations since well before European intrusion. The Yunnan frontier (Yang 2004, 2009, 2011) lasted much longer from at least two thousand years ago until the present. It was shaped by evolution of various Chinese states, and by states in Southeast, and to some extent South Asia. This frontier, then, was relatively little impacted by European states, and includes multiple frontiers with both state and non-state societies. Both regions have been, and even today remain, frontier zones. In the 21st century both are also important borderlands for two of the most important players in the modern world-system, the U.S. and China. They also share a historical orientation to the areas outside of the two states into which they were ultimately incorporated. Both also brought a great many new practices and ideas into the incorporating states Yunnan much moreso than the New Spain.

            Indeed, the two areas New Spain/Southwest United States and what might be called greater Yunnan are part of much larger set of frontiers. New Spain/Southwest United States is a part of the very large set of Spanish frontiers throughout the Americas. In a project and following volume, Contested Ground (Guy and Sheridan 1998a, b), many of these frontiers are compared and contrasted to elucidate both general and regionally specific aspects of Hispanic frontiers in the Americas. This is avowedly not a variance maximizing strategy, but one of close comparisons because the major outside driver of frontier formation and transformation was the same imperial power, Spain. This type of comparison serves to highlight local differences precisely because global differences are minimized. Indeed, more than one observer has noted that frontier administrators rotated not only through the Americas, but into the Philippines, where they referred to local indigenes as “indios” (e.g. Hall 1998).

            On the other hand Yunnan was one of many different frontiers. Crossley et al. (2006, p. 17) note that “It would be advantageous to set research results side by side – on the oasis frontier of the Northwest, the transmural steppe / sown frontiers of the North, the intra-imperial economic and cultural frontiers of the Southwest, and the coastal frontier of the sands in the Pearl River delta” in the introduction to an edited collection that begins that process. As they note for China, so too with the Spanish empires the various frontiers interacted, sometime directly, more often indirectly through various administrative processes and personnel.

            In comparing these two regions I underscore my own argument (Hall 1989, 1998) and Yang’s argument (2009) that any frontier, especially these two can only be understood in the contexts of their larger, global interactions, but equally so analysis requires careful attention to specific, local contexts and interactions. Indeed, a first general lesson from this – and potentially many other – comparisons is that to neglect either the local or the global hinders comprehension of complex social interactions.

            I begin with brief accounts of each region, then turn to a listing of similarities and differences, then focus on comparisons among pre-modern, proto-modern, and modern frontiers. I use these comparisons then to extract some border lessons and questions about contemporary frontiers and borders.


Southwest China as a Set of Frontiers [1]

                        Yang 2009, Map 6.1, ca. p. 208: Yunnan in the Qing Empire


Southwest China, essentially what eventually became Yunnan and some contiguous areas, was an amorphous, changing region. Manning (2005, p. 6) summarizes its history succinctly: “from autonomous region to center of major states to borderland of expanding Chinese dynasties to province within China.”

            Yunnan, which means approximately the land south of the clouds, is an ethnocentric Chinese construct. The region was, and remains, home to several dozen different ethnic groups which in total outnumbered Han Chinese immigrants until just a few centuries ago. Yunnan’s connections to the lands below the winds, that is, Southeast Asia were often as strong as or stronger than its connections to China and existed for over two millennia. Yunnan was connected to what we now know as Tibet, India, and Southeast Asia via a Southwest Silk Road which complemented and supplemented the northern overland Silk Road and the more southerly maritime Silk Road (see too Liu 2011 and Liu and Shaffer 2007).



Yang, 2009, Chap 2, Maps 2.1, 2.2, 2.3: Southwest Silk Road in the Qin-Han Period (221bce-220ce), in the Nanzhao-Dali Period (8th cent – 13th cent), and in in the Yuan-Ming-Qing Period (1271 – 1912)


            The Southwest Silk Road seldom was used to transport silk, but did carry cowries, jade, copper, Buddhist texts, horses and other goods. Yunnan was a major source of information to China about Southeast Asia, especially Burma (aka Myanmar). Two products were very valuable to China: horses and copper. Yunnan is a mountainous and highly varied region, which partially accounts for its ethnic diversity. It has extensive mineral resources. Because of its altitude much of the region is amenable to horse breeding, unlike more tropical areas. Often it was an alternative to the northern steppe pastoralists as a source of horses. Thus, a dire need for horses tempered the southern Song Dynasty’s interactions with Yunnan.

            Prior to the thirteenth century various local kingdoms were able to use geographic, climatic, and geopolitical conditions to maintain a degree of autonomy from other states, especially China, and to negotiate, often favorably, the degree and type of incorporation the region experienced. In lowland areas presence of diseases not common in the north killed many invaders (Yang 2010). Mountainous regions presented difficult terrain and at times extremes of cold. During the second and first centuries BCE Han attempts to conquer the region had minimal success and were eventually abandoned because of the much more serious threats from the Xiongnu in the north. After the northern frontier was somewhat stabilized there were further Han forays into Yunnan, but its control was soon weakened with the decline and finally collapse of the empire in the late second century.  Serious attempts at conquest did not begin again until the third century during the Three Kingdom period, followed a few century of semi autonomy of local peoples until their unification under the Nanzhao kingdom in the seventh century. The Nanzhao state maintained considerable autonomy by playing Tang China and Tubo (Tibet) against each. Early in the tenth century Nanzhao, Tubo, and Tang China collapsed.

            As long as those goals were met, local rule prevailed. The succeeding Ming Dynasty sought stronger conquest of the region in order to avoid a dependency like that of the Southern Song had experienced with Yunnan to gain access to horses. The Ming sought “to make Yunnan a permanent part of China” (Yang 2009, p. 95).

