“Settler” What?


At the Race & Sovereignty Symposium at UCLA, and in the writings of many different scholars (at least the ones that I have been reading while on fellowship this past year :> ), I am struck by the insistence within “settler colonial” studies of its insistence on specificity.

Crudely, “settler colonialism” is offered as the specifictemporal-geographic kind of colonialism that has enacted western European, Canadian, and U.S. imperialism. The insistence on its specificity produces an obvious question: In relation to what?

If settler colonialism is the specific kind of colonialism that enacts imperial processes in western Europe, Canada, and the United States, then what other kinds of colonialisms have occurred, are occurring?If they were not settler, then what were/are they? I have not heard or read an attempt to actually specify settler colonialism except by presumptions that it is not “old/past” and that there is no “neo” or “post.” So, are these our analytical options in understanding imperialism? Past, settler, neo, postcolonialism?

For instance, at the symposium, several presenters on the settler colonial plenary panel claimed that settler colonialism has a temporal-geographic specificity within the United States that has been, for all purposes, vacated in the 21st century: Laura Gómez (UNM School of Law) asserted that “settler colonialism” did not occur in the U.S. southwest until 1848 and ended in the early 20thcentury; Aziz Rana (Cornell School of Law) said that “settler colonialism” occurred in the U.S. about the time of the Revolution and concluded by 1920. Both made these arguments in the context of treaty and constitutional law’s provision for African enslavement and Native dispossession, a link repeated throughout the symposium and in the literature.

J. Kēhaulani Kauanui (Wesleyan Anthropology/American Studies) pushed back during the Q&A on these claims of settler colonial temporality. Gómez and Rana qualified their remarks by explaining that, of course, settler colonialism is still around and always has been.

(So now we are all really confused.)

During his contributions at the symposium, Patrick Wolfe (Charles La Trobe Research Fellow, La Trobe University) attempted to clarify that settler colonialism was/is the permanent structure of “invasion” that has characterized Black-Native-Settler relations (broadly speaking) and Black enslavement, Native dispossession, and Settler privilege (specifically). These were useful contributions but are not necessarily “shared agreements” within that scholarship theorizing settler colonialism.

For instance, in her incredibly problematic book, Settler Sovereignty Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788-1836(2010), Lisa Ford argues that it is not territorial dispossession that characterizes settler claims to state sovereignty but settler assertions of jurisdiction over Native crimes that occasions its articulation. Ford theorizes, then, that it is criminal jurisdiction and not territorial occupation and dispossession that characterizes the settler’s transition to state sovereignty.

In the context of these various exchanges and theories, there is a pronounced confusion within settler colonial studies about what it is that “settler colonialism” specifies. Is it the specific series of events that lead to the ascension of statehood (revolution, constitution, occupation, expansion overthrow)? Is it the structure that is defined and inherited from a decidedly colonial past in a decidedly colonial present (in the delineation of the property rights between settler, immigrant, and native)? How do various axes of differentiation and management – racial, ethnic, gender, sexual, class – inform these “–hoods” and their social formations?

On their blog (http://settlercolonialstudies.org/), Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini offer the following definition:

Settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon, and as much a thing of the past as a thing of the present. There is no such thing as neo-settler colonialism or post-settler colonialism because settler colonialism is a resilient formation that rarely ends. Not all migrants are settlers; as Patrick Wolfe has noted, settlers come to stay. They are founders of political orders who carry with them a distinct sovereign capacity. And settler colonialism is not colonialism: settlers want Indigenous people to vanish (but can make use of their labor before they are made to disappear). Sometimes settler colonial forms operate within colonial ones, sometimes they subvert them, sometimes they replace them. But even if colonialism and settler colonialism interpenetrate and overlap, they remain separate as they co-define each other. (accessed April 9, 2011)

Edward Cavanagh and Lorenzo Veracini attempt to provide for the specificity of the settler colonial “phenomenon” – not purely historic, not neo, not post – but in so doing confuse it for everything that characterizes the current formation states.

So, is “settler colonialism” specific, and what is that specificity, and in relation to what? Or is it a stand-in for defining the current nation-state, the “everything” of current forms of enslavement and the elimination of the native?

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