Saturday, March 21, 2009

Why Is Big Tex a White Cowboy?: Race, Gender and the "Other Texans" (a rough draft, Part 8)

The history discipline, still dominated by white men, is not immune from the deceptions of collective memory according to Juliana Barr in "Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands" (2007). Barr points out that historians have routinely referred to the era of Texas history after Hernan Cortez’s conquest of Mexico and before Mexican independence as the “colonial period.” Barr argues that the Spanish, outside of a few small outposts like San Antonio, really only controlled land south of the Rio Grande. North of that line politics could only be negotiated on Indian terms, she argues. Similarly, Judith N. McArthur notes in her perceptive study "Creating the New Woman: The Rise of Southern Women’s Progressive Culture, 1893-1918," that in spite of the fact that women dominated the “social justice side of Progressivism,” historians “emphasize the agency of farmers, organized labor, and politicians in pursuit of goals such as railroad and insurance industry regulation, electoral reform, labor safety laws, and prohibition. Only recently has research on the state’s women begun to uncover female-inspired efforts to restrict child labor, reform the juvenile justice system, protect the food supply, secure minimum wage and maximum hour legislation for employed women, establish settlement houses and abolish red-light districts.”

Even after the historical revisionism from the 1960s to the 1980s, the centrality of women to the Texas past continued to be neglected. Recent historians have noted the importance of female imagery in Mexican and Mexican American religion, from Toltec and Aztec deities with dual male/female identities to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Juliana Barr argues that historians have used race as the primary category of analysis in studying Spanish-Indian relations in Texas before Mexican independence and this has caused them to overlook the importance of gender in the period before Mexican independence in 1821. Barr suggests that this misinterpretation happened because historians over-emphasized the Spanish view of events. As previously noted, political relations between the Spanish and native societies were conducted on Indian terms. Since the various Indian polities rested on kinship networks, women played a key part in negotiations between Spanish authorities and Native American leaders. Native societies associated men with war while women played a critical role in political negotiations. Indian women not only served as peace emissaries to the Spanish, but women and children customarily accompanied Indian men to greet European delegations. The presence of unarmed women and children served as a sign of trust in the good faith of visitors.

Conflicting concepts of gender created miscommunication between Spanish and Native American men with mixed results, Barr argues. Indian leaders worried when they saw the Spanish greet them without the presence of women, fearing this indicated hostile intent. Baffled by this absence, Texas Indians interpreted images of the Virgin Mary adorning Spanish banners as substitutes for the expected female diplomats. The relation between Spanish and French men with Native women also profoundly impacted the rival European powers’ colonial projects. The absence of women in the Spanish camps often contributed to the rape of Indian women even as many Spanish men in Texas proved reluctant to enter into the Indian kinship networks necessary for peaceful relations. The French, meanwhile, enjoyed greater success in trade with the Caddo Indians and other native American groups because of their willingness to assimilate into Indian culture, including marrying Native American woman and leaving French women and children in the adoptive care of the state’s Native American nations. The more woman-centered narrative that Barr constructed in 2007 serves as a more contingent, dynamic, and ultimately more interesting tale than the old Conquistador-driven mythology.


Roberto R. Treviño’s research indicated that Tejanas played a key role in the community’s folk religion, which in turn played a key part in Mexican Americans’ racial identity. Tejanas served as traditional healers and created and maintained the home altars, the altarcitos, that became a central site of devotion in the “ethno-Catholicism” practiced by many Tejanos and Tejanas, according to Treviño in "The Church in the Barrio: Mexican American Ethno-Catholicism in Houston" (2006). For Tejanas, Treviño wrote, the church became a zone that both empowered women and yet boxed them into proscribed gender roles. Treviño observes that the tradition of the quinceañera, the coming-of-age celebration held in honor of girls when they reach age 15, “promoted ethnoreligious solidarity and reflected a woman’s importance in her family and her culture, it also perpetuated the notion of women’s inequality and constrained women’s role in life as primarily mothers and caretakers – the guardians of home and faith.” Nevertheless, Tejanas stretched the boundaries of their assigned station, constructing an identity that allowed them entrée into politics when issues were perceived as domestic and family oriented, such as health care and education. Even in as patriarchal an institution as the Catholic Church, nuns used the constructed identity of women as caregivers to prod the Galveston-Houston parish into fighting hunger and school segregation.

Tejanas apparently played the same key diplomatic role as Indian women in mediating across cultures, genders and class status. Tejana politics echo the national pattern outlined by Vicki Ruiz in her account, "From Out of the Shadows" (1998). Ruiz illustrates the major role Latinas played in breaking down barriers between the Spanish and the Mexican communities and between Mexicans and Native women in the 1700s and early 1800s. She suggests that these women created an alternative, non-hierarchical form of leadership within the emerging Mexican and Mexican American communities in Texas and other states. “Women’s networks based on ties of blood and fictive kinship proved central to the settlement of the Spanish/Mexican frontier,” she writes. “At times women acted as midwives to mission Indians and baptized sickly or stillborn babies. As godmothers for these infants, they established bonds of comradrazgo between Native Americans and Spanish/Mexican women.” Barr, Ruiz. Treviño, and Teresa Paloma Acosta and Ruthe Winegarten in "Las Tejanas: 300 Years of History" (2003) move women from the political margins and assign them a central role in Spain’s empire building in the Southwest and Mexico’s nation building in Texas.