            Ironically, Yunnan became a part of China as result of the Mongol conquest in 1253 and became part of the Yuan Dynasty. The Mongol conquest was relatively mild because Mongol interest in trade and access to trade routes was more important than territorial expansion per se, and  because they were unable to penetrate local chieftainships. As long as those goals were met, local rule prevailed.

            Up to this time rule was primarily indirect through local, native or indigenous, leaders. Yang argues that “Sinicization and indigenization were two sides of the process through which a middle ground was negotiated” (2009, p. 102). Chinese had long ruled frontier peoples based on native customs, but with the intentions of “civilizing” (sinicizing) them eventually. This took approximately five centuries in Yunnan. This is a major reason why it is an excellent locale to study these processes. Attempts to balance a need for frontier stability, continued sinicization, and use indigenous peoples in frontier defense, while a clear goal, was often messy or even unsuccessful in practice.

            The parallel strategies of direct and indirect administrative systems continued through the Mongol Yuan period and extended into the Ming Dynasty. Centralized, province-wide administration was built on governors who were appointed to rule sub-regions. In rural areas that had a preponderance of indigenous populations native chiefs were placed under the rule of these officials. While local leaders were required to pay tribute and meet other obligations, this did not eliminate continuing interactions including payments to other states in Southeast Asia.Slowly the Ming and Qing Dynasties adopted the gaitu guiliu policy that sought to transform native chief into a part of the imperial administration. Gradually, the domination of ethnicity over administration in the native chief areas changed to a system in which ethnicity became a subdivision of administration. This was facilitated many imperial regulations and practices such as regulating the inheritance of chieftainship and taking sons of chief to Chinese schools (central or local) to train them in Chinese language and administrative processes. Upon their return they became agents of sinicization.

            This process, however was not one-sided. Yang argues that sinicization and indigenization were sides of the same coin. They contributed to the emergence of Yunnanese as provincial identity and in turn became an avenue for the absorption of some Yunnanese practices into Chinese identity and culture. By the end of the Ming Dynasty immigration, settlement of soldiers, and movement of traders, Han people became the largest ethnic population in Yunnan. “Climate, topography, mineral sources, and native economic practices all forced Chinese migrants to adopt native economic structures (Yang, p. 164). The introduction of “a Chinese agrarian production regime … was challenged by local climate and topography” (Yang, p. 164). Thus, a hybrid society developed. Sinicization grew through bureaucratic administration and continued education of sons of local indigenous leaders. Indigenization entailed the introduction of many “barbarian” customs and goods into Chinese culture such as some types of clothes, dances, chairs, and so on. Local climatic conditions forced changes in Han agricultural practices.

            The presence of large mining communities led to types of urbanization different from those in the central provinces. Coweries (shell money) continued in use longer than any other part of China (Yang 2004, 2011). Gender imbalances in immigration led to extensive intermarriage. But intermarriage also gave traders and others better access into local networks. This was the main path of introduction of different sexual practices and sexual tools from Yunnan into Chinese culture. All of these changes contributed to the emergence of a distinctive Yunnanese identity. Yang (2009) argues that these changes were also roots of the minzu system (officially recognized minority groups) which is still in operation today: “In essence, the incorporation of Yunnan helped build China as a multiethnic entity” (p. 182). These processes allow a special window into changes in both the meaning and content of “ethnicity” in China.

            Gradually the economy became redirected to China, and there was slow shift from cowries to copper as money. Silver was so abundant that it was used in many Buddhist statues. By the end of the Ming Dynasty Yunnan produced seventy-five per cent of China’s silver, a scale comparable to silver imports from the New World. China came to depend on frontier production. Cowries remained useful for local small scale trade and along the Southwest Silk Road because no single state could implement a currency policy. Although cowries began to disappear from China about two millennia ago, in Yunnan as late as the Ming Dynasty cowries were used to pay taxes, to pay local salaries, and even donations to monasteries. The long use of cowries was due to Southwest Silk Road trade, but eventually disappaeared when Europeans expanded into Southeast Asia and disrupted the supply.

            In the Qing Dynasty immigration to Yunnan increased gradually, no doubt aided by the introduction of New World crops like tomatoes and corn which opened hilly areas to increased food production driven by and making possible increased urbanization and industrialization, which in turn spurred further increases in food production. Population grew from five million in 1700 to twenty million by mid nineteenth century. These shifts helped promote the creation of a Yunnanese identity that has remained somewhat distinct within overall Chinese identity.[2]

            Copper mining was the primary force toward industrialization. Reduction of Japanese copper supply heightened interest in Yunnanese copper. While Chinese administrations generally discouraged concentration of miners as potential sources of unrest, they were necessary in Yunnan. Increased copper mining and smelting took a severe toll on local ecology. Decline in available charcoal eventually slowed copper production. Yang argues that the Yunnan frontier had significant impacts on the world-system through its various external links.

            Yunnan’s many identities contributed to the development of a Chinese multi-ethnic culture. A key shift was from “barbarians” to imperial subjects, to “younger brothers” in larger Chinese ethnicity. In Yunnan ethnic groups were able to maintain a modicum of autonomy, and developed a larger Yunnanese identity which in turn shaped the history of the minzu system (ethnic group). This is a particularly salient example of how frontier processes and policies can shape national policies.

            Clearly, Yunnan has remained a frontier connecting multiple civilizations – China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia.


“The Greater Southwest”: A Brief History [3]

Defining the “Greater Southwest,” like defining Yunnan, is difficult because it is vague and changed through time. Meinig (1971, p. 3) says:

The Southwest is a distinctive place to the American mind but a somewhat blurred place on American maps, which is to say that everyone knows that there is a Southwest but there is little agreement as to just where it is... . The term "Southwest" is of course an ethnocentric one: what is south and west to the Anglo-American was long the north of the Hispanic-American... .

