Chapter 11: The Settler Situation


“Gichi-gami Gathering to Stop Line 3” by Fibonacci Blue, CC BY 2.0

This chapter is about “the settler [colonial] situation.” The first section of the chapter introduces some of the defining concepts related to settler colonialism, describes the role of rhetoric, and offers several examples of how this “situation” continues to arise within popular narratives today. The second section is a lecture by Dr. Michael Lechuga entitled “Incomunicable,” which discusses the ways that the university itself is implicated in an ongoing settler situation.

Watching the video clips embedded in the chapters may add to the projected “read time” listed in the headers.  Please also note that the audio recording for this chapter covers the same tested content as is presented in the chapter below.

Chapter Recordings

Correction: Part 1 of the recorded lecture above incorrectly states that the island of Kaho’olawe remains US Federal property and that Indigenous peoples have been banned from traveling there since the 1965 “Operation Sailor Hat” bombing tests. The island was transferred to the jurisdiction of the state of Hawaii in 1994, and the Hawaii State Legislature established the Kahoʻolawe Island Reserve to restore and oversee the island and its surrounding waters. As of the time of the lecture’s recording in Fall 2021, Kahoʻolawe can be used only for native Hawaiian cultural, spiritual, and subsistence purposes.


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Part 1: Defining the Settler Situation

Last week we talked about the rhetorical situation. The rhetorical situation accounts for why what is said is said, what this speech responded to, and its effects. If the rhetorical situation creates a specific historical account of a single moment of speech, then the settler situation describes a specific set of characteristics (e.g. motives, narratives, relationships). These characteristics, in turn, describe a general set of power relations that have shaped communication across a range of contexts. According to Lorenzo Veracini, who coins the phrase “settler-colonial situation”:

The settler colonial situation is characterised by a settler capacity to control the population economy as a marker of a substantive type of sovereignty … [and] is associated with a particular state of mind and a specific narrative form. Under these circumstances, the possibility of ultimately discontinuing/decolonising settler colonial forms remains problematic. (Settler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, 12)

According to Veracini, the settler-colonial situation is primarily one that manages a “population economy.” This means that settler colonialism facilitates the mass displacement of people and mobilizes them in on behalf of capital. After being displaced, governing this population’s “economy” means to discover, extract, and hoard the value stolen from Indigenous lands. After this process is complete and the land is rendered unusable, the settler moves on to a new frontier for extraction and conquest.

For all mankind movie poster

Poster for For All Mankind, a television show about a fictional resource war fought over the moon.

Veracini also explains that the settler-colonial situation describes a long-term and widely-held way of thinking. The settler-colonial mindset has ongoing concerns with existential threats and maintains a paranoid fear of ultimate decolonization. Settler anxieties include worries about the degeneration of the settler social body, apprehensions about the debilitating results of climate, remoteness, geopolitical position, racial contamination, demographic imbalances, and concerns about the possibility that the land will ultimately turn against the settler project.

When we are thinking of the settler-colonial situation, we are also thinking about a moment that organizes our rhetoric. If the rhetorical situation describes an arrangement of exigence, audience, and constraints, the settler-colonial situation describes a different mode of arrangement, sometimes called an assemblage. Unlike the rhetorical situation, the settler situation is not a concept that emerges from the traditional Greek canon of thought. In fact, experts and scholars who study settler colonialism often critique Aristotle because of his documented defenses of slavery, wartime violence, and class elitism. As described below, the assemblage of settler colonialism “arranges” peoplestechnologiespsychology, and networks of power. The sections below offer an overview of each of these elements.

Settler Colonialism Arranges Peoples.

These people include indigenous and exogenous peoples, or the original inhabitants of a place and the people trafficked by settlers. It also includes migrants, immigrants, emigrants as different ways of describing the movement of peoples. Migrant references the general fact of this movement, while emigrant and immigrant are legal terms designating one’s status relative to the land left behind or the “new” lands toward which one travels. Settler colonialism also constitutes the identity of the settler, which takes a variety of different forms. The settler may, for instance, take the form of the institutional figures of authority that enact forced migration from indigenous lands, police protests, protects the property of the settler from indigenous claims, and patrol the entry in and out of borders. In American popular culture, the settler also takes the form of “heroic” figures such as the cowboy, the fighter pilot, and the time-traveling father figure.

