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Settler Colonialism Primer

decolonize inverse
By Laura Hurwitz & Shawn Bourque, Unsettling Klamath River Coyuntura

Colonialism and Settler Colonialism

Colonialism is a system that occupies and usurps labor/land/resources from one group of people for the benefit of another.  Colonialism is derived from the Latin word Colonia.  According to the Oxford English Dictionary, in the Roman Empire, “Colonia” was a “ farm,” “landed estate,” or “settlement” granted to Roman soldiers in hostile or newly conquered territories.

There are different types of colonial projects.  Exploitation colonialism involves a small amount of colonists whose main objective is to profit from the colonies resources and exploit Indigenous labor, usual exported to the metropole or “mother city” (think of the British in India).  Plantation colonies utilize a mix of exploitation and settler colonialism in different regions and areas.  In settler colonialism land, not labor, is key.  In this system, Indigenous Peoples are literally replaced by settlers. As Patrick Wolfe puts it:

Land is life—or, at least, land is necessary for life. Thus contests for land can be—indeed, often are—contests for life.

Indigenous Peoples are erased through out right genocide, assimilation and interbreeding (including rape).  In this process, racialized categories become important for perpetuating the system (see “Racial Formulation” section below).
Settlers are also different from other colonizers in that they are there to stay, unlike in other colonial systems where the colonizer returns to their home country after profiting.  Here, the land itself is the profit.  Another important concept in understanding this system is the idea that in settler colonialism, “invasion is a structure not an event.”  This means that settler colonialism is not just a vicious thing of the past, such as the gold rush, but exists as long as settlers are living on appropriated land and thus exists today.

Who is a Settler?

“There are no good settlers . . . There are no bad settlers . . . There are settlers.”
–Corey Snelgrove

Anyone not Indigenous, living in a settler colonial situation is a settler.  Therefore all non-Indigenous people living in what is today called the “U.S.” are settlers living on stolen land.  Settlers do not all benefit equally from settler colonialism.  Many people were brought to settler states as slaves, indentured servants, refugees, etc.  Race and class largely prefigure which settlers benefit the most from usurped Indigenous homelands.  But as the Unsettling Minnesota Source Book proclaims, “it is all of our responsibilities as settlers, especially those of us who descended from European colonizers, to challenge the systems of domination from which we benefit.”

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