Reed (1964:175) facetiously defined the Southwest as reaching from Durango to Durango (Mexico and Colorado) and from Las Vegas to Las Vegas (New Mexico and Nevada) (The first four entries of Stoddard et al. 1983 discuss the definition of the Southwest in detail).

Hall 1989, Map III.1, pg. 35: The Southwest: A Context for Definition


            For approximately the first three centuries of European domination, the American Southwest was the northwestern frontier of New Spain. There were two waves of incorporation into world-economies: the Spanish-Mexican from the 1530s to 1846; and the American from 1846 to the present. Spain and the United States offer an opportunity to compare a declining mercantile power with a rising semiperipheral industrial power. At the regional and local levels there were many indigenous societies, each with its own trajectory of incorporation.

            Spaniards entered the area in the 1530s and colonized New Mexico under Oñate in 1598. They did not encounter a large world-system, nor did they find a "new" Mexico as the rumors of gold and of the seven cities of Cibola had led them to believe. Trade and other connections between the Southwest and Mesoamerica had attenuated severely centuries earlier. Social change at the time of Spanish intrusion was toward decreasing social complexity.[4] Disappointed colonists wanted to leave, but the Viceroy ordered them to stay in New Mexico to pre-empt potential claims by Euorpean rivals and to protect the silver mines far to the south around Zacatecas.[5] They extracted resources from the horticultural Pueblo societies, treating them as vassal "nations" to the Spanish king, and controlled trade with nomadic groups.[6] Franciscan friars sought to force Pueblo groups to adopt the Christian faith, These efforts sometimes were supported by local civil authorities. At other times, when the Friars interfered with economic activities such as the sale of captives, civil authorities undermined missionary efforts. Church and state often worked at cross purposes.

            Continual lack of state support pushed the military to supplement its pay with booty taken during conflicts. Indeed, occasionally obtaining spoils of conflict were a major motivator of it. The main resources available from nomadic groups were captives to be used as domestic servants or sold to the miners in the south. Horses, and to a lesser extent guns, gradually spread to indigenous peoples, despite Spanish efforts to monopolize both. Again, acquiring horses and guns were a major motivator of indigenous raids. Nomads who wanted horses or guns to defend themselves against raids by rivals had little to trade but captives taken from their own enemies. Raids by on indigenous group on another prompted vengeance by kinsmen, which quickly led to a state of endemic warfare.[7] The continuous trade in captives, the shortage of military resources, and Spanish civil-ecclesiastic bickering reinforced engendered endemic warfare among indigenous groups, and between them and Spanish settlers. Oppression, both economic and religious, of Pueblos during the seventeenth century led to a rebellion (Pueblo Revolt) in 1680 which drove the Spaniards from New Mexico for thirteen years.

            Worry about European rivals and Church worry over the few Christianized Indians left behind prompted reconquest and recolonization of New Mexico in 1693. Thereafter many of the same conditions arose again. Societies with fluid social organizations, changing leadership, and vague boundaries, do not mesh well with bureaucratic organizations. Logistic problems exacerbated the problems generated by competing lines of authority in New Spain. Policies were influenced by local trade, especially in captives, and by the variations in ecological adaptation of local groups.

            The Viceroys of New Spain needed to pacify the frontier, but had limited resources to do so. Endemic warfare was a major obstacle and source of expense. Even after the late eighteenth century reorganization of the frontier provinces (Bourbon Reforms) Northern New Spain cost at least 55,000 pesos annually to administer. Efforts to economize shifted the pressures on indigenous groups. Gradually, New Mexican administrators invented new strategies to curtail the fighting. The small Spanish minority maintained control through induced dependence on Spanish goods, a divide and conquer approach toward alliances, and pressure on nomadic groups toward political centralization.

            Governors tried to settle nomadic groups into compact farming communities in imitation of Spanish villages. This process had worked in central New Spain, it was not effective on the northern frontiers because of the ready opportunity to flee to hinterlands. Officials designated leaders with whom to negotiate and frequently gave staffs of office, medals, and other insignia to them. This worked better with sedentary groups than with nomadic groups. Pueblos became increasingly symbiotic with Hispanic settlers, a tendency reinforced by the continual threat of nomadic raiders. Often, however this symbiosis was quite shallow and native cultures went underground. This how and why in the twenty-first century many Pueblo religious practices and several indigenous languages persist.

            Few nomads were sedentarized effectively, but they did become somewhat more centrally organized, that is they developed somewhat more institutionalized forms of leadership. This pressure was strongest on Comanche bands (Kavanaugh 1996; Hämäläinen 2008), while an opposing divide and conquer strategy promoted fragmentation of Apache bands.

            Comanches, who occupied territory at and beyond the edge of the northern frontier, were able to trade with Plains groups and some Europeans to obtain guns. There are some reports, disputed by some scholars, that Comanches brought French flintlocks to the Pecos (NM) trade fairs. Settlers eagerly sought such guns to circumvent the official restriction of firearms to the military. Comanches obtained horses in return and also from Apaches and other groups. Comanches quickly became very successful mounted hunters and warriors by capitalizing on their middle position in the horse and gun trade. They developed extensive trade networks of their own and came to dominate the region north and west of the New Mexican frontier (Hämäläinen 1993, 2003, 2008).

            New Mexican governor de Anza (1778-1787) repeatedly defeated Comanche bands and banned trade with them, while Texas blocked their trade with Louisiana. In 1785 many Comanches sought peace. Governors de Anza (New Mexico) and Cabello (Texas) required similar conditions: cease hostilities with Spanish subjects; release captives Spaniards; no trade with other Europeans; conformance to Spanish declarations of peace and war; fight against Lipan Apaches; pursuit of Apaches in Coahuila only with Spanish permission; and that all Comanches agree in unison. In return they would receive annuities. A treaty made in April 1787 led to the appointment of Ecueracapa as "captain general" of all Comanches. He was granted an annual salary of 200 pesos with another 100 pesos for a subordinate chief.[8] New Mexico would not grant asylum to Comanches who fled tribal law. During a drought a few years later citizens of Santa supplied food to Comanches thereby cementing a lasting peace.

