102. Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native”

by breavman99

Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native first page

Patrick Wolfe’s name appears on almost every bibliography of every text I’ve read on settler colonialism. So it’s time to sit down and read his work, instead of relying on how other people talk about it. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native” begins with the word “genocide”: “The question of genocide is never far from discussions of settler colonialism. Land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life. Thus contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life” (387). That doesn’t mean, he continues, “that settler colonialism is simply a form of genocide,” or that genocide can’t take place without settler colonialism (387). However, he continues, in this essay, he “shall begin to explore, in comparative fashion, the relationship between genocide and the settler-colonial tendency that I term the logic of elimination” (387). His contention, he writes, is that settler colonialism should be distinguished from genocide; while it is “inherently eliminatory,” is is not “invariably genocidal” (387).

Wolfe begins exploring this claim by noting that “both genocide and settler colonialism have typically employed the organizing grammar of race,” and that even though race is a social construct, “different racial regimes encode and reproduce the unequal relationships in to which Europeans coerced the populations concerned” (387). Those relationships were different: in the United States, for instance, because Africans were enslaved, the offspring of an enslaved person and “any other parent” would be enslaved as well, a “taxonomy” that “became fully racialized in the ‘one-drop rule,’ whereby any amount of African ancestry, no matter how remote, and regardless of phenotypical appearance, makes a person Black” (387-88). For Indigenous people in the United States, in contrast, “non-Indian ancestry compromised their indigeneity, producing ‘half-breeds,’ a regime that persists in the form of blood quantum regulations” (388). Unlike enslaved Africans, “whose reproduction augmented their owners’ wealth, Indigenous people obstructed settlers’ access to land, so their increase was counterproductive. In this way, the restrictive racial classification of Indians straightforwardly furthered the logic of elimination” (388). All that Indigenous people have to do “to get in the way of settler colonization,” Wolfe writes, citing Deborah Bird Rose, “is stay at home” (388). The “primary motive for elimination” of Indigenous peoples, then, is simply “access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element” (388).

“The logic of elimination not only refers to the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, though it includes that,” Wolfe continues (388). He suggests that “settler colonialism has both negative and positive dimensions” (388). “Negatively, it strives for the dissolution of native societies,” he writes. “Positively, it erects a new colonial society on the expropriated land base—as I put it, settler colonizers come to stay: invasion is a structure not an event” (388). Elimination of Indigenous populations, then, “is an organizing principal of settler-colonial society rather than a one-off (and superseded) occurrence,” and that elimination can include activities familiar to Canadians: “child abduction, religious conversion, [and] resocialization in total institutions such as missions or boarding schools” (388). “Settler colonialism,” Wolfe states, “destroys to replace” (388)

Renaming is one form of symbolic elimination or erasure. However, Wolfe notes that in Australia, 

the erasure of indigeneity conflicts with the assertion of settler nationalism. On the one hand, settler society required the practical elimination of the natives in order to establish itself on their territory. On the symbolic level, however, settler society subsequently sought to recuperate indigeneity in order to express its difference—and, accordingly, its independence—from the mother country. (389)

For that reason, Australian official symbolism, sports teams, and corporations “are distinguished by the ostentatious borrowing of Aboriginal motifs” (389). That’s true in this country as well: think of the appropriation of the inukshuk for the Vancouver Winter Olympics, or of the way totem poles became a national symbol. (I just saw artist and academic David Garneau give a talk on this very subject.) “For nationalist purposes, it is hard to see an alternative to this contradictory reappropriation of a foundationally disavowed Aboriginality,” Wolfe continues (389).

“In its positive aspect, therefore, settler colonialism does not simply replace native society tout court,” Wolf writes. “Rather, the process of replacement maintains the refractory imprint of the native counter-claim” (389). “In short,” he concludes, 

elimination refers to more than the summary liquidation of Indigenous people, although it includes that. In its positive aspect, the logic of elimination marks a return whereby the native repressed continues to structure settler-colonial society. It is both as complex social formation and as continuity through time that I term settler colonization a structure rather than an event, and it is on this basis that I shall consider its relationship to genocide. (390)

That assertion of complexity clarifies a great deal about the relationship between Settlers and Indigenous peoples and about the way Settlers have tended to represent Indigenous peoples and celebrate their cultural artifacts while they are appropriating their land and abducting their children.

