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Who Is A Settler?

I frequently reference colonization, settler colonialism, and settlers on this blog. This post is meant to be a reference page to explain what I mean by these terms. I will likely edit it and add to it over time (without explicitly publishing dates when I’ve done so), and I welcome comments and questions that add to collective understanding of these terms. I write this page from an admittedly U.S.-centric perspective.


What is settler colonialism? How is it distinct from plain old colonialism?

Colonialism has its origins in European expansionism. European powers (think the British, Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese) “discovered” places in the “New World” and established colonies in order to extract materials, produce goods, and establish global trade. In every colonial scenario, the colonizing agent assumes political control over land, labor, people, and “resources” for the economic benefit of their state/empire.

Colonialism most often (if not always) results in the suppression and/or erasure of native customs and cultural practices including but not limited to: language, religion and/or spirituality, kinship networks and marriage practices, leadership and decision-making structures, concepts of time and territory, and approaches to education and child-rearing.

Colonization requires the dominant entity to enact and maintain power over an indigenous population who is deemed to be less than, uncivilized, and/or morally/intellectually/spiritually inferior. The source of such presumed moral authority is a topic for another day.

There are multiple forms of colonialism. Here are two types:

  • Exploitation colonialism utilizes a relatively small number of colonists to exploit resources and labor for the sake of exporting product and profit to a mother country.

    Example: British colonization of India and the role of the British East India Company in the 16th-19th centuries in extracting materials to produce and globally trade spices, dyes, cotton, silk, opium and tea. The goal was not to create a new sovereign nation, but rather for Britain to establish itself within and profit from global trade through exploiting people and place.

  • Settler colonialism utilizes a large number of colonists to effectively replace a native population and ultimately create a new sovereign country in the colonized territory. Replacement of the native population can be achieved through a variety of policies and practices, for example through seizure of lands, or through the five avenues of genocide defined in the Geneva Convention – only one of which is outright killing and the rest of which address elimination of a people through forced assimilation and supression of cultural identities.

    Example: Colonization of Turtle Island through governmental policies that incentivized scalping of native people, removed native people from their homelands, and established blood quantum laws – all of which enabled colonists (settlers) to establish their own sovereign nation in what became the United States of America.


Who is a settler?

A common definition is that a settler is anyone living in a settler colonial society who is not indigenous to that place. They are considered a settler because, whether they want to or not, they are part of upholding the structure that continues to allow the colonizing nation to dispossess native people from their lands and lifeways.

For example: My Polish ancestors came here escaping lethal violence and persecution in their homelands. Were they participants in the original colonizing venture of the 17th century? No. Did they benefit from Lenne Lenape lands being seized by those early colonists and turned into a city called Newark, NJ? Yes. Were native children being abducted from their homes while my ancestors began a new life in Newark? Yes. Were they aware of this? I can’t say with certainty. Did they do anything to resist these actions? No evidence leads me to think so. Did they live their lives assimilating into the tapestry of an immigrant nation by becoming “American”? Yes. So, are they settlers? Were they part of upholding a settler colonial structure? Yes and yes. Flash forward 100 years: Does my buying land and a home in Massachusetts contribute to the continued dispossession of Nipmuc life and lands? Am I a settler? Yes and yes.

The above definition of ‘settler’ is complicated in a couple of ways. Firstly, when we consider the history of the United States and how we define ‘settler,’ how important is it to assess the reason(s) a person came to Turtle Island? Is it appropriate to call African slaves who were forced to come here settlers? How about their descendants? When we consider modern-day violence and migration, is a mother who is escaping lethal violence in Honduras a settler? Are her children? Are refugees and asylum seekers from Syria settlers? I do not have clear answers to these questions.

Secondly, settlers do not all benefit from settler colonialism in the same ways or to the same extents. For example, middle and owning class people of any race benefit more from the economic paradigm of private property rights, the educational paradigm of institutional learning, and the wellness paradigm of privatized health care than do poor white people. This difference in benefits does not erase the settler status of a poor white person, but it does complexify how we understand concepts of privilege and disadvantage.

There is not one definition of a settler that neatly covers all bases of identity and relationships with place. To me, it is crucial to remember that beyond the culpability of any individual settler, there is a system and a structure in place that was designed to dispossess indigenous people of their lives and lands. A person’s complicity in or resistance to this structure may be a more important question than if the way they or their ancestors arrived here categorizes them as ‘settler.’


Does settler colonialism exist today?

It’s vital to understand that the same structure that enabled the near genocide of native people on this continent persists in the present day, even if in more subtle forms. Consider, for example:

  • National parks in the U.S. were originally designed in the Woodrow Wilson era to keep native people out of certain areas. This is why the National Park Service was created as a complement to the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which was responsible for establishing reservations. Today as then, national parks prevent many native people from accessing sacred places that are central to their spiritual ecologies and communal practices. Without access to these sacred sites, they cannot maintain the relationships with land and place that are central to their cultures and identities.

  • Native people continue to be disenfranchised through inadequate access to voter polls. In a country where your vote is your voice, this effectively silences native voices and excludes their needs from political agendas and allocations of resources. Without sufficient resources, a people can barely survive, let alone culturally thrive.

  • Threats to the Indian Child Welfare Act keep alive the possibility that well into the 21st century, native children will continue to be removed from native families. This effectively eliminates native children’s ability to learn about their cultures and to carry on cultural practices.

  • Continued violations of treaties in the construction of pipelines and other energy infrastructure disrupt native people’s access to clean water and healthy fish and game. Often the choices native people are left with are to assimilate their diets to that of an average U.S. American, which results in disproportionately high rates of diabetes among native nations, or to eat and drink from their locale, subjecting themselves to various toxins and carcinogens that can be passed on in utero and through breast milk.

These are just a few examples of how settler colonialism continues to function in the U.S. today. These tactics are much more subtle than 19th century “Indian Wars.” However, there remains a strategy and structure to the way in which native people and native cultures continue to be erased, assimilated, “diluted,” or otherwise replaced – even in the year 2020.

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