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Christine Mathias

In the last three decades of the nineteenth century, nation states across the Americas used the repeating rifle and the railroad to crush the resistance of independent indigenous groups. From Argentine General Julio Roca’s 1879 Conquest of the Desert to the 1890 Battle of Wounded Knee in the United States, these stories of late-nineteenth-century American conquest have been told and retold, first with celebration, and more recently with remorse. Less well understood is how these states actually assumed control of the lands and peoples they claimed to have conquered. To convert a frontier into an economically productive, taxpaying territory and its indigenous occupants into laborers, national governments had to do more than purchase rifles or mount military expeditions; they had to claim what Weber terms a “monopoly of violence.” In some far-flung regions of the Americas, the state’s struggle to establish such a monopoly dragged on for decades. In others, that contest continues even today.

My dissertation – “South America’s Final Frontier: Indigenous Leadership and the Long Conquest of the Gran Chaco, 1870-1955” – examines efforts by Argentina, Paraguay, and Bolivia to conquer large swaths of territory in an isolated borderland region known as the Gran Chaco. I argue that we cannot understand these three states’ successes and failures without examining the diverse political strategies pursued by the region’s indigenous groups. Chacoan natives responded to successive waves of colonial violence with a variety of tactics ranging from violent resistance to diplomacy to conciliation. I combine original case studies and historical synthesis to stress the adaptability, resiliency, and political influence of several generations of indigenous leaders, known as caciques, between 1870 and 1955. I aim to show that struggles over the control of violence in the Chaco mapped onto struggles over competing versions of history, as uneven power relationships shaped individuals’ understanding of what mattered about the past and what might be possible in the future.