Wolfe now returns, in a new section of the essay, to the past, to “the European sovereigns who laid claim to the territories of non-Christian (or, in later secularized versions, uncivilized) inhabitants of the rest of the world” did so through multiple versions of “the doctrine of discovery” (390). The discourse around such claims, though, “was primarily addressed to relations between European sovereigns rather than to relations between Europeans and natives” in an attempt “to restrain the endless rounds of war-making over claims to colonial territory that European sovereigns were prone to indulge in” (390). In Australia, for instance, where “British dominion was effectively unchallenged by other European powers, Aborigines were accorded no rights to their territory, informal variants on the theme of terra nullius being taken for granted in settler culture” (390-91). In North America, on the other hand, “treaties between Indian and European nations were premised on a sovereignty that reflected Indians’ capacity to permute local alliance networks from among the rival Spanish, French, Dutch, Swedish and Russian presences” (391). However, even where Indigenous sovereignty was recognized, “ultimate dominion over the territory in question was held to inhere in the European sovereign in whose name it had been ‘discovered’” (391). There was, Wolfe continues, a “clear distinction between dominion, which inhered in European sovereigns alone, and natives’ right of occupancy, also expressed in terms of possession or usufruct, which entitled natives to pragmatic use (understood as hunting and gathering rather than agriculture) of a territory that Europeans had discovered” (391). For Wolfe, this distinction “between dominion and occupancy illuminates the settler-colonial project’s reliance on the elimination of native societies” (391).

Those who claimed to discover a particular territory thereby “acquired the right, on behalf of his sovereign and vis-à-vis other Europeans who came after him, to buy land from the natives,” a right known as pre-emption (391). This notion “would seem to pose little threat to people who did not wish to dispose of their land to anyone,” but in practice, Wolfe writes, quoting Harvey Rosenthal, “‘The American right to buy always superseded the Indian right not to sell’” (391). This sense of priority is crucial, Wolfe suggests:

Why should ostensibly sovereign nations, residing in a territory solemnly guaranteed to them by treaties, decide that they are willing, after all, to surrender their ancestral homelands? More often than not (and nearly always up to the wars with the Plains Indians, which did not take place until after the civil war), the agency which reduced Indian peoples to this abjection was not some state instrumentality but irregular, greed-crazed invaders who had no intention of allowing the formalities of federal law to impede their access to the riches available in, under, and on Indian soil. (391)

Canadians may shake their heads and mutter something about greedy Americans, but the behaviour of squatters in the Haldimand Tract in Ontario, which was deeded to the Haudenosaunee in 1784, was not much different, and, like Wolfe’s example of the removal of Indigenous peoples from the American South that made way for the development of “the slave-plantation economy” (391) the governments of Upper Canada and later Canada West supported the rights of those squatters over the rights of the Haudenosaunee to their own land. 

To Wolfe, the behaviour of the soldiers who drove the Cherokees from their homes illustrates “the structural complexity of settler colonialism” (392). Those soldiers, he notes, were “economic immigrants “ who

were generally drawn from the ranks of Europe’s landless. The cattle and other stock were not only being driven off Cherokee land; they were being driven into private ownership. Once evacuated, the Red man’s land would be mixed with Black labour to produce cotton, the white gold of the Deep South. To this end, the international slave trade and the highest echelons of the formal state apparatus converged across three continents with the disorderly pillaging of a nomadic horde who may or may not have been “lawless” but who were categorically White. (392)

“In this light,” Wolfe states, “we are in a position to understand the pragmatics of the doctrine of discovery more clearly”:

