Australian anthropologist and ethnographer Patrick Wolfe calls settler colonialism “a social process of dispossession.” But what does that mean? Settler colonialism is a difficult thing to put in simple terms. It is further complicated by the popular idea that the United States is “a nation of immigrants.” While this idea of America’s origins has been utilized recently in defense of immigrants’ rights, it is inaccurate. Many native people reject this notion of an immigrant nation because immigrants have to assimilate into the pre-existing culture of the land they immigrate to. European settlers had no interest in embracing the indigenous way of life, but rather we preoccupied with taking indigenous land and converting indigenous “heathens” to Christianity. Thus, the United States is better characterized as a nation of settlers. You are still a settler even if you haven’t voluntarily dispossessed someone, and every non-native person in the United States occupies a role in the settler-colonial project on stolen land. This is true for other settler-colonial states like Australia and Israel. In North America, settler colonialism was based on a triad system of African chattel slavery, the founding of state based on white supremacy, and policy of genocide and land theft (Dunbar-Ortiz). Land is central to settler colonialism. Settler colonialism differs from other colonial projects in that it seeks total extermination of the Native in order to obtain indigenous lands for the settler to inhabit and extract resources. It “erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land base,” making settler colonialism “a structure and not an event” because it is an ongoing process that continues today (Wolfe). Because it is predicated on the elimination of the native, settler colonialism cannot exist without violence or the threat of violence, and is genocidal at its core. This genocide can either be outright or cultural, meaning Natives can be exterminated through wholesale slaughter or policies of assimilation that aim to erase Native identities. But what about actual immigrants who come to the United States looking for a better life? Or the descendants of chattel slaves, who never got to choose whether or not they lived on stolen land because they were stolen, themselves? Both of these groups have been and continue to be exploited and oppressed by the dominant group of Anglo settlers. However, “in a settler society that has not come to terms with its past, whatever historical trauma was entailed in settling the land affects the assumptions and behaviors of living generations at any given time, including immigrants and the children of recent immigrants” (Dunbar-Ortiz). Immigrants and their descendants can still reproduce national myths like “the nation of immigrants,” which negatively impacts indigenous people who have resisted extermination since the so-called “Age of Exploration.”
Dunbar Ortiz, Roxanne (2015). An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press. Print.
Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research, 8(4), 387–409. Web.