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What is settler colonialism and who is a settler?

“For too long the depth of racism in American life has been underestimated. The surgery necessary to extract it is necessarily complex and detailed. As a beginning, it is necessary to X-ray our history and reveal the full extent of the disease…

Our nation was born in genocide, when it embraced the doctrine that the original American, the Indian, was an inferior race. Even before there were large numbers of Negroes on our shore, the scar of racial hatred had already disfigured colonial society…

From the sixteenth century forward, blood flowed in battles over racial superiority. We are perhaps the only nation which tried as a matter of national policy to wipe out its indigenous population. Moreover we elevated that tragic experience into a noble crusade. Indeed, even today we have not permitted ourselves to reject or feel remorse for this shameful episode. Our literature, our films, our drama, our folklore all exalt it…

It is this tangled web of prejudice from which many Americans now seek to liberate themselves, without realizing how deeply it has been woven into their consciousness.”

Martin Luther King Jr., Why We Can’t Wait

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 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 concepts. I write this page from a U.S.-centric perspective, as this is the ecological, social and political context I am primarily enmeshed within.

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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 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. Cultural suppression is often justified in the mind of the colonizer by their presumed moral authority and subsequent designation of colonial subjects as morally/intellectually/spiritually inferior. This suppression is necessary for colonizers to gain and maintain control.

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. The British extracted materials to produce and 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 suppression of cultural identities).

    Example: Colonization of Turtle Island (North America) 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.

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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 political and institutional arrangement that allows the colonizing agent to continue to dispossess native people of their homelands and cultural practices. Settler status does not inherently imply anything about a person’s intentions or worldview; it is about the fact that they are, by definition, not Indigenous to the place where they reside.

An example: My Jewish Polish ancestors came here escaping lethal violence and persecution in their homeland. Were they participants in the original colonizing venture of Turtle Island? No. Were they aware of how U.S. policy was continuing to strip native people of land and rights as they settled in Lenne Lenape land/Newark, New Jersey? Probably not – and therefore they likely did not resist such efforts. Were they settlers? They were not Lenne Lenape, so yes they were settlers. As their descendent and as a person who is not Indigenous to this place, I am a settler.

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 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, financially wealthy 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 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 potential 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.’

Am I a bad person because I am a settler? No. Should I feel guilty about being a settler? I don’t personally think guilt is an effective motivator, but I do think it’s important for me to learn about how residing in someone else’s homeland impacts them and how I can take responsibility for that impact.

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Does settler colonialism exist today?

It’s vital to understand that the same colonial system 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 remain parallels to the way native people and native cultures continue to be erased, assimilated, “diluted,” or otherwise replaced – even in the year 2021.

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