 Understood as an assertion of Indigenous entitlement, the distinction between dominion and occupancy dissolves into incoherence. Understood processually, however, as a stage in the formation of the settler-colonial state (specifically, the stage linking the theory and the realization of territorial acquisition), the distinction is only too consistent. (392)

What does Wolfe mean? He returns to the point that Indigenous people could only transfer “their right of occupancy to the discovering sovereign and no one else” (392). “They could not transfer dominion because it was not theirs to transfer; that inhered in the European sovereign and had done so from the moment of discovery,” he continues. “Dominion without conquest constitutes the theoretical (or ‘inchoate’) stage of territorial sovereignty” (392). “In other word,” Wolfe writes,

the right of occupancy was not an assertion of native rights. Rather, it was a pragmatic acknowledgment of the lethal interlude that would intervene between the conceit of discovery, when navigators proclaimed European over whole continents to trees or deserted beaches, and the practical realization of that conceit in the final securing of European settlement, formally consummated in the extinguishment of native title. (393)

That conceit might have been, as Eva Mackey suggests, a fantasy, but it had tangible consequences. And, remember, in this country, the goal of the federal government in negotiating treaties with First Nations was “the extinguishment of native title.” That’s the purpose of the clauses in the numbered treaties—which Sheldon Krasowski argues, convincingly, were never discussed during the negotiations of those treaties—which claimed that, by making treaty, First Nations were signing away their land. “In sum, then, settler colonialism is an inclusive, land-centred project that coordinates a comprehensive range of agencies, from the metropolitan centre to the frontier encampment, with a view to eliminating Indigenous societies,” Wolfe writes. “Its operations are not dependent on the presence or absence of formal state institutions or functionaries” (393). For that reason, “the occasions on or the extent to which settler colonialism conduces to genocide are not a matter of the presence or absence of the formal apparatus of the state” (393). That genocide can be conducted by priests and nuns and dormitory supervisors in residential schools, or by men who prey on Indigenous sex workers. Our discomfort with the use of the term “genocide” to describe the actions of those people—and I’m thinking of Canadian Conservative leader Andrew Scheer’s rejection of that term in the conclusions of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG)–has less to do with the reality of what is happening than our own squeamishness at calling something what it really is. Wolfe, however, would disagree, as the final sections of his essay indicate.

Here Wolfe begins third section of his essay, in which he points out that while “the pace, scale and intensity of certain forms of modern genocide requires the centralized technological, logistical and administrative capacities of the modern state,” settler colonialism is not pre-modern, and that “some of the core features of modernity were pioneered in the colonies” (citing W.E.B. Dubois, Hannah Arendt, and Aimé Césaire) (393). He notes that many of the Nazis’ victims were murdered “in deranged shooting sprees that were more reminiscent of sixteenth-century Spanish behaviour in the Americans than of Fordism, while millions of Slav civilians and Soviet soldiers were simply starved to death in circumstances that could well have struck a chord with late-eighteenth-century Bengalis or mid-nineteenth-century Irish people” (394). The point, he continues, is not that the Holocaust can be divided into “modern and atavistic elements”; rather, the point is that colonialism was modern (394). In fact, he continues, settler colonialism “was foundational to modernity” (394). “[A] global chain of command” linked “remote colonial frontiers to the metropolis,” he argues, and “[b]ehind it all lay the driving engine of international market forces, which linked Australian wool to Yorkshire mills and, complementarily, to cotton produced under different colonial conditions in India, Egypt, and the slave states of the Deep South” (394). He quotes Cole Harris on the dispossession of First Nations in Canada: “‘Combine capital’s interest in uncluttered access to land and settlers’ interest in land as livelihood, and the principal momentum of settler colonialism comes into focus’” (394). The Industrial Revolution “required colonial land and labour to produce its raw materials just as centrally as it required metropolitan factories and an industrial proletariat to process them, whereupon the colonies were again required as a market” (394). For that reason, “[t]he expropriated Aboriginal, enslaved African American, or indentured Asian is as thoroughly modern as the factory worker, bureaucrat, or flâneur of the metropolitan centre. The fact that the slave may be in chains does not make him or her medieval” (394).