Trailer for Wild Wild Country (2016)

The above trailer from the documentary Wild Wild Country offers one illustration of how people are arranged by settler colonialism. On the one hand, it shows how the Rajneesh community settled in Antelope, Oregon, where they were received with hostility from Antelope residents. However, as the descendants of European families that displaced these residents ignore their own status as “settlers” and that they occupy lands stewarded by the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, the Confederated Tribes of the Warm Springs Reservation of Oregon, and the Nez Perce Tribe. They are astonished that the Rajneeshis – a group who, as “people of like persuasion,” are like them – would migrate to and settle the Antelope area. According to these residents, the Rajneeshis threaten to “literally wipe out the culture” of the existing white inhabitants. The irony, of course, is that the settler ancestors of these present-day residents perpetrated the very same ‘wiping out’ that they now fear.

Settler Colonialism Arranges Technologies.

The settler situation also promotes the creation and distribution of specific kinds of technology, such as those intended to make migrants and borderlands more visible for purposes of policing. These technologies include databases, drones, cameras, weapons, vehicles, and structures. They involve the support of corporations, government agencies, and political parties. Together, they create a site of significant financial and human investment dedicated to maintaining boundaries predicated on an imagined threat posed by those foreign to the nation. As Dr. Michael Lechuga explains:

Those living along the border between México and the United States (US) might never see a physical, 2,000-mile long wall between the two nations. If there is a border wall, it will likely be a virtual wall. I say this for two reasons: frst, the US has invested tens of billions of dollars in the latest surveillance technologies over the last three decades, to create a network of sensing devices to track the movements of migrants across that border (Ofce of the Inspector General, 2005; US Customs and Border Protection, 2015a). These include seismic sensors buried in the desert, infrared cameras mounted on Hum-Vs and Predator Drones, and biometric face scanners at ports of entry. With most of that technology already in place, a physical wall that spans 2,000 miles seems both redundant and unrealistic.

Settler Colonialism Arranges Psychologies.

Settler psychologies are developed to justify and prolong colonial governance. One of these psychological dispositions is called disavowal, which takes the form of the statement “I know very well [I am doing X] but nonetheless [I will continue doing it because of Y].” As discussed in Chapter 6, disavowal is a way of cultivating beliefs that give us an escape from the reality that we inhabit. For example, a person may join a company with the intent not to compromise their values. However, when confronted with a situation where those values are tested, they may tell themselves, “I’ll just wait until I get a promotion or have greater stability, and then I’ll act according to what I know is right.” That is disavowal: that person “knows very well [that they are not acting in accordance with their values] but nonetheless [they are able to justify continuing to act in the same way].

“Follow the Frog” as an example of disavowal

settler disavowal takes the form of a justification in which “I know that [my actions] perpetuate settler colonial governance, but nonetheless [I will continue acting ways that perpetuate it].” In the “Follow the Frog” video clip above, the brand leverages disavowal as their major sales pitch: their customers know very well that [commerce is destroying the rainforest] but they nonetheless will [continue engaging in commerce because colonialist efforts to help the rainforest are doomed to fail]. The ad presents no other option: either buy more responsibly sourced products or engage in savior-ism to rescue the Earth’s precious resources. Because the latter is unreasonable, there is no choice but the former.

Disavowal can also appear in subtler ways. Choosing to call nations or continents “under-developed” is disavowal: it reveals that the user knows very well that there are deep, entrenched inequalities between different nations but nonetheless situates blame on those countries for a lack of development. A preferable term might be “over-exploited,” which puts the onus back upon “developed” nations for their role in producing economic and inequalities.

Settler Colonialism Arranges Networks of Power.

One key function of the settle colonial assemblage is to use the conduits of capital, communication, and power to create and re-create the conditions of its own existence, perpetuating itself into the future. To accomplish this goal, the settler-colonial assemblage will elevate its own narratives about indigenous people to displace their authentic or original culture and traditions.

