Guest Post: Native American History & the Explanatory Potential of Settler Colonialism

Today’s post comes from Bryan Rindfleisch, Assistant Professor of History at Marquette University. Bryan received his Ph.D. from the University of Oklahoma in 2014.  He is currently working on a book that examines the intersections of colonial, Native, imperial, and Atlantic histories, peoples, and places in eighteenth-century North America. This is his second post for The Junto. The first can be found here.

51auvvdbpil-_ac_ul320_sr208320_One of the trending themes in Native American history is “Settler Colonialism.” From Patrick Wolfe’s foundational essay, to recent works by historians and literary scholars—Bethel Saler, Jodi Byrd, Gregory Smithers, David Preston, and Lisa Ford, for instance—this theoretical model has attracted significant attention within the field.[1]

In fact, I’ve deployed this concept as the framework for my upper-division class, “A History of Native America, 1491–Present,” at Marquette. But over the past several weeks it has become evident that settler colonialism is a bit of a minefield. Nevertheless, I find it to be an apt, if not critical, theory for researching and teaching Native American history. But it must be understood, and it must be used responsibly.

First, though, what is “settler colonialism”? It’s a form of imperial expansion or colonization that revolves around the removal, if not eradication, of Native populations. Such violence was driven primarily by European settlers—rather than by imperial initiative—who invaded Indigenous worlds with the intent to stay, and employed a variety of tactics to purge the land of its original inhabitants. Obviously violence and forced removal come to mind, but this process also involved wiping out Indigenous place-names on the map, writing Native peoples out of regional and national histories, and a systematic campaign to eliminate Indigenous identities—and claims to land—through assimilation, allotment, and other legal and political means. In the case of the United States, the settler population divested itself of imperial authority and thereby shed its “settler colonial” identity, before embarking on another campaign to remove all vestiges of the Native presence. Patrick Wolfe puts it best: “Settler colonialism destroys to replace.”[2]

Yet scholars disagree on a number of the particulars for this model. For instance, Wolfe argues “Settler colonialism is inherently eliminatory [it is] not invariably genocidal”; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz asserts that it was, in fact, undeniably “a genocidal policy.”[3] In contrast, Walter Hixson defines settler colonialism as “ethnic cleansing” rather than genocide.[4]

Historians are also torn over questions of culpability: How much of this process was driven by the nation-state as compared to the settlers? For Dunbar-Ortiz, the United States was just as responsible—if not more so—than the settlers themselves. While Hixson similarly argues that settler colonialism was “backed by all levels of government,” it largely “operat[ed] from the bottom up.”[5] Similarly, Bethel Saler suggests that although the federal government provided the framework for expansion (Northwest Ordinances), settlers ultimately colonized the early American west.[6]

Meanwhile, Lorenzo Veracini emphasizes settler colonialism is not colonialism per se, but a very particular brand of colonization that involved the appropriation of Native land rather than Indigenous labor.[7] Finally, Native scholars like Jodi Byrd offer poignant critiques of the concept and demonstrate how Indigenous peoples and identities have always been central to the process of settler colonialism and empire-building, from “colonization” to the present.[8]

In particular, Byrd identifies one of many potential dangers in framing Native American history through settler colonialism, which threatens to shift the focus from Native peoples to the settlers themselves, and thereby reduces Indigenous peoples to victims rather than resistant agents who deployed a host of strategies to cope with or adapt to settler societies. Such strategies ran the gamut from voluntary diaspora, warfare, and accommodation, to modern assertions of sovereignty and “survivance”—or reasserting Native identities and presence in the United States. As Frederick Hoxie also contends, settler colonialism is too often “a term that scholars cite but rarely define,” which runs the danger of becoming a catch-all paradigm that is misunderstood or used excessively out of context (like Richard White’s “Middle Ground”).[9]

Further, and more specific to the interests of The Junto’s readers, can settler colonialism accurately depict the history of early America; or, can that concept encapsulate the diversity of colonizing and colonized experiences in the Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Russian, and Native Americas?