            Without the treaty New Mexico might not have survived as a province. Comanches became a very effective "border patrol," and informed New Mexican officials of movements of other Europeans and buffered it from raids by other indigenous groups. Comanches also became allies in subduing other indigenous groups, especially Apaches. They wanted no part of an Apache peace. The Comanche bands became the most centralized of the northern nomads, but not a permanent unitary organization. Still, there were short-term benefits to Comanche survival: relations with New Mexican Spaniards improved; communication and cooperation among the bands increased, which enhance trading and raiding activities.

            Initially Apache groups gained advantage over other groups by early possession of horses. In the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries they had developed semi-permanent villages on the Plains allowing organization of large war parties. However, they had poor access to guns, because Spanish policy attempted to restrict guns to the Spanish army. Later Apaches gave up this village living and gradually were displaced from the Plains by Comanches who had better access to guns. Large horse herds became necessary for fighting, and pushed toward a more nomadic life.

            As Apaches were forced southwest from the Plains their raids made trade and communications between the far north and the interior provinces of New Spain more difficult. This prompted Spanish officials to pursue a divide and conquer strategy. Later there were some attempts to regroup some Apache bands into sedentary farmers on establecimientos de paz (peace establishments). Apache who sought peace also had to help subdue other, hostile Apaches. This approach worked for a few years, but became less effective because seeds, tools, and provisions for supervisory troops were too expensive. Restrictions on movement chafed those on establecimientos de paz. Still, the peace did allow population growth which overshot the carrying capacity of the region, prompting a return to raiding.

            Thus, Apache social ecology differed significantly from that of Comanches. Apaches competed directly with Spanish settlers for resources. Their trade was local and typically played one Spanish community against others. Settled Apaches and settlers resented the cost of help given to those recently pacified.

            In late eighteenth century peace became precarious, but differently for Apaches and Comanches. Apache population decreased during war and increased during peace. Apaches hindered Spanish development. Comanches thrived under the subsequent alliance with the New Mexico and supplied necessary goods to the local economy: buffalo hides, jerked meat, captives and protected the borders. These differences were rooted in differential access to horses and guns, adaptation to local ecology, and position in regional social ecology.

            Slowly the frontier became more tightly incorporated into the Spanish Empire, and became more fully peripheralized. The change was moderate because frontier policy needed to balance competing goals. Still there was some development.

            When rebellions in New Spain led to Mexican independence (1810-1821), the frontier peace began to unraveled further. Raiding increased during the Mexican era. Yet Comanche maintained the peace with New Mexico though they did raid other Mexican provinces. Mexico began to lose control of its northern provinces due to internal political disorder and British-American rivalry over the West.

            With independence trade along the Santa Fe Trail from St. Louis to Santa Fe opened. This quickly reoriented northern New Mexico toward St. Louis, and away from Chihuahua in the south. Santa Fe became and entrepôt for American goods into Mexico. Many traders married Mexican women in order to gain licenses to trade in Santa Fe. American traders were attractive husbands because of their reputation of treating women better than Mexican men. This, not surprisingly, stirred considerable resentment among Mexican men.

            The American conquest (1846-1848) transferred much of northwest Mexico into a rising capitalist state and unleashed the renewed raiding. The old patterns repeated: the use of volunteer fighters with low pay supplemented by booty and captives, instigation of hostilities by locals bent on their own advancement, continued bureaucratic bungling, and the use of local bureaucratic positions as stepping stones to higher office in eastern centers. It seemed like the Americans had studied the Spanish archives in order to repeat their mistakes. Actually it was due similar structural conditions.

            There were four major differences under American control. First, all territory became part of the national state. Second, the United States had far greater resources to enforce its will, even in remote areas. Third, Americans removed the means of subsistence for nomadic groups, forcing them to on reservations. Fourth, New Mexico and Arizona Territories primarily were a land bridge to California. Once the “bridge” was open there was little need to disturb the region, allowing “space” for indigenous groups time to adapt to the new situation.

            Large numbers of Europeans, most for the United States, poured into Texas and California. Those two states began their climb toward major U.S. population centers. New Mexico no longer was the center of European population in the American Southwest. During the Civil War New Mexico split into two territories, New Mexico and Arizona, as result of complex political maneuvering designed to block the Confederacy access to California ports. These two states remained territories until 1912 primarily because they had such large Hispanic and Indian populations. Indeed, in New Mexico primary speakers of Spanish only became a minority in the 1920s.

            After annexation by the United States, the continued growth of Santa Fe Trail traffic increased intergroup competition. Incompatible land uses – cattle grazing versis buffalo hunting – strained ecological resources for productive technologies of nomadic groups, leading to intensification of fighting. Many indigenous groups needed to raid European settlements or starve. Attitudes among United States citizens toward Indians exacerbated conditions. They rejected Apache overtures to become allies against Mexicans. Traffic in captives again promoted fighting. The army was an important factor in local economies. Military efforts to "pacify" nomadic groups were helped by a thriving national economy, but slowed by the Civil War (1861-1865). American actions reversed the trajectories of Comanche and Apache social change.