“Of itself, however, modernity cannot explain the insatiable dynamic whereby settler colonialism always needs more land,” Wolfe writes at the outset of his essay’s fourth section (395). Agriculture is one reason, but so are other “primary sectors” that “can motivate the project,” including forestry, fishing, pastoralism, and mining (395). However, he argues, agriculture “not only supports the other sectors,” but is “inherently sedentary and, therefore, permanent” (395). “In contrast to extractive industries, which rely on what just happens to be there, agriculture is a rational means/end calculus that is geared to vouchsafing its own reproduction, generating capital that projects into a future where it repeats itself,” he writes (395). (Of course, one could argue that agriculture is extractive as well.) Agriculture also supports a larger population than other modes of production (395). “In settler-colonial terms, this enables a population to be expanded by continuing immigration at the expense of native lives and livelihoods,” he continues. “The inequities, contradictions and pogroms of metropolitan society ensure a recurrent supply of fresh immigrants—especially, as noted, from among the landless. In this way, individual motivations dovetail with the global market’s imperative for expansion” (395). Thus, agriculture “progressively eats into Indigenous territory, a primitive accumulation that turns native flora and fauna into a dwindling resource and curtails the reproduction of Indigenous modes of production,” rendering Indigenous people to a dependency “on the introduced economy” or reducing them “to the stock-raids that provide the classic pretext for colonial death-squads” (395). Wolfe could be talking about Saskatchewan.

Wolfe notes that whether Indigenous people practise agriculture or not, “natives are typically represented as unsettled, nomadic, rootless, etc., in settler-colonial discourse” (396). Agriculture thus becomes “a potent symbol of settler-colonial identity” because of its “life-sustaining connectedness to land” (396). “Accordingly,” he continues, “settler-colonial discourse is resolutely impervious to glaring inconsistencies such as sedentary natives or the fact that the settlers themselves have come from somewhere else” (396). Even if the Indigenous people are already farmers, however, their productivity cannot be simply incorporated into the colonial economy:

At this point, we begin to get closer to the question of just who it is (or, more to the point, who they are) that settler colonialism strives to eliminate—and, accordingly, closer to an understanding of the relationship between settler colonialism and genocide. To stay with the Cherokee removal: when it came to it, the factor that most antagonized the Georgia state government (with the at-least-tacit support of Andrew Jackson’s federal administration) was not actually the recalcitrant savagery of which Indians were routinely accused, but the Cherokee’s unmistakable aptitude for civilization. Indeed, they and their Creek, Choctaw, Chickasaw and Seminole neighbours, who were also targeted for removal, figured revealingly as the “Five Civilized Tribes” in Euroamerican parlance. (396)

The Cherokees, he notes, had become successful farmers “on the White model, with a number of them owning substantial holdings of Black slaves, and they had introduced a written national constitution that bore more than a passing resemblance to the US one” (396). Why would the Georgians “wish to rid themselves of such cultivated neighbours?” (396). Because “the Cherokee’s constitution and their agricultural prowess . . . all signified permanence” (396). The first thing the soldiers did was to burn the Cherokees’ houses (396).

Another reason for the removals was that tribal land was owned collectively. “Indians were the original communist menace,” Wolfe contends (397). The Choctaws who stayed in Mississippi “became individual proprietors . . . of separately allotted fragments of what had previously been the tribal estate, theirs to sell to White people if they chose to” (397). But without the tribe, Wolfe continues, those who remained were “for all practical purposes no longer Indians. . . . Here, in essence, is assimilation’s Faustian bargain—have our settler world, but lose your Indigenous soul. Beyond any doubt, this is a kind of death. Assimilationists recognized this very clearly” (397). That’s what links Richard Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle boarding school and leader of “the philanthropic ‘Friends of the Indian’ group” to General Phil Sheridan, “scourge of the Plains and author of the deathless maxim, ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’”:

Given the training in individualism that Pratt provided at his school . . . the tribe could disappear while its members stayed behind. . . . In a paper for the 1892 Charities and Correction Conference held in Denver, Pratt explicitly endorsed Sheridan’s maxim, “but only in this: that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him and save the man.” (397)

Remember, the Carlisle boarding school was one of the models for the Canadian residential school system, and Regina’s own Nicholas Flood Davin drew on his visit to that institution when he wrote his 1879 work, “Report on Industrial Schools for Indians and Half-Breeds” (“The Davin Report”).