The video above addresses the public dispute over the former University of Illinois mascot, the fictional “Chief Illiniwek.” As the speaker notes, even the indigenous drumbeat is inauthentic and perpetuates colonial myths initiated by Hollywood producers. The settler situation arranges power by seizing control of a dominant narrative and restricting representation to favorable settler types.

What’s Rhetorical about Settler Colonialism?

Settler Colonialism is not rhetorical in at least one important way. In “Decolonization is not a metaphor,”  Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang take issue with the way that words like “decolonize” are used in vague or abstract ways. Decolonization is not the same as an institution’s equity and inclusion initiatives; classrooms and syllabi cannot be “decolonized” by admitting a more diverse student body or adding a certain number of Indigenous authors. Decolonization, they argue, is about the repatriation of land. For that reason decolonization is not a metaphor; it cannot be the vehicle for a tenor other than the restoration of land to its former Indigenous inhabitants.

The Settler Situation implicates communication in other ways. For instance, Settler Colonialism exercises control over shared cultural meaning-making, elevating the colonist’s preferred modes of communication while erasing the traditions, language, and beliefs of the colonized. In The Semiotic Conquest of America, Tzvetan Todorov writes that “the efficient conquest of information was always what brought about the downfall of the Aztec Empire.” The systematic elimination and replacement of Indigenous language by Cortes and European colonizers was a way of destruction of the historical record, forcing it into secrecy. Cortes was motivated “to control the information he received” both in order to eliminate the indigenous knowledge he encountered and to take advantage of “how others [namely Indigenous peoples] were going to perceive him.” The destruction of the archive is evident because Cortes understood the myth of Quetzalcoatl’s return — and then positioned himself as its architect. For example, “the idea of identifying Cortes with Quetzalcoatl definitely existed in the year immediately after the conquest,” but not before. Negative erasure is the removal of myth, the removal of history from the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas; the destruction of this archive.

Narrative Allegories of Settler Colonialism

The Settler Situation is not just a way to account for the past dispossession of Indigenous lands. It is also a very present element in popular cinema narratives. Science fiction in particular uses narrative elements to recreate fictional scenarios that depict the conditions of settler colonialism. Often, aliens “invade” earth (e.g. Independence Day, Battle Los Angeles) and exact a kind of colonial violence over humankind.  Other times, films depict “the border” or “frontier” as the site of apocalyptic danger (e.g. Terminator: Dark Fate, Logan). The word “allegory” refers to the ways a given narrative may invoke a scenario beyond itself, playing out real-world situations and power dynamics as a fictional re-imagining of our shared future.

Opening scenes of Men in Black (1995)

Allegory is, for instance, what allows the above narrative to play on the double-meaning of the word “alien.” In the above clip from Men in Black, border patrol agents pull over a van of migrants, presumably to detain them. As soon as the passengers disembark, a pair of suited men whose jurisdiction exceeds the border agents appear. Seizing control of the situation, one of the men begins to interview the passengers with short greetings in Spanish. After encountering the one passenger who appears unable to understand the agent’s greeting, they release the other passengers and detain the “alien.” During the interrogation, it is discovered that the odd passenger is an extraterrestrial, and upon charging at the border agent, is promptly vaporized.

The segment carries a number of settler-colonial themes. The agents, for instance, uphold a myth that all the migrants would speak the same language by vetting the true alien based on whether they speak Spanish. In fact, there are a number of Indigenous languages that migrants might speak, including Nahuatl, Maya, Otomí, Mixteco, Zapoteco, Totonaco, Chol, and Mazateco. The agents also illustrate how the settler presumes that “alien” life is inherently disposable, vaporizing the alien to protect the border patrol agent despite the patrol’s refusal to take instructions from a higher authority.

The Frontier and the “Settler Hero”

The US-Mexico border is frequently the mythic backdrop for imagining the outcomes of settler colonialism as a technological dystopia. When the threat doesn’t come from beyond a literal, physical border, it comes from a temporal (or time-based) border beyond the horizon of present perceptions: an apocalyptic future.

