From Mark Rifkin


I think the value of “settler” as a way of characterizing a certain mode of colonialism/imperialism lies in the fact that it points to the idea that a “home” country is built around and on top of peoples already there. That formation differs from 1) classic colonialism where populations who are not in the “home” country, and are not considered its “citizens,” are ruled as “subjects” of the empire and from 2) more contemporary forms of extraterritorial imperialism where the independence of a given country is foregrounded (either in order to deny the exercise of neoliberal modes of extraction — such as through international debt — or to insist on the authority to alter the country’s regime so as to bring it in line with “international” norms of how the government should relate to its own people).

What makes “settler” colonialism distinct, then, is the incoherence within the discourse of the state of the insistence that the settlers go “home.” The exertion of governmental authority is predicated on it being over land and people “within” the nation, which is a different kind of authority with its own discourses, modes of implementation, and strategies of legitimation that do not function in the same ways as those of colonial authority over a space not recognized as “home”/”domestic.”

Thus, colonization of a “settler” kind is predicated on the claim that the land in question lies inside the boundaries of the state and is validated on that basis (rather than as a “colony” which has a juridical and geopolitical existence differentiated from the “home” space). From this perspective, “elimination” per se is less the issue than domestication — the subordination of Native polities to the jurisdictional authority and principles of the settler government and the assertion that the settler government always-already holds title to Native lands by virtue of the fact that they are “domestic.”

From May 2

I should add that I don’t think “settler colonialism” is very useful as a way of talking about formations other than the settler state. It seems to me to work best as a way of discussing the kinds of jurisdiction and sovereignty exercised by such states over Indigenous peoples and possibly as a retrospective way of characterizing those forms of colonization that eventuated in the creation of settler states (marking the genealogy of forms of law, land tenure, political structure, modes of narration, etc. that would be taken up by the settler state as part of its governance and self-representation). However, again, such forms of colonization (like Great Britain’s American colonies) can be characterized as “settler” only looking back from the perspective of the later emergence of a settler state rather than as a quality such forms of colonization immanently or categorically bear.

In other words, “settler” marks the fact that those colonies became settler states, an intellectual maneuver that seems to me to obviate the problem of attributing qualities to settler colonialism that more or less fit Anglo modes of colonization but not necessarily others (like those of Spain). The comparative involved in “settler colonialism,” then, would be among settler states rather than political formations in which colonies are held as such (even though settler states may themselves hold colonies, like the U.S. – but those political relations work differently given the ways they are narrated by the state with respect to “domestic” space and jurisdiction).


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