            Comanches blocked westward expansion into Texas, straddled the Santa Fe Trail, and occupied a narrowing no-man's-land between Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico. They prospered initially by trading and raiding among these territories, escaping to the unmapped south Plains, but were gradually surrounded. Other groups from the north were pushed further onto the Plains and hunted more intensely. Europeans also hunted on the Plains, severely depleting the buffalo herds, a major Comanche resource. Some of the "Civilized Tribes" relocated to Indian Territory from southeastern United States and infringed eastern Comanche territory. New Mexican livestock operations – first sheep, later cattle – encroached on their western range. Texans blocked movement to the southeast. Apaches blocked movement to the southwest.

            The United States attempted to ease the problem by making treaties with several Plains groups at Medicine Lodge Creek in 1867, which defined the first Comanche reservation. The Comanche Indian agency was poorly funded, and their small cattle herds were raided by other Indians and by neighboring Texans. Comanches responded by raiding in Texas and provoked counter raids by settlers. After the final Comanche battle at Palo Duro Canyon, Texas (1875) they were forced onto a small Fort Sill reservation.

            Apaches lived in a large number of small bands scattered over a diverse territory making their final subjugation comples. That history is difficult to summarize. Unlike Comanches, Apache had long been a barrier to trade, and had developed a very effective raiding mode of production. They did not depend on any one food source and could change targets frequently.

            Because of competition with new settlers military pressure grew. Arizona developed as a "mineral empire." Both miners and Apaches depended on sedentary producers for supplies. Since the public in the east would no longer tolerate the annihilation of Indians, the only alternative was for the government to feed them. But there were insufficient funds to do so. Also Indian wars became a vital part of the local economy. This difference of opinions about Indian policy is one root of the western opposition to “government interference” from Washington. Some local leaders initiated conflicts to keep the federal funds flowing into their pockets. This ended with Geronimo’s surrender in 1886.

            After the Civil War nomadic groups were forced on to reservations eliminating or severely modifying traditional lifestyles. Nomadism, barter, raiding, and sale of captives could not coexist with more intensive uses of natural resources. Farming, ranching, and mining were seen to use the land “more efficiently” than foraging or gardening. The American state did not tolerate such "inefficient" use of resources – a thinly disguised rationale for seizing Indian territories. Native Americans had two choices: join the lower class of a capitalist state, or die resisting. Many chose the second option. Only where Americans had no desire for the land did native groups get reservations where they became "captive nations" and welfare recipients.

            Again, pacification had different effects on Comanches and Apaches. First, they had different degrees of ecological and political flexibility. Comanches depended heavily on the buffalo. Intentional destruction of the buffalo herds destroyed their base of adaptation. Apaches had more diverse survival strategies. For Comanches the slight increase in centralization and intense dependence on the buffalo made them more vulnerable to rapid defeat. Apaches could disperse and avoid annihilation. Over centuries they had become adept at forming new alliances, using multiple survival strategies, and adapting to rapidly changing circumstances. Second was geopolitical location. Comanches blocked expansion and communication across western United States, as Apaches had done under in New Spain. After annexation by the United States Apaches were mainly a diplomatic nuisance along the new international boundary. Neither group could capitalize on a middleman or buffer role. So both groups were "pacified" and "sedentarized," and the Comanches all but destroyed.[9] Yet, these changes occurred within a larger context.

            In the late nineteenth centure the Dawes Act, also knows as the General Allotment Act [1887] “freed surplus” Indian land by forcing Indians on reservations to take up farming, often with allotments that were far too small for the sparsely watered west. Also during the time the government under direction of Louis Henry Pratt sought to “kill the Indian, but save the man” with required education in boarding schools that sought to eliminate indigenous languages and cultures. While originally intended as a liberal, humane reform as opposed to outright genocide, this policy was disastrous. One of it major, unintended side effects was to facilitate organization of nationwide Native American associations (Adams 1995; Wilkins 2006).

            Incorporation processes were episodic and sporadic, but tended to become stronger. The introduction of horses and guns in the Spanish era made pre-contact practices impossible. The contemporary groupings of indigenous peoples in the Southwest were constructed during this era. The United States completed in a few decades what the Spaniards and Mexicans could not do in centuries: permanent sedentarization of nomadic groups.

            This example suggests that incorporation into any world-system is problematic: (a) according to the type of system doing the incorporating; (b) with respect to social organization of incorporated groups; (c) with respect to the conditions of the incorporating system; and (d) with respect to a variety of local factors. The degree to which an area or group is incorporated into a world-system defines the context within which local changes may occur. Local actions are major factors in the costs of incorporation. Incorporation is a matter of degree and is not fully elastic. Sometimes changes engendered by incorporation they are difficult or even impossible to reverse, as with the consequences of the spread of horses.

            This account shows that incorporation begins with early contact. Second, incorporated groups, even nonstate societies, play an active role in the process.[10] Third, incorporation is a variable and sporadic. Finally, more than economic reasons prompt attempts at incorporation.

            I will now turn to comparison of the two southwests, then to some more general conclusions about the twenty-first century.


The Two Southwests: Comparisons and Contrasts

Some key similarities between the two regions are that both supplied valuable goods, and avenues of trade to other areas for other goods. Both have highly variegated topography. Both have a high density of indigenous, non-state peoples. Both were avenues for the penetration of new ideologies in the form of religions: Buddhism in Asia, Christianity in the Americas. Both for considerable time, two millennia in the case of Yunnan, four centuries in the Southwest, were nodes on important routes connecting to other areas. Yunnan was a key node on the Southwest Silk Road that had links with the northern, land-based Silk Road, and the southern maritime Silk Road. New Mexico connected to New Spain/Mexico via Camino Real to Chihuahua and Vera Cruz, later to the U.S. via the Santa Fe Trail, and to California via the Old Spanish Trail. Both regions underwent considerable identity shifts, albeit very different ones. These are processes that remain works in progress.

            There are some other similarities that seem to be quite common in frontier areas.