The western is an example of a popular literary and cinematic narrative that features a cowboy as its protagonist. Dr. Michael Lechuga describes this character as a more general type that recurs across different narratives (e.g. Star Wars, Westworld), and calls this frontier figure “the settler hero”:

Settlers do not see themselves as extenders of a particular (European or US) state sovereignty, they “see themselves as founders of political orders, they also interpret their collective efforts in terms of an inherent sovereign claim that travels with them and is ultimately, if not immediately, autonomous from the colonising metropole.” Settler identity is characterized by “permanent movement and sovereign capacity.” Settlers reject an imperial colonial persona for a uniquely mobile, individualized, and exploitative sovereignty that is produced in that denunciation of the colonial order. In rejecting the colonial metropole, thus, the settler seeks to acquire yet “unsettled lands” (terra nullius) on which to create a new political and economic formation.

Theatrical trailer for Law and Order (1953)

In the film Law and Order, the “settler hero” is a white and masculine figure who occupies a dangerous territorial town and is self-authorized to use violence in order to bring residents and Indigenous peoples into compliance with his authority. The trailer describes the American West as a “wild,” “magnificent,” and “untamed” frontier that was also the site of gratuitous danger and violence. It presents “heroes” in the form of “lawmen” who alone are allowed to use violence to quell violence. This iconography, in turn, informs how a subset of American voters have repeatedly projected this role onto political figures such as Ronald Reagan,  who claimed to bring order or balance to the “wild west” of American politics.

Settler Colonialism and the Future

When the mythic “frontier” of settler colonial narrative is not a literal spatial border (e.g. the border between civilized/uncivilized lands, between nations, or between the Earth and Space), it is a time-border, imagining a dystopic future for the current settler situation. In this case, the settler’s imagined “enemy” comes from the future and must be extinguished to ensure a livable human future. Often, the agencies of this dystopia are the technologies developed by the settler themselves, which have spiraled out of control and now threaten the whole settler way of life that birthed it.

Theatrical Trailer for The Tomorrow War (2021)

The alien-invasion genre of science fiction often stages a settler-colonial situation in which an enemy threatens to perpetuate colonial violence against humankind. The proposed solution of these films is that the only solution to human genocide is similar to colonial violence. In the example of The Tomorrow War shown above, the main character travels to the future where he meets his much older daughter, who is fighting the “tomorrow” war against a band of monstrous aliens. Ultimately, to win the war and save his daughter’s life, the protagonist discovers that he must kill the alien “queen.” The film thus guarantees his daughter’s – and humans’ — future by eliminating the “alien” other’s ability to reproduce and inhabit the planet. This is by no means the only solution presented by the film, which argues that the “future war” begins due to anthropogenic climate change, which releases the aliens from a thawed Arctic glacier. In other words, The Tomorrow War presents colonial violence as a reasonable alternative to dramatic climate action, which it depicts as destined to fail.

Part 2: Incomunicable

A(n Audio) Lecture by Dr. Michael Lechuga from the University of New Mexico

Below, you will find the written transcript of Dr. Lechuga’s talk. I recommend listening to the audio and following along with the written transcript.

Thank you so much for joining us for this, and what I think is a very exciting speaker series and I’m really humbled and excited to introduce you to Dr. Michael Lechuga. Dr. Michael Lechuga is an assistant professor at the University of New Mexico. He researches Latinx communication studies, rhetoric, vibration, and settler colonial studies, as well as affect studies, Latinx futurism, surveillance, and film studies. Dr. Lechuga is also writing his second book, Alien Affects, which illuminates the complex relationships between Hollywood alien invasion film industries and the industries tasked with securing the Mexico-U.S border. I also think it’s important to speak a little bit about the context of Dr. Lechuga’s talk today, Incomunicable: How the University Participates in Settler Colonialism, and how he came to this topic. So, from my understanding, interested in imagining and creating this decolonial university, as well as inspired by Dr. Erick Torrico, speaking about the colonial encounter and how that is marked with the rendering of the ‘other’, hence, Incommunicado.

The decolonial university in Incommunicado brought Dr. Lechuga into this research about this compulsory indigenous erasure in the U.S. at large, which is, of course, a large part perpetuated by the coloniality of U.S. higher education. So, I hope that was a good introduction of your talk, Dr. Lechuga. I’m really excited, and I guess you can go ahead and get started with your talk, Incomunicable: How the University Participates in Settler Colonialism.