The death that is involved in assimilation is, Wolfe argues, a form of genocide: “Richard Pratt and Phillip Sheridan were both practitioners of genocide,” he writes (398). He rejects the term “cultural genocide” (often used in Canada) because “it confuses definition with degree,” and because of “the practical hazards that can ensue once an abstract concept like ‘cultural genocide’ falls into the wrong hands”—the “elementary category error” that claims genocide is either biological (“the real thing”) or cultural “and thus, it follows, not real” (398). “In practice, it should go without saying that the imposition on a people of the procedures and techniques that are generally glossed as ‘cultural genocide’ is certainly going to have a direct impact on that people’s capacity to stay alive,” he argues, noting that in the decades after the creation of Indian boarding schools in the US, “Indian numbers hit the lowest level they would ever register” (398-99). That situation is reflected in contemporary Aboriginal life expectancy and infant mortality rates in Australia. “Clearly, we are not talking about an isolated event here,” he writes. “Thus we can shift from settler colonialism’s structural complexity to its positivity as a structuring principle of settler-colonial society across time” (399).

Wolfe now begins a new section of his essay. He describes the westward expansion of the frontier in the United States in terms of the temporary nature of the removals of Indigenous peoples, “which kept time with the westward march of the nation” (399). When the frontier no longer existed, “when the crude technique of removal declined in favour of a range of strategies for assimilating Indian people now that they had been contained within Euroamerican society, we can more clearly see the logic of elimination’s positivity as a continuing feature of Euroamerican settler society” (399). In other words, “elimination turned inwards, seeking to penetrate through the tribal surface to the individual Indian below, who was to be co-opted out of the tribe, which would be depleted accordingly, and into White society” (399). In the last 30 years of the 19th century, assimilationist legislation and Supreme Court decisions “which notionally dismantled tribal sovereignty and provided for the abrogation of existing treaties . . . relentlessly sought the breakdown of the tribe and the absorption into White society of individual Indians and their tribal land, only separately” (399-400). This “‘New Colonialism’” was “a discursive formation based on reservations and boarding schools,” and it attacked “‘every aspect of Native American life—religion, speech, political freedoms, economic liberty, and cultural diversity,’” Wolfe writes, quoting John Wunder (400). “The centrepiece of this campaign was the allotment programme, first generalized as Indian policy in the Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 and subsequently intensified and extended, whereby tribal land was to be broken down into individual allotments whose proprietors could eventually sell them to White people,” he continues, noting that in the 50 years after 1881, “the total acreage held by Indians in the United States fell by two thirds” (400). “Needless to say, the coincidence between the demographic statistics and the land-ownership rates was no coincidence,” he writes. “Throughout this process, reformers’ justifications for it (saving the Indian from the tribe, giving him the same opportunities as the White man, etc.) repeatedly included the express intention to destroy the tribe in whole” (400). The New Deal introduced blood quantum requirements, whereby “one’s Indianness progressively declines in accordance with a ‘biological’ calculus that is a construct of Euroamerican culture,” a procedure that Juaneño/Jaqi scholar Annette Jaimes has called “‘statistical extermination’” (400). “In sum, the containment of Indian groups within Euroamerican society that culminated in the end of the frontier produced a range of ongoing complementary strategies whose common intention was the destruction of heterodox forms of Indian grouphood,” Wolfe concludes (400).

