Why “Settler Colonialism” Isn’t Exactly Right

02-13-11

In his groundbreaking book, Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event (1999), Patrick Wolfe defines “settler colonialism” as the structure of permanent invasion focused on usurping indigenous land rights. On their website, the settler colonial studies blog (http://settlercolonialstudies.org/about-this-blog/), Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini define “settler colonialism” as  describing a social formation and political order in which settlers claim sovereignty over a territory and seek to eliminate indigenous peoples’ rights from those territories (2010).

In numerous books and articles published in between these definitions (1999 and 2010), authors have sought to flush out the specific historical conditions of when, how, and why settlers have claimed sovereignty and territorial rights over indigenous peoples. These conditions have been located within settler programs of genocide (Patrick Wolfe’s 2006 essay “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native”), settler segregationist land rights laws (Sherene H. Razack’s 2002 edition, Race, Space, and the Law: Unsettling a White Settler Society), settler theft of indigenous children (Margaret D. Jacobs’ 2009 book  White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880-1940), and settler assertions of jurisdiction over indigenous lands and crimes (Lisa Ford’s 2010 book Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836).

I have not been entirely convinced by the arguments about “settler colonialism” in these works, and have been thinking much about why that is so.

I have learned a lot about the important historical differences between what is described as “imperial,” “colonial,” “settler,” and “nation-state” understandings and claims of their own sovereignties and territorial rights against those of indigenous peoples. I have also had lots of unease with the claim that something new or unique has happened within “settler colonialism” from the empire/imperialism of the nation-state.

So I begin with the etymology of “settler” as a thing or person that settles within the etymology of “settle” as a thing or person that “comes to rest,” that establishes a “permanent residence.” Fair enough. That would seem to be in line with the important efforts of scholars like Wolfe, Cavanagh, Veracini, Razack, Jacobs, Ford, and so many others to figure out the kind of “colonial” structure and social formation that has been historically articulated through the ascension of the Nation-State and its usurpation of indigenous sovereignty and territorial rights through criminal jurisdiction and violent programs of genocide and child theft.

But “settle” also belongs etymologically to “reconcile” or “reconciliation,” which means to “bring together” (again), to “make friendly,” and to “make consistent.”

And here is where I have troubles with “settler colonialism.” Because it suggests not merely an important set of contingencies within the historical genocide and dispossession of indigenous peoples, but because it anticipates a reconciling of those histories within the current structure and social formation of the nation-state. A nation-state that is, albeit colonial, but by implication no longer imperialist or colonialist proper. The nation-state is treated within “settler colonialism” as having moved beyond its own tragically imperial and colonial history to be something else, still albeit colonial, but not quite entirely colonial because it is “reconciled” and “consistent.”

I guess I am wanting to hold onto harsher terms like “imperialism” and “colonialism” proper to describe the current relationship of the United States to American Indians, Alaskan Natives, Native Hawaiians, and the indigenous peoples of its occupied territories in the Pacific and the Caribbean. I think it is important and necessary to secure indigenous self-determination and decolonization to hold onto the “empire” in our understanding, describing, and strategizing ways of empowerment and revolution.

Of course, the U.S. as an empire has gone through many transformations since the 1770s. Of course it is important to understand those transformations in all of their historical contingencies and cultural specificities. But I do not think “settler colonialism” helps us understand the current structure or social formation of the U.S. as a global force or in relation to indigenous peoples within its various kinds of borders.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s