Ned Blackhawk

Katrin H. Lamon Resident Scholar

1996–1997

The Transformation of Nevada: Competing Systems of Knowledge, Power, and Land Use in the American Great Basin

The doctoral dissertation Ned Blackhawk began writing at SAR sets out to historicize the native peoples of the American Great Basin by demonstrating the many ways their lives were profoundly changed by contact with Europeans and Euro-Americans. “Indian people in this region have generally been denied roles as actors in the historical and anthropological literature," Blackhawk explained. "They have been naturalized—viewed as having an unbroken lifestyle that went on forever without varying.” The process of historicizing, he said, restores social agency and gives Indian people a richer and more complex historical voice.

Bounded roughly by the Rocky Mountains, the Sierra Nevada, and the Colorado and Snake Rivers, the Great Basin was of only marginal interest to Spanish colonialists. It lay far to the north and northwest of Santa Fe, which was itself on the extreme fringes of New Spain. Nevertheless, writes Blackhawk, “although sporadically documented, Spanish contact and colonization, first in New Mexico and later in California, irrevocably transformed the lives of the indigenous societies living in the Great Basin. From the introduction of the horse to the trade in human slaves, Spanish influences reverberated north from Santa Fe in small and often large waves.”

The first section of Blackhawk’s dissertation, titled "Tierra Incognita: Spanish Exploration and the Slave Trade in the Great Basin, “examines the violence, disease, and destruction of families and environment that rippled out from Santa Fe into the Great Basin. Slavery is one aspect of this destruction that has been inadequately examined by historians, Blackhawk maintains.” All the surrounding Indian groups were enslaved either by the Spanish or by other Indians," he said. “The Southern Paiutes, for instance, were repeatedly devastated by the slave raids of the Navajos and Utes.”

Drawing on Spanish archival material such as baptism and trade records, Blackhawk documents the extent of the slave trade in this area. “Records show that hundreds of Indian children, some of Paiute origin, were brought to the slave markets of New Mexico. If the Paiutes, who did not have horses, were being raided by their powerful, equestrian Ute neighbors, it seems likely that other nonequestrian Great Basin peoples, such as the Shoshone, were also subject to Ute and other raids.” Blackhawk, who is a Western Shoshone Indian, noted that there are family stories among the Nevada Shoshone of Paiute raids for women and children. Such intertribal raids, Blackhawk maintains, did not grow out of precontact, indigenous practices. Rather, Indian slavery evolved from and was integral to Spanish colonialism in the Southwest.

Blackhawk had not planned to devote so much time to the Spanish influences on the Great Basin Indians. “But I realized that to understand this region and the native peoples, we must understand the changes brought by the first Europeans in the area.”

Affiliation at time of award:
Ph.D. Candidate, Department of History, University of Washington


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