In both the US and Australia, “the full radicalization of assimilation policies . . . coincided with the closure of the frontier, which forestalled spatial stop-gaps such as removal” (400). But, Wolfe writes, “assimilation should not be seen as an invariable concomitant of settler colonialism. Rather, assimilation is one of a range of strategies of elimination that become favoured in particular historical circumstances. Moreover, assimilation itself can take on a variety of forms” (401). These strategies might be “‘softer’ than the recourse to simple violence,” but they “are no necessarily less eliminatory” (401). He notes that the UN’s Convention on Genocide “includes among the acts that constitute genocide (assuming they are committed with intent to destroy a target group in whole or in part) the imposition of ‘measures intended to prevent births within the group’” (401). Practices of forced adoption such as, in Canada, the Sixties Scoop, a misnomer because Indigenous children continue to be taken from their parents at astonishing rates, which are intended to “bring about a situation in which second-generation offspring were born into a group that was different from the one from which the child/parent had originally been abducted,” would therefore be examples of genocide, according to the UN’s definition (401). “Though a child was physically abducted, the eventual outcome is as much a matter of a social classification as it is of a body count,” Wolfe writes. “Nonetheless, the intentional contribution to the demographic destruction of the ‘relinquishing’ group is unequivocal” (401).

Wolfe begins the next section of his essay with a question: why does he use the term “logic of elimination rather than genocide?” (401). Settler colonialism, he repeats, “is a specific social formation and it is desirable to retain that specificity. . . . an understanding of settler colonialism would not be particularly helpful for understanding the mass killings of, say, witches in medieval Europe, Tutsis in Rwanda, enemies of the people in Cambodia, or Jews in the Nazi fatherland (the Lebensraum is, of course, another matter)” (401). These examples of mass killings “would seem to have little to tell us about the long-run structural consistency of settler colonizers’ attempts to eliminate native societies” (402). Use of the term “genocide” would invite comparisons to the Holocaust, creating “hyphenated genocides” which would only “devalue Indigenous attrition” (402). However, 

[n]o such problem bedevils analysis of the logic of elimination, which, in its specificity to settler colonialism, is premised on the securing—the obtaining and the maintaining—of territory. This logic certainly requires the elimination of the owners of that territory, but not in any particular way. To this extent, it is a larger category than genocide. For instance, the style of romantic stereotyping that I have termed “repressive authenticity,” which is a feature of settler-colonial discourse in many countries, is not genocidal in itself, though it eliminates large numbers of empirical natives from official reckonings and, as such, is often concomitant with genocidal practice. Indeed, depending on the historical conjuncture, assimilation can be a more effective mode of elimination than conventional forms of killing, since it does not involve such a disruptive affront to the rule of law that is ideologically central to the cohesion of settler society. When invasion is recognized as a structure rather than an event, its history does not stop—or more to the point, become relatively trivial—when it moves on from the era of frontier homicide. Rather, narrating that history involves charting the continuities, discontinuities, adjustments, and departures whereby a logic that initially informed frontier killing transmutes into different modalities, discourses and institutional formations as it undergirds the historical development and complexification of settler society. (402)

“How, then, when elimination manifests as genocide, are we to retain the specificity of settler colonialism without downplaying its impact by resorting to a qualified genocide?” Wolfe asks (402-03). He offers the term “structural genocide,” suggesting that it would avoid “the questions of degree—and, therefore, of hierarchy among victims—that are entailed in qualified genocides, while retaining settler colonialism’s structural induration” (403). “Given a historical perspective on structural genocide,” he continues, “we can recognize its being in abeyance (as, mercifully, it seems to be in contemporary Australia) rather than being a thing of the past—which is to say, we should guard against the recurrence of what Dirk Moses terms ‘genocidal moments’ (social workers continue to take Aboriginal children in disproportionate numbers, for example)” (403). “Structural genocide” would also enable us to understand “some of the concrete empirical relationships between spatial removal, mass killings and biocultural assimilation” (403). For instance, “assimilation programmes can reflect the ideological requirements of settler-colonial societies, which characteristically cite native advancement to establish their egalitarian credentials to potentially fractious groups of immigrants” (403).

