Letter from the Director

Feb. 21, 2021

Greetings from the Southwest Center and welcome to issue number three of our newsletter, Southwest Postcards!

Every spring semester, more or less, I teach an upper division human-geography course focused on Arizona and the Southwest for my other home department, The School of Geography, Development and Environment. Teaching is a privilege. Full stop. It’s especially rewarding to engage students in the close study of a region they inhabit (during non-pandemic semesters, at least) and can get to know across the full register of their senses. Geography is a big blender of an academic discipline, and during our semester-long exploration we draw from anthropology, ethnography, folklore, history, ecology, geology, and from the broad field of humanistic inquiry. Geography also has theories and methods specific to its own disciplinary concerns, and we take some time to work through concepts such as landscape, space, place, and, of course, “region” to understand how they cohere and where they break down. Several years ago, the center dedicated an entire issue of Journal of the Southwest to the question of regional definition, featuring a sharp essay by James Byrkit: “Land, Sky and People – The Southwest Defined.” (Center researcher David Yetman wrote a lovely follow-up piece in 2017.) Byrkit’s wide ranging synthesis has certainly shaped my own approach to teaching the class over the years. This semester, however, we’re also engaging with anthropologist Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez’s idea of the “Southwest North American Region,” which he lays out in the introduction to an excellent co-edited volume (with Josiah Heyman). Vélez-Ibáñez and a large group of contributors, including the Southwest Center’s Tom Sheridan, trace relationships among people, places, and ecological processes that in many ways efface the border, even in its most hardened physical expressions. Teaching regional geography has also drawn me into the work of archaeologists, whose study of deep time reminds us of the impermanence of human organization and social structures. Ancient cultures long predate the modern ideal of the sovereign nation-state, which means that archaeologists of this region, almost by default, must think across borders. Much “Southwest” archaeology is therefore the fruit of vibrant collaborations between Mexican and U.S. scholars. Some outstanding research in this vein includes (among many others) Paul E. Minnis and Michael Whalen’s edited volume, Ancient Paquimé and the Casas Grandes World; Matthew Pailes’s work on Eastern Sonora; and Randall McGuire and Elisa Villalpando’s investigations into the Cerros de Trincheras site of northern Sonora.  We also have the magisterial work of Paul and Suzy Fish on the Hohokam. (You can listen to Aengus Anderson’s great interview with Suzy, “Who Were the Hohokam,” on his oral history podcast, Tucsonense.)

My students and I delve into the concept of structural racism, too, which becomes a through-line concept for the semester. For some students, coming to an understanding of how racism is baked into the cake of our institutions and laws can be an experiment in abstract thinking. Others know it first hand, viscerally. For all of us, the pandemic is a constant reminder of how historical injustices can ramify across time and shape space. We’ve just emerged from one of the most contentious presidential elections this nation has ever witnessed, in many ways a case study in structural racism. The history of the U.S. voting franchise is a fairly clear window onto the ways that racism has been built into the content and form of our institutions. In the late 19th century, Frederick Douglass was horrified by the use of “states’ rights” as white supremacist cover for many forms of racial oppression but in particular for suppressing African American voting rights. As historian David Blight shows in his excellent (and hefty) biography, Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom, Douglass was a strong believer in the franchise partly because he well understood how, in the absence of Black (or, for Douglass, Black male) suffrage, white supremacists were so readily able to dismantle or altogether thwart Southern Reconstruction and maintain a plantocracy.

Less well known and understood than the fight for Black suffrage, however, is the struggle for Native American voting rights in the Southwest. In Arizona, effective Native American suffrage did not come until 1948, when the Arizona Supreme Court overturned the 1928 case of Porter v. Hall. In 1924, Pinal County denied Gila River Indian Community members Peter Porter and Rudolph Johnson the right to vote, claiming that living on a reservation meant they were not formally part of the state and therefore ineligible to vote in Arizona. The county recorder also argued that they were “under guardianship” and thus “non compos mentis, or insane.” I’ve been digging around for research that offers my students a regional historical context for the spurious claim of widespread voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election and its connections to the historical push for states’ rights as cover for disenfranchising BIPOC voters. The Arizona Historical Society, I discovered, has put together an informative web-based discussion on Indigenous voting rights: “Fighting for a Voice: Native Americans’ Right to Vote in Arizona.”  Journal of the Southwest has published on this topic as well, including among others Kevin T. Guay’s 2020 piece, “The Landmark Decision of Harrison v. Laveen: Arizona Indians and the Right to Vote,” and Matthew McCoy’s “Hidden Citizens: The Courts and Native American Voting Rights in the Southwest” (2016). Somewhat afield from the Southwest region but nonetheless directly connected is the epic story of the Ponca chief standing Bear, who, in 1879, in the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, won the right of habeas corpus, arguing that Native Americans are “persons within the meaning of the law.” You can hear about this astonishing story in the excellent podcast, Constitutional, produced by the Washington Post. The episode is called “Ancestry.”

The Southwest Center salutes researchers and teachers – indeed, all students of the Southwest and Northwest Mexico region – for the incredibly valuable work that they are doing to help us better understand who we are, where we’re headed, and how we might imagine and create more just futures…for everyone. Thank you!

--Jeff Banister, Director