When the Spanish first came to the region in the 1500s, they encountered a variety of indigenous cultures and ways-of-life. However, the indigenous tribes of the northern deserts had more in common with one another than any of them had with the Aztec people to the south.
Although culturally diverse, the people who inhabited the border area in the early fourteenth century almost all cultivated fields of squash, beans, and corn. Whereas some groups practiced agriculture as a way-of-life, and others relied on a limited number of crops to supplement hunting and gathering activities, the vast majority were capable farmers.
In contrast to the sophisticated and diversified market-driven economy of the Aztecs, the first nations of the border region practiced self-reliant subsistence agriculture. In other words, most did not develop market economies based on creating a surplus of farm products. A major exception to this were the Hohokam, whose civilization had disappeared only a few years prior to the arrival of the Spanish. While groups throughout the region actively traded back and forth, the Hohokam did not develop a regulated market system through which agricultural produce and other goods could be sold. They did, however, come together from time to time in order to trade and socialize.
Whereas the Aztec lived under a strong centrally controlled political system, with rare exception, the indigenous people of the U.S./Mexico Border Region did not create centralized governments. For the most part, each village was an independent government entity unto itself. Therefore, despite linguistic and cultural similarities, community-based governance was the norm. Despite raiding and some local battles, the small tribal groups who occupied the border region prior to the Spanish conquest did not seek to subjugate their neighbors. Therefore, they had no need for a more centralized form of government.
The Indigenous People of the Border Region
Currently, twenty-six indigenous groups live within the border region. Seven of these live in Mexico, and the remaining nineteen are scattered along the U.S. side of the border. Although all of these tribes are important and worthy of study, for the purposes of this course, we will examine only the larger tribal entities. Moreover, even though the Tarahumara homeland is not on the border, thousands of people from that tribe have moved to the border in search of work. Therefore, this discussion of indigenous people in the border region includes the Tarahumara.
The various fourteenth-century tribal groups who lived in close proximity to what is now the U.S./Mexico Border Region can be organized linguistically as follows:
- Athapaskan: to include Western Apache, Navajo, Chiricahua Apache, and Mescalero Apache.
- Hokan: to include Walapai, Yavapai, Mohave, Halchidhoma, Yuma, Cocomaricopa, Cocopa, and Cochimi.
- Tonoan: to include Tiwa, Tewa, Tano, Jemez, and Piro.
- Uto-Aztecan: to include Pima, Sobaipuri, Tepehuan, Hopi, Paiute, Chemehuevi, Mayo, Yaqui, Opata, Eudebe, Jova, Tarahumara, Tohono O’odham, Warihio, and Concho.
Although not all of the previously mentioned indigenous people formally occupied land in the area now defined as the U.S./Mexico Border Region, the existence of the border has greatly affected the lives of their descendants. Whereas many of these tribal cultures have retained their individual identities into the twenty-first century, none have fully escaped the forces of assimilation. Nevertheless, the ancient cultures of the region’s first occupants continue to significantly influence twenty-first-century life along the border.