In Shadows at Dawn, historian Karl Jacoby uses a single moment of bloodshed to examine the persistence of violence in the U.S./Mexico borderlands.
Artwork courtesy of Dewey Nelson III
By Francisco Cantú
Karl Jacoby, a professor of history and ethnic studies at Columbia University, opens his 2008 book Shadows at Dawn: A Borderlands Massacre and the Violence of History with the following epigraph, taken from Jorge Luis Borges’s short story “The Aleph”:
The “unbounded moment” at the center of Shadows at Dawn is the Camp Grant Massacre of April 30th, 1871, in which a tenuously allied band of Anglo Americans, Mexican Americans, and Tohono O’odham Indians murdered nearly 150 Apache men, women, and children as day broke over their camp in Arizona’s Aravaipa Canyon.
A central tenet of Jacoby’s scholarship is that history is “seldom about past violence alone, but violence in the present and future as well.”
As its subtitle suggests, Shadows at Dawn is principally concerned with examining “the violence of history.” To frame the events at Camp Grant in a wider historical context, Jacoby reminds his readers that “the murder of these Apache women and children was just one fragment of the maelstrom of violence that swept over the Sonora-Arizona borderlands. This violent storm… would leave silence, death, and ruptured narratives among all the region’s communities.” The period described by Jacoby is one fraught with “violence edging into uncontrolled chaos,” in which existence was marred by acts of brutality and retribution not unlike the drug war violence currently plaguing the borderlands: kidnappings, torture, rape, and the cruelest forms of murder, including beheadings, mutilations, and the public display of burned, dismembered, and hanged bodies.
A central tenet of Jacoby’s scholarship is that history is “seldom about past violence alone, but violence in the present and future as well.” By evoking the hostile past of the borderlands, Jacoby encourages readers to identify the echoes of that bygone violence in the region’s modern-day conflicts. He reminds us that in the late nineteenth century, Arizona’s southern boundary was largely perceived as a “theater of desolation” and “a sort of borderland between barbarism and civilization.” As is true of the border today, the U.S./Mexico frontier was seen as a place to be secured, to be brought under control. Thus the threat of violence, both real and perceived, has long been a feature of life in the borderlands.
Jacoby compels his readers to gaze unflinchingly upon the grim history of ethnic relations in the borderlands, with an eye toward their enduring complexity.
In his examination of the Camp Grant Massacre, Jacoby seeks to trace the roots of what he refers to as an “oddly intimate violence” in which warring groups were often linked through trade, alliances of convenience, and intermarriage and adoption (often of former captives and slaves). He examines the complex antecedents and repercussions of the massacre by dividing the chapters of his book into four parts, which consider the distinct perspectives of each ethnic group involved in the hostilities: The Tohono O’odham, Mexican Americans, Anglo Americans, and The Apache. In explaining this four-part format, Jacoby writes that “instead of being borne along on the current of a single narrative, [readers] are now being asked to grapple with an array of different interpretations. In short, they are being invited to become active participants in that most common of human endeavors: finding meaning in our elusive past.”
By refusing to present a simplified narrative of the Camp Grant Massacre, Jacoby compels his readers to gaze unflinchingly upon the grim history of ethnic relations in the borderlands, with an eye toward their enduring complexity. In the book’s final chapter he examines the memory of historical violence in the various forms of record keeping unique to the four groups involved in massacre. The speeches and books of Anglo Americans speak of Indian wars and taming the uncivilized West. The folk corridos of the Mexicans sing of dispossession, of national pride and resistance. The painful oral histories of the Apache reveal a grief that has seldom been communicated to outsiders. And the “calendar sticks” of the Tohono O’odham, carved into the wooden ribs of the saguaro cactus, contain short matter-of-fact chronicles of each passing year that often emphasize weather patterns and crop cycles. “A multitude of narratives flows into and out of the events of April 30, 1871,” writes Jacoby: “tales of genocide; tales of the Mexican north and the American West, of O’odham and Nnēē [Apache] homelands; tales of survival, accommodation, and cultural reinvention.”
Jacoby, like Borges, and like Aurelius before him, grapples with the cyclical nature of history.
The Borges story from which Jacoby takes his epigraph, “The Aleph,” concerns a man who discovers a location in the cellar of his home from which the entire history of the universe can be viewed by peering into a single point in space. Several years before “The Aleph” was published, Borges wrote an essay entitled “Circular Time” in which he considers the concept of eternal return. In it, Borges discusses the writings of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher who “affirms that any time span—a century, a year, a single night, perhaps the ungraspable present—contains the entirety of history.” Borges notes the following quote from Aurelius’s Meditations: “To see the things of the present moment is to see all that is now, all that has been since time began, and all that shall be unto the world’s end; for all things are of one kind and one form.” In assessing the persistence of violence in the vast terrain of the U.S./Mexico border, Jacoby, like Borges, and like Aurelius before him, grapples with the cyclical nature of history.
At its very best, Shadows at Dawn provokes its readers to similarly grapple with history, to attempt to reconcile past bloodshed with that of our own “ungraspable present.” In recent decades the border between the U.S. and Mexico has again been visited by a “maelstrom of violence,” in which millions of horrible acts seemingly occupy the same point in space. We will someday be left to gaze upon this point, and in an unbounded moment take stock of this convoluted and simultaneous carnage. In language that is successive, we too will endeavor to understand how this violence has shaped us, and how its next fearsome iteration might be stayed.
Francisco Cantú has worked as a Border Patrol Agent for the United States Border Patrol and has served as a Fulbright Fellow at the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Migration and Ethnic Studies. A frequent contributor to Guernica Daily, his writing has also appeared in South Loop Review, J Journal: New Writing on Justice, and in Dutch translation at De Groene Amsterdammer. He is currently seeking an MFA in nonfiction from the University of Arizona in Tucson.
Dewey Nelson III lives and works in Prescott, Arizona. He received a Bachelor in Fine Arts from California Institute of the Arts. His paintings are done primarily on large handcrafted wood panels using bold colors and contrasting acrylic and water based latex paint with occasional mixed media elements. The content of Dewey’s art stems directly from his Hopi ancestral heritage. His current work seeks to appropriate late Victorian era imagery of North American indigenous peoples and empower them with weaponry employed by contemporary revolutionary movements. He is also a silversmith. More of his work can be seen at deweynelson.wordpress.com.