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American Settler Colonialism 101

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American Settler Colonialism 101

John Gast painting (1872) depicting the philosophy of manifest destiny which was the initial enactment of settler colonialism in the US. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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The term "colonialism" is possibly one of the most confusing if not contested concepts in American history and international relations theory. Most Americans would likely be hard-pressed to define it beyond the "colonial period" of US history when early European immigrants established their colonies in the New World. The assumption is that since the founding of the United States everybody who is born within the national boundaries is considered American citizens with equal rights, whether or not they consent to such citizenship. In this regard the United States is normalized as the dominant power to which all its citizens, indigenous and non-indigenous alike, are subject. Although in theory a democracy "of the people, by the people, and for the people," the nation's actual history of imperialism betrays its democratic principles. This is the history of American colonialism.

Two Kinds of Colonialism

Colonialism as a concept has its roots in European expansionism and the founding of the so-called New World. The European powers of the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish and others established colonies in new places they "discovered" from which to facilitate trade and extract resources, in what can be thought of as the earliest stages of what we now call globalization. The mother country (known as the metropole) would come to dominate indigenous populations through their colonial governments, even when the indigenous population remained in the majority for the duration of colonial control. The most obvious examples are in Africa, e.g. the Dutch control over South Africa, French control over Algeria, etc. and in Asia and the Pacific Rim with British control over India and Fiji, French domination over Tahiti, etc.

Beginning in the 1940's the world saw a wave of decolonization in many of Europe's colonies as indigenous populations fought wars of resistance against colonial domination. Mahatma Gandhi would come to be recognized as one of the world's greatest heroes for leading India's fight against the British. Likewise, Nelson Mandela is today celebrated as a freedom fighter for South Africa where he was once considered a terrorist. In these instances European governments were forced to pack up and go home, relinquishing control to the indigenous population.

But there were some places where colonial invasion decimated indigenous populations through foreign disease and military domination to the point where if the indigenous population survived at all, it became the minority while the settler population became the majority. The best examples of this are in North and South America, the Caribbean islands, New Zealand, Australia and even Israel. In these cases scholars have recently applied the term "settler colonialism."

Settler Colonialism Defined

Settler colonialism has best been defined as more of an imposed structure than an historical event. This structure is characterized by relationships of domination and subjugation that become woven throughout the fabric of society, and even becomes disguised as paternalistic benevolence. The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which means the native must be eliminated. This can be accomplished in overt ways including biological warfare and military domination but also in more subtle ways; for example, through national policies of assimilation.

As scholar Patrick Wolfe has argued, the logic of settler colonialism is that it destroys in order to replace. Assimilation involves the systematic stripping away of indigenous culture and replacing it with that of the dominant culture. One of the ways it does this in the United States is through racialization. Racialization is the process of measuring indigenous ethnicity in terms of blood degree; when indigenous people intermarry with non-indigenous people they are said to lower their indigenous (Indian or Native Hawaiian) blood quantum. According to this logic when enough intermarriage has occurred there will be no more natives within a given lineage. It does not take into account personal identity based on cultural affiliation or other markers of cultural competence or involvement.

Other ways United States carried out its assimilation policy included the allotment of Indian lands, forced enrollment in Indian boarding schools, termination and relocation programs, the bestowal of American citizenship and Christianization.

Narratives of Benevolence

It can be said that a narrative based on the benevolence of the nation guides policy decisions once domination has been established in the settler colonial state. This is evident in many of the legal doctrines at the foundation of federal Indian law in the US.

Primary among those doctrines is the doctrine of Christian discovery. The doctrine of discovery (a good example of benevolent paternalism) was first articulated by Supreme Court Justice John Marshall in Johnson v. McIntosh (1823), in which he opined that Indians had no right to title on their own lands in part because the new European immigrants "bestow[ed] on them civilization and Christianity." Likewise, the trust doctrine presumes that the United States as the trustee over Indian lands and resources will always act with the best interests of Indians in mind. Two centuries of massive Indian land expropriations by the US and other abuses, however, betrays this idea.

References

Getches, David H., Charles F. Wilkinson and Robert A. Williams, Jr. Cases and Materials on Federal Indian Law, Fifth Edition. St. Paul: Thompson West Publishers, 2005.

Wilkins, David and K. Tsianina Lomawaima. Uneven Ground: American Indian Sovereignty and Federal Indian Law. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Wolfe, Patrick. Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native. Journal of Genocide Research, December 2006, pp. 387-409.

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