More Musings on Why “Settler Colonialism” Doesn’t Work (For Me)

3-15-11

Some examples.

Nowhere the politics of “settler colonialism” more pronounced for me than when I consider the apology syndrome affecting nation-state relations with indigenous peoples in the United States, Australia, and Canada (just for an instance).

§The 103d United States Congress passed Joint Resolution 19 (Public Law 103-150) on November 23, 1993. The purpose of the Resolution was, “To acknowledge the 100th anniversary of the January 17, 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii, and to offer an apology to Native Hawaiians on behalf of the United States for the overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawaii.” It stipulated to several historical and legal facts regarding the sovereign status of the Kingdom of Hawaii and the U.S. congressional and military backed overthrow of its government, which violated U.S. constitutional and international treaty law. It also provided a disclaimer that, “Nothing in this Joint Resolution is intended to serve as a settlement of any claims against the United States.”

§In Australia, the members of Parliament passed a motion in February 2008 to apologize to Aboriginals “for the laws and policies of successive parliaments and governments that have inflicted profound grief, suffering and loss on these our fellow Australians.” The motion focused on the painful history, that took place through the 1960s, of the Stolen Generations of Aboriginal children abducted from their homes by the state to become servants for whites.

§In Canada, a formal apology was delivered by the Prime Minister to First Nations people in June 2008: “I stand before you today to offer an apology to former students of Indian residential schools. The treatment of children in Indian residential schools is a sad chapter in our history…. We now recognise that, far too often, these institutions gave rise to abuse or neglect and were inadequately controlled, and we apologise for failing to protect you…. The government of Canada sincerely apologises and asks the forgiveness of the aboriginal peoples of this country for failing them so profoundly. We are sorry.”

§In December 2009, U.S. President Obama signed the Native American Apology Resolution, which states that the U.S. “apologizes on behalf of the people of the United States to all Native Peoples for the many instances of violence, maltreatment, and neglect inflicted on Native Peoples by citizens of the United States.” It “urges the President to acknowledge the wrongs of the United States against Indian tribes in the history of the United States in order to bring healing to this land.” The Resolution included a disclaimer that nothing in the Resolution authorizes or supports any legal claims against the United States and that the Resolution does not settle any claims against the United States.

The Stolen Generation Action Group in Australia has sought financial compensation through the courts for individuals who were illegal taken from their families and placed in white homes. A lawsuit from victims of Canada’s residential schools resulted in an award of financial compensation, and another has proceeded to court in Newfoundland and Labrador.

But in the United States, the disclaimers about legal or financial culpability in the 1993 Hawaiian apology and the 2009 Native resolution has made it impossible for indigenous peoples within the U.S. and its occupied territories in the Pacific and the Caribbean to make any claims for restitution or reparation, financial or otherwise.

The point in the United States, as an imperial power, is that the rhetoric of state apologies has allowed the U.S. to coopt the issues to its ends. So that, whether you read the apologies as articulated through dominant religious dogma about “forgiveness” or a more secular humanist claim to the “public good,” what the apologies work to “restore” is not healing and empowerment of the abused and the oppressed. What they work to “restore” is the formation of the very same interpersonal and social structures that uphold the nation-state’s power (like certain kinds of families and certain kinds of communities) and in which violence against women, children, and racialized groups is made possible (rationalizing and warranting ever-expanding forms of state control).

So that, while indigenous peoples have welcomed (for the most part) the apologies as an acknowledgement of the severe historical wrongs and grossly unlawful actions of their states in regards to their self-determination and territorial rights, the apologies have completely cut off the possibility for any restitution or reparation of indigenous governance and territories in the context of those wrongs and actions. In effect, then, the apologies have been about recusal and amnesty for the imperial state, providing for the operationalization of state power to disclaim and be recused from any legal obligation or responsibility to redress their historical wrongs and illegal actions in court.

It is as if powerful imperial states like the U.S., Australia, and Canada are saying, “sorry,” but ultimately I/we have no legal responsibility or culpability in the historical wrongs and illegal actions committed against you as individuals or as sovereign nations. I/we apologize and might be willing/able to pay you off, but any other real restitution is simply not going to happen. So get over it. It happened in the past, anyways.

As I wrote previously, “settler” belongs etymologically to “reconcile.”

Imperial Privilege

I think a great part of the disclaimers at the heart of nation-state apologies to indigenous peoples is inseparable from the historical and ongoing efforts of nation-state governments to protect their legal and economic entitlements to indigenous governments, lands, and bodies. The nation-state has, after all, been able to establish and maintain its privileges and access to indigenous peoples’ governments, lands and bodies without any real fear of international accountability or legal consequence.

So, while costly and difficult, it would seem that indigenous peoples should simply stop asking the nation-state for apologies and demand a full court legal redress. For unless or until the state is genuinely prepared to make legal reparations, apologies are disingenuous at best and insulting at worst. There can be no “restoration” or “reconciliation” without responsibility and reparation.

And that difference is the difference between “settler colonialism” and the imperial state. It is the different between understanding a nation-state as a polity that has transformed itself from a colonial, imperial historical past into a liberal humanist democracy. Albeit still colonial, but ultimately reconciled within itself to its ideals.


A Conclusion…

“Settler” belongs etymologically to “reconcile.” It suggests an internal consistency and making right within the colonialism it qualifies as “settler colonialism.”

I think a great part of the disclaimers at the heart of nation-state apologies to indigenous peoples is inseparable from the historical and ongoing efforts of nation-state governments to protect their legal and economic entitlements to indigenous governments, lands, and bodies. The nation-state has, after all, been able to establish and maintain its privileges and access to indigenous peoples’ governments, lands, and bodies without any real fear of international accountability or legal consequence.

So, while costly and difficult, it would seem that indigenous peoples should stop asking the nation-state (or its churches) for apologies and demand a full court legal redress of their self-determination and territories. Unless or until the nation-state is genuinely made to make these kinds of reparations, its apologies are disingenuous at best and insulting at worst: there can be no “restoration” or “reconciliation” without legal responsibility and reparation.

It is not about understanding the dynamics of “settlement” quasi- or neo- colonial, but the need to understand and strategies the anarchy of the empire.
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