Traders intermarried with local women to gain better access to local networks. This was also officially promoted for soldiers in Yunnan to create both a permanent military presence and to introduce Chinese farming techniques. The latter was often undone by local ecological conditions. All of these instances led to the development of hybrid populations some of which, at least for some time, became distinctive ethnic groups themselves.

            For both it was quite late in the incorporation process that local population was surpassed by immigrants from the incorporating state. Doubly so in the American Southwest: for Spanish populations versus indigenous populations, and under the United States for U.S. citizens over descendants of Spanish/Mexican populations. In Yunnan, Han did out number locals until the Ming Dynasty. Thus, in both regions ethnic diversity has remained quite high, indeed the highest in both China and United States. And in both the Southwest U.S., especially New Mexico and Arizona (old New Mexico province), and Yunnan this ethnic diversity has become a tourist attraction in itself actively promoted by local governments. In the U.S. the presence of Indian owned casinos has added to that draw. With reservations in the U.S. and the minzu system in China surviving ethnic groups have maintained a modicum of autonomy. Also in both areas some indigenous population were trained in schools run by the dominant state as agents of assimilation and acculturation. It seems to be the case that this was more effective and less brutal in China than the U.S., but much more detailed research is needed to substantiate that claim.

            There are also key differences. Most obvious is the much greater time depth of the Yunnan frontier/borderlands. Connections to neighboring states differ considerably. New Mexico connected to French colonies (in what became Louisiana), to the U.S., and after the war with Mexico, to Mexico itself. Yunnan, via many branches of the Southwest Silk Road connected to states in Southeast Asia: Vietnam (Annam), Laos, Thailand, and Burma; to the west and north with Tibet; and to the west and south to South Asia: India, Assam, Nepal.

            Finally the indigenous populations were quite different. In the U.S. Southwest the most complex societies were the Pueblo villages and Comanches late in the colonial era, most of the rest were nomadic or semi-nomadic. In Yunnan, there were few foragers or semi-foragers. More common were fairly robust chiefdoms with sufficient military power to offer considerable resistance to the Chinese military,

            These comparisons make clear that the concepts of nation-state and precise borders are quintessentially modern. Setting precise borders is a continuing project even while borderlands remain, like the frontiers that preceded them, frontier zones.

            Even though separated by over a millennium, there were similar processes, though the particulars varied immensely. According to Yang:

The power struggles among Han China, the Southern Yue, and the Xiongnu people vividly illustrate how Central Asian frontiers and the Southwestern frontier mutually influenced one another. Indeed, it was because of Han China's expansion into Central Asia and into South China that the Middle Kingdom first noticed and then conquered Yunnan (2009, p. 75, emphasis added).

Under Spain the concerns were with French to east and southeast, the British to the northeast, and vague other Europeans to the west and northwest. In addition to contraband trade, blocking access to the highly productive silver mines in Zacatecas was a major concern. Indeed, these are reasons why New Mexico was maintained as colony at considerable expense. Under the United States the concerns were with Russians to the far northwest (northern California, not Alaska), French to the east and southeast, and British for control of the seaports along the west coast of North America. Thus, the processes along any one frontier are influenced by other frontiers.

            Yang also points out an important difference on the effects of the frontier regions on the central or core states:   

Yunnan silver in the Ming period, copper cash replacing cowry currency during the Ming-Qing transition, and Yunnan copper in the Qing period, collectively demonstrated the central penetration over the frontier on the one hand and the significance of a frontier in the Chinese world-economy on the other hand. Thus, Yunnan's case contrasted with the incorporation of the American southwestern frontier by a modern European world-system, which, as Thomas Hall [1989] has pointed out, greatly influenced the Southwestern frontier but did little to affect the modern world-system (Yang 2009, p. 232; emphasis inserted as well as date).

This is an important contrast, albeit slightly overstated. There were effects of the Southwest on the now capitalist world-system, albeit considerable lower and indirect. By annexing the land from Texas to California the United States gained secure, land routes to the California ports, which gave it a considerable advantage in trade with Asia. Indeed, the [re]opening of Japan to trade with Europeans by Commodore Perry in 1853 was a direct attempt to get solid, although rather late, foothold in the trade with Asian countries. That opening, in turn, played a role in the Meiji Restoration (1868) and the rise of Japan as a modern state. While significant, these effects in no matched the effects of Yunnan, especially the copper trade, and through Yunnan on China’s impacts on the emerging global world-system.

            However it remains a somewhat open question whether the roots of these differences lies in the differences between ancient and modern frontiers, or in the relative power of the state with respect to the frontier, or in a combination, or in something else. It is not clear whether the gap in power between China and Yunnan was larger, about the same, or smaller than that between the United States and its Southwest. In relative terms, though, it is clear that the Southwest United States had far less power than Yunnan.

            Bin Yang draws the following comparisons between the Yunnan frontier and the New World Frontier at large (2009, p. 174). In addition to the longer time span, Yunnan differed in two other aspects. First, long persistence of the frontier Yunnan could use its muticultural and external links, including those to China, to develop its own mechanisms and methods to deal with Chinese colonization. These were mechanisms were often quite effective. They illustrate the longest period of “negotiated peripherality” (Kardulias 2007). Yang also draws attention to this being the longest lasting instance of a “middle ground,” a concept Richard White (1991) developed to describe the long period interaction in what is now the middle west of the United States. Indeed, Yunnan is an excellent place to explore further the concepts of middle ground and negotiated peripherality.

            Another difference is the role of disease, especially tropical and sub-tropical diseases on contact, conquest, and colonization. In the Southwest, as throughout the Americas, European diseases decimated indigenous populations.[11] In Yunnan it was quite the opposite, disease and the threat of disease slowed attempts at conquest and colonization. Indeed, the fear of and presence of disease eventually became a marker of Han and non-Han differences as well as a boundary marker for the Yunnan region (Yang 2010).

