James F. Brooks

National Endowment for the Humanities Resident Scholar


Nations, Tribes, and Colours: Borderland Peoples and a History for the Twenty-first Century

“How do local peoples get along—or not—when they’re relatively free to make up the rules?” This question serves as the focus of resident scholar James Brooks’ SAR project, Nations, Tribes, and Colours: Borderland Peoples and a History for the Twenty-first Century. This same question also guided his recently completed book, Captives and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands, an examination of the cultural consequences of long-term reciprocal captive-and-slave raiding between indigenous and colonial peoples in the American Southwest.

In Nations, Tribes, and Colours, Brooks will expand his previous exploration of pastoral borderland cultures both geographically and chronologically. In a cross-cultural analysis spanning several centuries, Brooks examines the experiences of mixed-descent borderland peoples in very different parts of the world. He hopes to discover ways we might understand, and influence, the future of ethnic communities situated near unstable cultural or national boundaries in the modern world.

“I explore cultural borderlands in hopes of unveiling the promise concealed in their very inchoate potential,” writes Brooks. “Transformations seem everywhere on the verge of realization—new ethnogenetic identities, alternative families, symbiotic communities and economies, and a widespread refusal to accept the hegemony of the nation-state as a central organizing principle in everyday life.”

Although Brooks will be examining borderland peoples in the Canadian West, the U.S. Southwest, the Argentine Pampas, the Russian Caucasus, and Southern Africa, Nations, Tribes, and Colours will not take a conventional approach to comparative history. Brooks is using a “poetics of metaphor” that moves in a non-linear fashion, allowing the reader to discover similarities and differences between these communities in an imaginative way, through the narrative accounts of individual people, families, and communities.

“I hope to sketch a new method and style of doing history in the twenty-first century, one that strives to capture the intimacy and messiness of discrete historical experiences, yet also reaches for a depth-of-field that will endow those particularities with a richness of meaning beyond their conventional bounds.” In short, Brooks says, “to tell in small stories, big histories.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Assistant Professor of History, University of California, Santa Barbara

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