Settler colonialism. A complex, vast, and diverse theory that encompasses a wide array of things. But, nevertheless, I’ll try my best to break it down for you, especially since this is such a foundational theory to understand when analyzing Indigenous scholarship.

Let’s be clear. Settler colonialism is NOT a thing of the past. It wasn’t simply Christopher Columbus or Jamestown settlers showing up to the Americas and displacing the indigenous. Settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon that is a thing of the present. It differs from “colonialism” in that settlers come to stay, founding a political order that wants indigenous people to vanish or extracting them for labor. In addition, it’s a spatial theory that explores how one’s relation to space and the land itself constitute a mode of settlerism.

Furthermore, settler colonialism is an exercise in the deliberate alteration of space and time. It’s a violent act against land, geography, indigenous people, and ways of being. One popular term associated with this is “terra nullius”, or the emptying of land such that it appears to be unsettled. This is accompanied by the “logic of elimination”, or eliminating the opportunity of consent via the continuous elimination of indigenous people in so far as it serves to consolidate the settler state.

This is the logic of displacement itself. Think of the concept of Manifest Destiny. This was the justification for US settler expansion in the 19th century that was based on a God-given right to spread liberty and “civilize the savage”.

Some historical occurrences of settler colonialism specifically in the US include the following:

  1. Trail of Tears in the early 19th century that forced the movement of 100,000 indigenous peoples from the South to modern Oklahoma.
  2. The Dawes Act of 1887 that authorized the President to steal the land and divide it, giving the indigenous citizenship upon agreement of said allocation.
  3. American Indian Boarding Schools are instances of the government pouring Native children into assimilation schools into the 19th century, not even allowing them to see their families.

Yet, remember what I said above. Settler colonialism is a global and transnational phenomenon, not simply restricted to the US. The popular settler colonial nations discussed in the literature include the US, Canada, Australia, and Israel. Some of the main theorists within settler colonial literature include Patrick Wolfe, Jodi Byrd, Tiffany King, Eve Tuck, and K. Wayne Yang.

The last concept that I feel is crucial to understanding settler colonialism is that of “sovereignty”. Discussed by philosopher Lorenzo Veracini, sovereignty refers to settlers disrupting and dispossessing indigenous people of their identity as Native nations, displacing indigenous laws, ways of being, religion, governance, language, etc. The settler political entity is one that understands itself as a lawmaking capacity emanating from the possibility of its movement, or capacity to act and do something.

To learn more about this vital theory, watch some of the videos below! The video about postcolonialism isn’t particular to settlerism, but it discusses some of the underlying themes that are still relevant and useful when dissecting this theory.