In her new book, Professor of Feminist Studies and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies Felicity Amaya Schaeffer draws stunning connections between indigenous ways of life and relationships to the land with modern-day, militaristic border surveillance technologies.
Unsettled Borders: The Militarized Science of Surveillance on Sacred Indigenous Land (Duke University Press, August 2022) looks at the U.S.-Mexico border and beyond through the perspective of Native tribes living across the border and those who are forced off their land from the Maya region of Mexico and Guatemala. The book expands on Schaeffer’s research interests from her previous book, Love and Empire, in which she chronicled the rise of cybermarriage as a pathway to migration and citizenship. “I’m always thinking about the border as/and technology,” she says. “My grandparents migrated across the US-Mexico border before it was even a border, during the Mexican Revolution. There is nothing natural about borders, yet borders have been an obsession of mine because they’ve defined so much of my family’s life and how they see themselves as Mexican-Americans in this country. At this moment when the border is becoming more dangerous and militarized, I started to think, how has it become so militarized? How would you begin to research that?”
Readers may be surprised to find that technologies such as swarm drones and an automated border patrol agent called AVATAR are not concepts from a futuristic Black Mirror episode but part of current borderland realities. In chapters spanning Apache, Tohono O’odham, and Maya cultures, Schaeffer uncovers ways Indigenous concepts are being co-opted in AI and robotics, delving into the ways militarized technology has stemmed from, for example, Apache surveillance methods and how swarm surveillance “(mis)appropriates Maya beekeeping science.”
During her research, “it became clear there was this deep connection,” she says. “The containment of the reservation, the containment of the border, was a heartbreaking story to think about, how Indian fugitives were a threat to the settlement of the Western frontier and newly purchased southwest border territory with Mexico—these Apache and Sioux Indian scouts were hired by the Cavalry to be the eyes of the army before they had drones.” Drones which, she points out, now carry names such as “Apache” and “Blackhawk.”
Schaeffer traveled to Tech Park at the University of Arizona and “followed the technologies they were using to militarize the border,” she says. “The academy was implicated in the study and design of border technologies.” While conducting research there at a stage when she did not yet know what the book would be, she was more focused on how technologies affect migrants. “I had no idea there was this other story,” she says. “When I got to Tech Park, I thought I’d find the drones and surveillance towers, but a woman I was interviewing there sent me to Fort Huachuca and that’s where the story really began for me.”
As her discoveries were resonating deeply, Schaeffer also faced uncertainty. While Indigenous practices such as knowledge of herbs and other healing techniques continued to be practiced by her Mexican grandmother who denied any claims to being Indigenous, she felt unsure as to whether a story about Native peoples living along the borderlands was hers to tell. “The project emerged at a time when I started to connect with my calling back to the land as a de-Nativized Xicana. It was a project that continued to pull me in.”
At the same time that was percolating, she met a few tribal members from the O’odham reservation through one of her students. They’d come to Santa Cruz from Arizona and over dinner, began talking about the influence of the border on their reservation. “Our perspectives were aligned,” she says. “They invited me to the reservation so I could see the border myself, to understand more about their land, and to speak with elders and others fighting against the border wall. It was a powerful trip.” The O’odham reservation spans what is often called the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, and Schaeffer chronicles the disruptions to their lands including destruction of ancestral burial grounds and sacred saguaro cactus to build the border wall and surveillance infrastructure.
Schaeffer expresses the hope for a borderless world and a return of the land to the many Native tribes living on and across this land. In the conclusion she calls for an end to the technological violence driving border infrastructure and the bordered thinking that enacts genocidal violence against Indigenous peoples across time and space: “Wire, metal, and virtual fences will fall, rust, and be dewired. As the empire spreads, so, too, do the Native peoples and allies in a broad-based protest that includes the earth’s forceful ancestors. The waters will flow, the animals will cross, and the flowers will bloom again so the land and people will heal and regenerate the gift of life for all.”
Schaeffer, who is currently Baskin Foundation Presidential Chair for Feminist Studies, is grateful her research was supported by a UCSC COR grant, a grant from the Research Center of the Americas, and from the Fellows Academy in 2019–20, a writing program initiated by former executive vice chancellor Marlene Tromp. Proceeds from Unsettled Borders support the Tohono O’odham participants of the Peace and Dignity Journey.
A new project she’s undertaking is a public symposium on the emerging field of Indigenous Borderlands through the Baskin Endowed Chair in Winter Quarter. “The Indigenous Borderlands Symposium explodes nation-state thinking through land-based practice across intimate and planetary scales, reconfiguring belonging, law, and the boundaries of land and human becoming. She hopes the conversations from the symposium will culminate in a collaborative special issue of a journal she is working on with her co-collaborators from across the UC-system.