U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Settler Colonialism, or how to purge Fredrick Jackson Turner from my Subconscious

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.

[1] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research, 8:4 (2006), 387-409.

[2] 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.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. You’ve written a solid piece. Even though you are preaching to the choir, I must state that you haven’t wasted your time reading Tocqueville, Turner, Handlin, etc. Ground breaking arguments become mere shadows of the original theses as the debates within the profession progress over time, and it is useful to know all the historiography. You never know what nugget you can use from a neglected, old fashioned work. But you are correct, early Americanists are conservative empiricists who tend to be behind the curve when it comes to incorporating new concepts. I, for one, look forward to seeing just how far settler colonialism spreads within the profession in the next few decades. Back in the 1980s, it was largely confined to a few specialists in Native American history. So we’ll see what sprouts from the seeds you’ve just planted.

    • Thanks, and yeah, that bit about not reading things was a bit hyperbolic, but would that we were well versed in theoretical discussions of colonialism as we are in Turner’s “Frontier Thesis.”

  2. You may be interested to know that the neglect of settler colonialism in the American academy is fairly recent. There was a lively interest in it among white social scientists in the early 20th century. The early American Political Science Association had a section largely devoted to the study of empire, and how to reconcile American ideals with imperial power. (The answer, for most, was to recognize that American ideals were only suited for whites.) Later, they called white settler colonies “pioneer belts,” and saw them as mainly progressive. Robert Vitalis has written about the SSRC Committee on Pioneer Belts that existed in the 1920s. It’s only as colonialism has been discredited by decolonization, liberation struggles (inc. Native American liberation struggles), etc., that the US has “forgotten” its status as both a colonial power and a white settler society.

    • This sounds fascinating, and makes a certain counter-intuitive sense, I suppose.

  3. Eran: I would think that theoretical discourses centered on ‘hybridity’ could be useful for you on this front, whether those discourses are poststructuralist (i.e. re alterns and subalterns) or about empire disguised as cosmopolitanism (e.g. missionary outreach). My apologies if you’ve already thought those threads through, or if you’ve dismissed them as irrelevant. – TL

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