The latest chapter of my dissertation focuses on the seemingly idiosyncratic early American phenomenon that both historians and contemporaries have regarded as “white Indians”: the peculiar inclination of some white Americans—particularly men—to dress up as Indians, be it in St. Tammany gatherings, while participating in regulation movements, or as we all know in the Boston Tea Party. Talking to a friend of mine about my chapter, he mentioned an article I should read by Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” (1)
Reading the article helped me recast the way I view white Indians, as well as American culture and society more broadly. It turned out that not only is there a vast literature on settler colonialism that I knew little about, but that other settler colonial societies appropriated native ways in similar fashion. Furthermore, as someone originally from another settler colonial society (Israel/Palestine), who appropriated native cultural ways and appearances, I should have made the connection long ago. Certainly, I always knew that some theory folks probably examine this term, ‘settler colonialism,’ which I heard bandied around on occasion, but for some inexplicable reason I never really thought it was only fitting that as an early Americanist who studies cultural and intellectual history I should be well versed in such literature. To be sure, I have long felt that there were peculiar similarities between white Indians and early Israeli settlers attempting to appear as Bedouins, but it never fully “clicked” until I read Wolfe’s article.
In fact it was not some “inexplicable” reason that accounts for this neglect; it later occurred to me that the powerful tradition of American exceptionalism best explains this blindspot of mine. It seems that De Tocqueville, Fredrick Jackson Turner, and Oscar Handlin are still lurking somewhere in the nether regions of my subconscious. As much as I and many others might have come to view the myth of American exceptionalism as belonging to a bygone era, it seems to me that early Americanists, like me, are only recently realizing the full ramifications of this stance. We are making tentative and unsure steps into the field of colonial studies that probably induce much cringing from our peers from numerous other fields who wield colonial theory with ease. So don’t lose hope on us quite yet.
Though Americanists now discuss slavery and the Atlantic world in ways that consider US history as part of a much broader colonial project, it seems to me that we haven’t yet fully made a similar connection with regard to American culture and society as participating in a broader cultural project with respect to Native societies. Perhaps one of the reasons for this has been our intent upon the Atlantic world as exhibiting some form of exceptionalism as well; for in the Atlantic the US and Canada are perhaps somewhat unique. (2) However, considering the histories of Australia, New-Zealand, South Africa,
Korea (Taiwan and Japan are better examples), Palestine, and many more as pertinent seems to have occurred to too few of us. At the very least, the term settler colonialism should make an appearance in Early America surveys.
Furthermore, Wolfe’s article features a more incisive and forthcoming discussion of the much avoided term ‘genocide’ with respect to Native peoples in America than any I have come across. For me at least, teaching Native American history, or even general survey courses for that matter, will not look the same. Though until now I somehow neglected them, the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘settler colonialism’ will certainly figure prominently. They must. In a future post I will attempt to do justice to a discussion of the terms genocide and setter colonialism as they apply to Native American history, but I don’t feel equipped for the task quite yet.
Perhaps instead of spending my time reading Turner, Handlin, De Tocqueville, and company, I should have been spending it reading more broadly. Perhaps now that the web is awash with digitized sources we can devote some of the extra time on our hands to read more far flung theory and scholarship.
 Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4 (2006), 387-409.
 The attraction of the term “creole,” I think, best demonstrates this conviction that the Atlantic arena was in some way unique. This idea is influenced by a talk I heard delivered by the African history and African Diaspora scholar James Sweet from the University of Wisconsin, Madison.