The networking style of leadership that Barr and Ruiz describe appears in the life stories recording by José Angel Gutiérrez, Michael Meléndez, and Sonia Adriana Noyola in "Chicanas in Charge: Texas Women in the Public Arena" (2007). Tejana politicians like former Dallas City Councilmember Anita N. Martinez, occupying the nexus of race and gender, tapped into grassroots feminist and Mexican American activists. At times such women faced accusations that as assertive women they were insufficiently focused on the Chicano cause and as Chicanas they were charged with lacking commitment to women’s issues. The authors of Chicanas in Charge suggest that many Mexican American women suffered from quadruple oppression, based on their race, gender, class and their position as a minority within the feminist movement. Chicanas, the writers suggest, almost uniquely understood the mutually reinforcing nature of elitism, racism and sexism.

Of course, collective memory not only erased women from the state’s historiography, but also marginalized Native Americans. Pekka Hämäläinen, in his monograph "Comanche Empire" (2008) echoes Barr in chiding historians who have continued to depict Indians from a colonial perspective, failing to acknowledge that groups like the Comanche rose as regional military and economic powers fully competitive with invading European armies and nation-states like Mexico and the United States. Just as Anderson demonstrates how Indians continually recreated their ethnic identity, Hämäläinen outlines how Comanche dramatically transformed their economy as they spread to dominate the trans-Mississippi West from the Plains to Northern Mexico.

Rather than being merely a barrier to Anglo conquest as they have usually been portrayed by previous Western historians, Hämäläinen contends that “the Comanche were the dominant people in the Southwest . . . [and] they extracted resources and labor from their Euro-American and Indian neighbors through thievery and tribute and incorporated foreign ethnicities into their ranks as adopted kinspeople, slaves, workers, dependents and vassals. The Comanche empire was powered by violence, but, like most viable empires, it was first and foremost an economic instruction. At its core was an extensive commercial network that allowed Comanche to control nearby border markets and long-distance trade, swing surrounding groups into their political orbit, and spread their language and culture across the mid-continent.” With the arrival of the horse, Comanche reduced their dependence on gathering and created a complex economy based on buffalo hunting in which women “specialized in food and hide production; boys in animal herding; and adult men in raiding, trading, and hunting.” This economic transformation helped Comanche deal with the European and North American powers on an equal or dominant basis, a situation that transformed racial ideology on the American Plains.

In true Foucauldian fashion, Barr and Hämäläinen see the power discourses between Native and Europeans as a dialog. They inverted the longstanding portrayal of Western history, placing European powers and the emerging Mexican and American nations at the margins of a Native American imperial realm. In their texts, there is no frontier, only an Indian-controlled imperium. White traders, soldiers and missionaries live on the margins of an Indio-centric world and must cope with Native demands and customs. Rather than seeing Native responses as part of a doomed survival strategy, Barr and Hämäläinen portray Indians as co-equal or even dominant partners with Europeans, Mexicans and Americans in creating the West. Hämäläinen makes a strong claim for depicting the Comanche as regional super-power engaged in sophisticated diplomacy and making clever use of the terrain and natural resources. Laying “deep in the continental grasslands,” Comanche found themselves between Spanish and Mexican outposts to their South and West and French and American colonies to the East. “This geopolitical setting permitted Comanche to use one imperial regime as a counterweight when negotiating with one another to enforce political and commercial agreements or to compel Euro-Americans to modify their aggressive policies.”

Comanche proved both inclusive and self-aware of their separate identity. In the Comanche world, race rested on geo-political considerations. Even while speaking with hatred and contempt towards Anglo-Texans, “Behaviors and beliefs, and not blood lineages, determined who would be accepted into Comancheria and could become a Comanche. If a newcomer of Hispanic, Anglo, Caddoan, or any other ethnic descent was willing and able to adopt to the proper code of behavior, he or she would be accepted as a member of the community.” The evidence presented in this work suggests that many Europeans and Anglo Americans made just that choice, thereby suggesting instability in racial identity in the white community, where many might assume race would be seen as a matter of blood and not culture.

Famously, the Iroquois Confederation in the Northeastern United States inspired Ben Franklin’s “Albany Plan” for American colonial unity during the French-Indian War in the 1750s. While Hämäläinen’s evidence suggests that Cherokees may have led Europeans and Americans to re-examine their notions of race, he does not explore how the rise of the Cherokee Empire may have influenced Anglo notions of nationhood. The Cherokees clearly represented an organized and powerful polity, but it did not resemble a nation in the Euro-American mold. The Cherokee did not build cities and led a combined settled and migratory existence built on horse breeding and hunting. Their nomadic ways encouraged the Cherokee to fully engage with diverse people over a broad geographic expanse, which furthermore encouraged a broad degree of cultural borrowing. The Cherokee system made efficient and effective use of the land without creating the ecological damage that later led to the 1930s Dust Bowl in the same region. Did Anglos living in contact with the Comanche ever consider their economy and government as worthy of imitation or did white racism preclude such intellectual exchange? Hopefully, the intellectual exchange between Natives, Anglos, and Mexicans on the Plains will be further examined by Hämäläinen and his colleagues.


Michael Phillips has authored the following:

White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2006)

(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)

“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)

“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ”  in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)

“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)

(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I.   (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).

(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama  (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013). 

“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).

He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.

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