In this post, Amy Reed-Sandoval discusses her recent article in Journal of Applied Philosophy on settler-state borders and indigenous identity.


Indigenous philosophies of the Americas provide epistemic resources that are needed to attend to the widespread marginalization of Latin American Indigenous identity in the United States. In a recent article, I argue that politicians, policy makers, activists, and other members of settler society should carefully engage this work as part of an informed effort to combat the attendant injustices.

First, some context: immigration from Latin America to the United States has been on the rise since the 1990’s—in part due to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which flooded Mexico with comparatively cheap U.S. corn and deprived many Indigenous farmers of their livelihoods, as well the Guatemalan Civil War, which brought about terrible human rights violations against Mayan communities. Perhaps more than ever before, many Indigenous migrants from Latin America are choosing to self-identify as Indigenous in the U.S., rather than as Hispanic or Latina/o/x.  Explaining his decision to claim Indigenous identity in the U.S., Carlos Quiroz, who identifies as Quechua, told the New York Times that “Hispanic is not a race … Hispanic is not a culture. Hispanic is an invention by some people who wanted to erase the identity of indigenous communities in America.”

In certain contexts, self-identifying as both Latin American and Indigenous can pose difficulties for the migrants themselves—and these difficulties, in turn, bring about injustice. The U.S. Census form requires those who self-identify as an “American Indian or Alaska Native” to list their “enrolled or principal” tribe. This can be problematic: despite the fact that the census form lists “Aztec” as a possible example of a tribe, Latin American Indigenous groups are generally not, in fact, organized in terms of tribes. When Latin American Indigenous people cannot accurately claim their Indigenous identities on the census form, the needs of this (often highly vulnerable) migrant group go under-reported, leading to a lack of vital resources like translation services for Indigenous languages and culturally appropriate health care practices.

Furthermore, the marginalization of Latin American Indigenous identities can lead to epistemic injustice when the migrants in question cannot publicly claim their Indigeneity due to a lack of social understanding on the part of more dominant social groups. Illustrating some of the harm involved here, Fernando Meza, a self-identified Tlaxcala, told the New York Times that “I tell them that I am Indian … They say, ‘But you’re Mexican’. And I say ‘But I’m Indian.”

I think that a significant part of the problem at hand is a widespread failure to understand that “being Indigenous” is compatible with movement, migration and border-crossings. That is, Indigenous peoples, to be recognized by settler society (in the U.S. and elsewhere) as Indigenous, are simply not allowed to migrate and move. As Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote, “[t]he American public feels comfortable with the mythical Indians of stereotype-land who were always THERE.… To be an Indian in modern American society is in a very real sense to be unreal and ahistorical.” Also illustrating this point, the anthropologist Patricia Foxen, in her study of Mayan migration from Guatemala to the U.S., explains that “the ‘fixed’ nature of indigenous identity has long been opposed … to a more ‘mobile Ladino [non-Indigenous mestizo] one.”

To address the injustices at hand, we should study the work of Indigenous philosophers and activists writing on the relationships between borders, borderlands, and migrations in order to understand how Indigenous peoples cross borders without “sacrificing” their Indigenous identities. We need to understand the complicated ways in which settler state borders can constitute “Indigenous spaces” even as they threaten Indigenous sovereignty.

For instance, in her famous theory of Indigenous “bounded space,” Jicarilla Apache philosopher Viola Cordova explored the notion of The Four Directions, which plays a prominent role in many Indigenous philosophies of the Americas, to show how Indigenous conceptions of “home” are far broader than their European counterparts. Indigenous “bounded space” often encompasses vast stretches of land along which Indigenous peoples have always moved without leaving “home”. This land could, in fact, include various borders that Indigenous peoples cross and re-cross.

Audra Simpson has shown how the Mohawks of Kahnawá:ke, in crossing Iroquois Confederacy passports, are engaged in an explicitly Indigenous “politics of refusal” in regards to settler states and their borders. They are, she argues, especially Iroquois as they cross borders in this publicly defiant way.

In another type of settler state border refusal, many Zapotecs and Mixtecs living in both Oaxaca, Mexico and along the U.S. West Coast engage in “transborder” political organization that transcends nation-state boundaries of Mexico and the U.S. Such work is described by the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations (or FIOB) in terms “the right to organize autonomously and defend … human rights, territory, natural resources and culture.”

Meanwhile, along the Mexico-U.S. border, the binational Tohono O’odham nation regularly protests the construction of a border wall on O’odham land—showing once again that settler state borders, however unjust, do not succeed in invalidating Indigenous identity. They can even become stages on which Indigeneity is boldly asserted and performed.

The under-reporting and misunderstanding of Latin American Indigenous identity in the U.S., we have seen, raises concerns of epistemic and social justice. Fortunately, tools for addressing this problem are to be found in the work of Indigenous philosophers and activists who not only demonstrate that Indigenous identity is compatible with crossing borders, but also, that we need to refashion our understanding of the “space” of settler state borders themselves.

The Journal of Applied Philosophy is a unique forum for philosophical research that seeks to make a constructive contribution to problems of practical concern. Open to the expression of diverse viewpoints, it brings the identification, justification, and discussion of values to bear on a broad spectrum of issues in environment, medicine, science, policy, law, politics, economics and education. The journal publishes in all areas of applied philosophy, and posts accessible summaries of its recent articles on Justice Everywhere.

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