            All three incorporating states – Spain, United States, China – made extensive use of indirect rule and indigenous leaders in governing the frontier regions. China seems to have been much more successful than Spain. It is not entirely clear why this was so. Certainly there is merit to an argument that says China was more powerful than Spain relative to the frontier region. But how much of that difference can be attributed to direct overland connection as opposed to transoceanic connection? It is also clear that the United States used indirect rule minimally and for a very short time.

            A clear difference is that indirect rule was used for a much longer time, and used more complex relations than in northwest New Spain. The tripod system developed by the Mongols became the gaitu guiliu policy that sought to transform native chieftains into a part of the imperial administration during the Ming-Qing transitions. Gradually, the domination of ethnicity over administration changed into a system in which ethnicity was a subdivision of administration. This is very different. Part of the explanation lies in the considerably greater power of the indigenous populations in Yunan and existence of very valuable resources there (e.g. copper). This contrasts with Spanish New Mexico where indirect rule was used primarily with already sedentary, village peoples, with a major exception for Comanches. Under Spain or the United States indigenous leaders never became part of the national state administration. Indeed, a major theme running through U.S. – Indian relations is the preservation of Indian sovereignty (Wilkins 2006; Hall and Fenelon 2009, Ch. 7).

            Finally, Yang (2009, pp. 205-6) asks “But was Yunnan a frontier area, an independent world-system, a section of another world-system, or an external area over which the two world-economies were contending?”  He also notes that “Yunnan belonged to the Indian Ocean economy, at least before the Ming period.” My answer to his question would be “all of the above,” albeit at different times and for different reasons. The closest to that sort of complication in the Southwest are the debates about the connections to Mesoamerica, which were gone by the time the Spanish arrived. It seems worth contemplating how much of Yunnan’s long lasting (partial) autonomy was due to the ability of local leaders to make use of their position as a contested periphery between early states, China, Southeast Asian states, and South Asia? This is a complex question, but one worth eventually pursuing for its potential insights into how separate world-systems keep separate and how they merge.

            What then might we learn from all this for twentieth century border issues?


Lessons for Borders & Frontiers

So how should be make comparative studies of frontiers?[12] Clearly, variations can be spatial, temporal, physiographic, or organizational, different kinds of native peoples, and different sorts of settlers. These are all factors that must be considered in comparisons. Also important are type of cycle, phase of cycle, type of boundary, and state of the world-system(s) that are shaping frontiers and that frontiers are influencing. It would also seem reasonable to consider whether the frontier was on the edge of a world-system, whether it be at the bulk goods, political-military, luxury goods or informational edge or along some internal boundary. Internal boundaries could be between states or groups in similar positions within the world-system (e.g., core, periphery, or semiperiphery) or they could be between these different zones. A reasonable working hypothesis would be that these two broad categories of frontiers would exhibit different dynamics. Blackhawk’s (2006) study of the very fringes of the Southwest frontier focuses on the very edge of the system, whereas Reséndez’s (2005) study is concerned with the processes of identity change within the system (when what is now southwestern United States was wrested from Mexican control).

            A subsidiary hypothesis might be that frontiers between different positions in a world-system might also differ. Here it is useful to recall Chase-Dunn and Hall’s (1997) argument that how many layers, and how differentiated they are in a world-system is an empirical as well as a theoretical problem.

            Many case studies of frontiers can be [re]interpreted as “incorporated comparisons” (McMichael 1990) which are often a series of comparisons within an historical trajectory of a case. In Colony and Empire William Robbins (1994) examines the American West and argues that far from being an open or free frontier, it was highly constrained by the demands of assorted capitalist enterprises. This, of course, makes sense within a world-systems framework. But it also sheds a different light on the common claim that in Canada the law arrived before the settlers, whereas in the United States the settlers preceded the law, and hence the western U.S. was far more violent than western Canada. Rather, frontier violence served the interests of capital in the United States.

            Blackhawk (2006) shows that violence served to ‘ethnically cleanse’ the U.S. west of indigenous peoples. This, in turn can be seen as yet another instance of ‘war in the tribal zone’ (Feguson and Whitehead 1992a, 1992b). Here it interesting that the “war in the tribal zone” effect occurs in both tributary and capitalist world-systems. Thus, as with ecological degradations discussed by Chew (2001), a key component of change is the state, irrespective of the mode of accumulation.

            In analogous ways comparisons of modern and ancient frontiers show that genocide, ethnocide, culturicide, ethnogenesis, amalgamation, hybridization, and fractionation are common processes on many different frontiers. What remains to be studied systematically is how various local, regional, state-level, and world-system conditions and dynamics shape these processes. Again, states seem to be as important as mode of accumulation and local relations of production in shaping ethnic change.

            Finally, the study of frontiers illustrates how much can be learned by the study of peripheral regions and peoples and their roles in system change. Indeed, some of these processes may be visible only in peripheral and/or frontier areas. This then becomes a method to explore how it is that actions and changes in peripheral areas (and semiperipheral areas) play important roles in world-system evolution. A key point here is that many if not most of these questions can only be asked from a world-system perspective, even if they must be answered in large part locally.



Given that humans now are facing an impending crisis, and most likely a bifurcation point (Wallerstein 2010, 2011a,b), further spurred by political and economic collapse. It is useful to examine past instances of similar major changes. Since, by their nature, the processes and results of such a bifurcation are not predictable, charting a predictable result is not possible. But we may be able to perceive the outlines of a “possibility space” of results which can suggest indicators of patterns and as cautionary tales. Two other sets of recent developments play into this.

