1. Education

American Settler Colonialism 102


American Settler Colonialism 102

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.

Public Domain

America has been defined by indigenous scholars as a settler colonial nation, which means that a "logic" of colonialism is woven throughout American society as a living process, not just as something that happened in a long ago past. Settler colonialism as a global force encourages the systematic denial of the human rights and sovereignty of indigenous peoples in their own homelands. To justify and legitimate their domination, settler colonial states construct ideological narratives and legal frameworks that gradually eliminate the existence of the native population through assimilation into the dominant culture. This article takes up where American Colonialism 101 leaves off by exploring in greater detail how the process has played out in American history.

The Dawes Act of 1887

United States Indian policy has zigzagged along a path that has been characterized as "schizophrenic," indicating dramatic inconsistency throughout its national and pre-national existence. At the time the Constitution was written, the Founders recognized the inherent sovereignty of Indian nations through collaborative treaty making. In the following decades as the military balance of power shifted in favor of the Americans, a policy of forcibly removing Indians from their homelands would replace the collaborative process, eventually giving way to a policy of forced assimilation via the Dawes Act.

The Dawes Act was a three-pronged approach aimed at shattering the communitarian basis of native life. It did this through dividing communally-owned Indian lands into individual allotments, by forcing Indian children into government and church-controlled boarding schools, and by unilaterally granting citizenship to Indians. The nearly half-century duration of the Dawes Act had devastating impacts on Native American communities that still linger today.

Termination and Relocation

Settler colonialism's imperative to eliminate the native is not necessarily through blatant genocide (although it can be and often is), but through absorption into the dominant society by eliminating their political existence. When legal and policy frameworks deny the political existence of native peoples they become ordinary, undifferentiated national citizens to whom the state is no longer accountable for things like treaty rights. In the US eliminating the native means eliminating the nation's historically- based contractual responsibility to them. This was the approach the United States took between the 1940's and the 1960's when it undertook a policy of termination and relocation.

Termination literally meant terminating United States' trust responsibility (which the United States itself manufactured) to American Indian tribes. It was yet another effort to once and for all break up Native American communities by dispersing them into American society through relocation programs and take what remained of their treaty lands. It was only the momentum of the civil rights movement that would put an end to termination and relocation as official policy.

Assimilation' s Legacy

Over a century of coercive assimilationist policies (as well as conditions of impoverishment on the reservations) has resulted in the creation of a Native American diaspora: today more than 50% of Native Americans live away from their home tribal communities, mostly inhabiting large urban centers where they are less able to participate in their cultures, perpetuate their languages and nurture their identities as native peoples.

Although assimilation is no longer the US' official Indian policy, it is not accurate to say that assimilation is still not an ideological objective of the US as a nation-state. United States' current policy of self-determination hinges on almost two centuries of federal Indian law that has systematically (and unilaterally) redefined what sovereignty means for Native American nations. Legal scholars have referred to it as the creation of legal fictions by the Supreme Court in which a special brand of domestic sovereignty has been imagined that makes Native nations subservient to the authority of the federal government.

Native Americans are no longer overtly discouraged from maintaining their cultures as they once were. However, Native American children are born as citizens of the United States and educated in federal and state-funded schools. There they pledge their allegiance to America (not their Native nations) and are taught lessons designed to instill national pride while the history of America's imperialism against their ancestors is downplayed, if not ignored entirely. Their native identities and collective histories are subsumed in narratives of multiculturalism where they are perceived by society (and taught to see themselves) as just another ethnic minority group in the United States, as opposed to members of distinct nations.

In addition to the legal structures that minimize indigenous existence, other markers of settler colonialism's mandate to erase indigenous peoples include a persistent denial of colonialism, a lack of recognition of native histories, the changing of place names from indigenous names to settler names, national monuments that celebrate settler heroes and a conspicuous lack of monuments that celebrate indigenous heroes.


Edmonds, Penny. Afterword: On Recognition, Apology and 'The Hidden History of the Americas.' Settler Colonial Studies. Vol. 1, No. 2 (2011).

Lintner, Timothy. The Savage and the Slave: Critical Race Theory, Racial Stereotyping, and the Teaching of American History. Journal of Social Studies Research. Volume 28, No. 1 (2004): pp. 27-32.

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

  1. About.com
  2. Education
  3. Native American History
  4. Native concepts and perspectives
  5. American Settler Colonialism 102

©2014 About.com. All rights reserved.