Wolfe begins the final section of his essay with another question: “How, then, might any of this help to predict and prevent genocide?” (403). For one thing, “it shows us that settler colonialism is an indicator. Unpalatable though it is (to speak as a member of a settler society), this conclusion has a positive aspect, which is a corollary to settler colonialism’s temporal dimension” (403). That is, “[s]ince settler colonialism persists over extended periods of time, structural genocide should be easier to interrupt than short-term genocides” (403). (There is no evidence anywhere to support that conclusion, I’m afraid.) In addition, he argues that “[s]ince settler colonialism is an indicator, it follows that we should monitor situations in which settler colonialism intensifies or in which societies that are not yet, or not fully, settler-colonial take on more of its characteristics” (403). He argues that “Israel’s progressive dispensing with its reliance on Palestinian labour would seem to present an ominous case in point” (403). Apartheid in South Africa was not a genocide because the country’s economy depended on African workers; “[t]he same can be said of African American slavery,” Wolfe writes (404)—a shockingly uninformed thing to say, given the mass death that happened before slavery was abolished. He suggests that because enslaved Africans were “valuable commodities, slaves had only been destroyed in extremis” (404), something that might appear true in theory but that I doubt accurately conveys the numbers of Africans who died during the Middle Passage or on the huge plantations of Mississippi. “Today in the US, the blatant racial zoning of large cities and the penal system suggests that, once colonized people outlive their utility, settler societies can fall back on the repertoire of strategies (in this case, spatial sequestration) whereby they have also dealt with the native surplus,” he writes (404). The West Bank barrier, he continues, is such an example of spatial sequestration, as was apartheid, and “as Palestinians become more and more dispensable, Gaza and the West Bank become less and less like Bantustans and more and more like reservations (or, for that matter, like the Warsaw Ghetto)” (404). What an astonishing thing to say.

I’m not sure Wolfe’s conclusion is of much value—there is, after all, nothing in this country that would suggest settler colonialism is easy to interrupt—and I’m honestly not convinced that avoiding the term genocide is actually useful in thinking about the way Indigenous people have experienced settler colonialism. By the UN’s definition of genocide, all of the institutions of settler colonialism–in this country, anyway–are genocidal. We might not want to admit this is true, but it is. Perhaps “attempted genocide” would be a better term, since Indigenous people, cultures, languages and ways of thinking about the world remain vital and relevant. Nevertheless, the rest of Wolfe’s essay is helpful to me in understanding the significance of the oft-repeated claim that settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event. It carries on in new forms, and those new forms are always rooted in the occupation of land by settlers. And the discussion of American boarding schools brings home how I’ve benefitted—or was intended to benefit—from residential schools in this country. Yesterday was Orange Shirt Day in Canada, a day when we wear orange T-shirts and remember the children who were incarcerated in this country’s Indian residential schools. Some 150,000 children were sent to those places, and about 5,000 died (the exact number may never be known). Those institutions, Wolfe would argue, were established in order to assimilate Indigenous children, a process of assimilation that was supposed to benefit settlers by eliminating competing Indigenous claims to the land—by destroying Indigenous languages, cultures, families, and communities. To think that those places were part of a system in which I am enmeshed—against my will, and for most of my life without my knowledge—is disturbing and painful. But it seems to be the truth. And the truth must come before reconciliation; at least, that’s what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada would argue. The truth of settler colonialism isn’t pretty, but it has to be faced before reconciliation, or decolonization, can happen. 

Works Cited

Krasowski, Sheldon. No Surrender: The Land Remains Indigenous, University of Regina Press, 2019.

Mackey, Eva. Unsettled Expectations: Uncertainty, Land and Settler Decolonization, Fernwood, 2016.

“The Davin Report, 1879.” Nishnawbe Aski Nation Indian Residential Schools in Ontario, 2005, http://rschools.nan.on.ca/article/the-davin-report-1879-1120.asp.

Wolfe, Patrick. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research, vol. 8, no. 4, 2006, pp. 387-409. DOI:10.1080/14623520601056240.