However, settler colonialism possesses a number of strengths unique to its theoretical model. Particular to my interests, settler colonialism provides an overarching framework for the entirely of Native American history. In addition, this paradigm intimately connects the history of Native America to the larger U.S. narrative (the story of a settler society). Unlike African Americans who have been debatably integrated into a national narrative, Native peoples by and large remain the foils of early America and the American west.

But through settler colonialism, we can truly incorporate Native peoples and history into a general survey of the American past. Also, settler colonialism encompasses many of the major ideas and themes articulated in Native American history over the past decade, including “Firsting and Lasting” by Jean O’Brien, Philip Deloria’s “Indians in Unexpected Places,” “Violence over the Land” by Ned Blackhawk, Lisa Brooks’s “The Common Pot,” and so on.[10] Settler colonialism therefore allows historians to synthesize the most important scholarship on Native America. Finally, as Lisa Ford and Margaret Jacobs demonstrate, settler colonialism offers a lens through which we might explore Indigenous peoples and histories in a transnational, if not global, context.[11]

All of this is to say that settler colonialism as a conceptual framework must be explicitly defined and responsibly used. In addition, the scholars who deploy this model, including myself, need to be cognizant of its potential weaknesses as well as its variations. And above all else, we must always keep the focus on Indigenous peoples themselves, who coped with, navigated, and still grapple with the settler colonial invasion. As Jodi Byrd and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz remind us, “colonization [still] matters…for indigenous peoples, place, land, sovereignty, and memory” today, for “Indigenous nations and communities are societies formed by their resistance to [settler] colonialism” in the past, present, and future.[12]


[1] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocidal Research Vol. 8: No. 4 (December 2006): 387–409.

[2] Ibid, 388.

[3] Ibid., 387; Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014), 6.

[4] Walter L. Hixson, American Settler Colonialism: A History (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 1.

[5] Ibid., 1–2.

[6] Bethel Saler, The Settlers’ Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).

[7] Lorenzo Veracini, “Introducing Settler Colonial Studies,” Settler Colonial Studies Vol. 1: No. 2 (2011): 2–3.

[8] Jodi Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

[9] Frederick E. Hoxie, “Retrieving the Red Continent: Settler Colonialism and the History of American Indians in the United States,” Ethnic and Racial Studies Vol. 31: No. 6 (September 2008): 1158.

[10] Jean M. O’Brien, Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians out of Existence in New England (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010); Philip J. Deloria, Indians in Unexpected Places (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); Ned Blackhawk, Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006); Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).

[11] Lisa Ford, Settler Sovereignty: Jurisdiction and Indigenous People in America and Australia, 1788–1836 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2011); Margaret Jacobs, White Mother to a Dark Race: Settler Colonialism, Maternalism, and the Removal of Indigenous Children in the American West and Australia, 1880–1940 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009).

[12] Byrd, The Transit of Empire, xiii–xiv; Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, 7.

2 responses

  1. Richard Bushman’s current project, “Farmers in the Production of the Nation,” may or may not sustain and reconfigure your *settler colonialism as conceptual framework.* Ben Kiernan is more known for his history of Cambodia, but you should peruse (if you haven’t already) at least the reviews of his Blood and Soil. Your essay also triggered my own contemplations on the natures of *settler colonialism as conceptual framework* in the environmental history of landscapes, estuaries, seascapes, soundscapes, built environments, memory, etc., as well as the history and historical archeology of spaces, places, and time. I enjoyed the post.

  2. In the Settler Colonial Present, Lorenzo Veracini addresses the following essay (which you most likely read) on “reifying (and possibly replicating) settler colonial as well as other modes of dominion:”

    Note that Decolonization only accepts “submissions that center qualitative methods” or “submissions that include or blend qualitative work together with quantitative sources.”


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