            First is Sing Chew’s work on “dark ages” (2001, 2008, 2009). Dark ages may be intermediate between a complete bifurcation and what we might call “routine change,” or what until now have been more or less routine cycles in world-system processes. In his third volume (2009) Chew sketches some insightful comparisons among the onsets of dark ages. While by no means certain, climate change, decline of oil, rise in spills, and as the 2011 Japan earthquake underscored, the possibility of nuclear disasters, the possibility indeed, likelihood of the onset of a dark age can not be dismissed out of hand.

            Add to this Glen Kuecker’s (2007) analysis of a “perfect storm” of political, economic, demographic, and ecological changes leading to global collapse. Much like Joseph Tainter’s (1988) analyses of past collapses, and even “dark ages,” it is very unlikely that core states will be able to continue to function and that they will be hurt the most severely. Kuecker builds on this (Kuecker and Hall 2011) drawing on Chase-Dunn’s analyses of semiperipheral marcher states (1988; Chase-Dunn and Hall 1997, ch. 5; and Chase-Dunn et al. 2006, 2010; Hall et al. 2009 ) to argue that peoples living in semiperipheral and even especially peripheral areas will have the highest likelihood of survival. This is both because they are often less embedded in the current system, and have often been able to been able to maintain lifeways that are significantly different from the variety of lifeways found in core areas. Chief among these are indigenous peoples, who have preserved lifeways that are the most different, and often most challenging to the current world-system (Hall and Fenelon 2004, 2005a, 2005b, 2008, 2009). Indeed Wallerstein says:

The so-called forgotten peoples (women, ethnic/racial/religious “minorities,” “indigenous” nations, persons of non-heterosexual sexual orientations), as well as those concerned with ecological or peace issues asserted their right to be considered prime actors on an equal level with the historical subjects of the traditional antisystemic movements (2011, p. 34, emphasis added).

It is important to underscore that they are not predictors, nor saviors. Rather, they maintain lifeways that may be suggestive of alternatives to the current system. They cannot be copied directly. Rather, how and why they have been able to preserve lifeways that do not meld with the current, neoliberal, modern world-system can be studied for clues to developing new ways of living and developing a new world-system.

            This, then brings us, back (at last!) to the issues of borders and frontiers. These survivors are, and have been for millennia, most common in frontier regions of states and especially of world-systems. That is where the evidence is. For sure we can learn from studies of the rapid changes – and the more common static quality of repeated processes – of contemporary borders. Indeed, following the argument above these are the areas where survival and development of a new world-system are most likely. But we must be cautious to not get bogged down in studying elements that are simply repeated, albeit with their own special features, of older cycles. Here again, comparison with past frontiers can be very useful. As already argued, such comparison can help us identify what is actually new and what are only permutations of old processes.

            In the comparison sketched here between the U.S. Southwest and Southwest China (Yunnan), in combination with studies of indigenous survival (Hall and Fenelon 2009) we can see that location of the source of troubles in the modern state, or in capitalism, or in the capitalist, modern world-system is considerably overemphasized. The fundamental locus of these problems is in states, qua states. To be sure capitalist organizations are able to drive many older processes much more strongly than ever before, but capitalism per se is not the only problem. Here one thinks of a comment from Gary Snyder: “Grandmother wisdom suspects the men who stay too long talking in the longhouse when they should be mending nets or something. They are up to trouble – inventing the state, most likely (Gary Snyder, The Practice of the Wild, 1990, p. 64).

            One also thinks of Warren Wagar’s oft discussed (1996) Short History of the Future (1999), wherein he suggests possible forms of organization that transcend the state. Some of these processes can be studied through examination of contemporary borders. Still, there are myriad other possibilities as yet unexplored. The possibilities of such discoveries and understandings are a fundamental value of continued examinations of border processes.



I thank Bin Yang for sharing many papers with me, and saving me from at least some egregious mistakes about the history of Yunnan. As always, errors remain my responsibility.



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[1] This section draws heavily on Bin Yang 2009 and his 2004 & 2011 articles. Also useful were Crossley et al. (2006) and Liu (2011), Liu and Shaffer 2007, Manning (2005), and Giersch (2001).


[2] The distinctiveness of Yunnan, as well as its ethnic diversity, figure prominently many travel guides for Yunnan.


[3] This section draws heavily on Hall (1989, 1998) and the sources cited therein which document most of the claims made here. Blackhawk (2006), Brooks (2002), Carter (2009), Hämäläinen (2008), Kessell (2002, 2008), Reséndez (2005), and Weber (1982, 1992) were major sources for more recent information.


[4] See Carter (2009) for further details, and Crown and Hurst (2009) for recent evidence documenting some of older connections.


[5] These were vital to the Spanish Empire since the silver mines in north central Mexico produced more wealth than any other silver source in the Americas.


[6] Nomadic does not mean random. It means moving through a known territory, often along well-know paths.


[7] This sort of frontier violence is actually quite common see, Ferguson and Whitehead (1992) and Blackhawk (2006).


[8] Ecueracapa (Leather Jacket) was an important leader of a large Comanche band known as the Buffalo-eaters (Cuchantica or Cuchanec). When he died, of wounds received in a campaign against Apaches, a replacement was elected by an encampment of some 4500 Comanches.


[9] In 1786 Comanche population was between 20,000 and 30,000. By1866 Comanche population was estimated at 4,700; by 1882 it was 1,382. By the early twentieth century Apache population was 14,873 whereas Comanches numbered 1,171. While population data are often problematic, the differences are clear: Comanches suffered much more precipitous losses than Apaches did.


[10] The ways in which incorporated peoples resist incorporation and the degree to which they can negotiate the terms of incorporation has come to be more widely studied, and has been found to be very wide-spread for any type of world-system (Kardulias 2007).


[11] There is an extensive literature the role of disease in the Americas. Mann’s 1492 (2005) provides a recent summary of that literature, its debates, and the authors.


[12] This section draws heavily on Hall 2009.