Well, thank you very much for that great introduction. Of course, thanks to the I-4C Collective, for organizing this lecture series here at Arizona State, and for inviting me to participate. I want to thank all of my friends, of course, at the Hugh Downs School of Communication, but especially Professor Amira de la Garza, for thinking that my ideas would have an audience here. I’m also grateful to the group of graduate students who I’ll be getting the chance to meet with at the end of today’s talk. I know that your time is valuable, so I really do appreciate that.

I resist making land acknowledgments, like the ones at my university, and Arizona State, and that other universities have written, which are admittedly just a first step in recognizing Native sovereignty. Some, like Howie Echo Hawk, a native comic and activist, have criticized the performance of land acknowledgment, insisting that it serves really nothing more than an empty gesture. So, as a Mestizo, I insist on only acknowledging Native lands, Indigenous peoples, Indigenous ways of knowing, and Indigenous practices of world-making, but I also recognize my role in participating in indigenous erasure. For me, part of this recognition will take the form of a donation, of the honorarium, for today’s talk, to the Red Nation, a group of activists with a chapter in Albuquerque who are ‘dedicated to the liberation of Native peoples from capitalism and colonialism.’ They offer ways for Latinx and Mestizx peoples to build coalition in liberating Native peoples from the entanglements of white settler modernity on this continent, and especially in places like Albuquerque, where those material inequities are most pertinent. Their mission is based in education and media justice, so I think that it aligns a lot with the mission of what many of us in communication studies already do. So maybe instead, consider this a land disacknowledgement. I disacknowledge the centrality of settler colonial land use, settler colonial citizenship norms, a single settler worldview, the practices of settler worldmaking, which, too often, become practices of settler world breaking. And all of these practices are found in nearly every aspect of our daily lives here in the United States. In reality, this is the focus of my research, in general: How to disavow the centrality of settler knowledge production. For today’s talk, I will be speaking specifically on how the university is implicated in this process. I’ll start with a few examples.

So, last month, one charter grade school in Ogden, Utah allowed parents to opt out of the Black History Month curriculum. They claim that parents were allowed to exercise their civil rights by denying their children a part of U.S. history that would contextualize the violent colonial presence of european descendants on this continent. The Montessori school later backtracked. They said that in the future they would work with parents on an individual basis, which really only means that they’ll continue to allow folks to opt out of this practice, but really not make it public. In addition to this, 5 states in the United States now, Iowa, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, and South Dakota have introduced legislation to defund public schools that teach the 1619 Project. As many of you know, the 1619 Project is a curriculum developed in collaboration with Nikole Hannah-Jones of the New York Times magazine. It centers the arrival of enslaved peoples from the continent of Africa that were sold to settlers, ushering in a 400 year project of exploitation. When the previous President of the United States tried to strip the Department of Education funding from schools who taught the curriculum, he argued that this would “teach students to hate their own country”. Now, for many folks in Arizona, this might sound familiar. In 2010, Governor John Brewer signed SB 2281, a law that essentially banned ethnic studies in Arizona Public Schools. The bill was a combination of then State Superintendent of Instruction Tom Horn’s attack on the Tucson school districts who developed a Mexican-American curriculum for the large number of Mestizx and Latinx learners in the district. Horn argued, also successfully, that ethnic studies would train non-white learners to “hate America”. So, for me, the goal of all of these examples seems to be punishing school districts who teach a history of decentralized white settler paradigm, and to silence the voices of those who were colonized, with the goal of reproducing the same sets of relationships between white settler citizens and those they subjugated in the name of colonization. The idea that somehow these curricula teach students to hate America shows the primary preoccupation with U.S. education, in my opinion – That teaching students to love the myth of what America is & rendering all others silent is what we would consider education. This is a practice of rendering others ‘incommunicable’, or incommunicable. This is a dark side of communication, and really this dark side of communication is central to colonial power. I and others argue that making sense of this dynamic really should be the responsibility of scholars in our field, communication studies, but in humanities in general. We shouldn’t assume that our ways of knowing the world are always productive.

To sort of frame this idea of ‘incommunicado’, or rendering folks and lands incommunicable, I turn to Erick Torrico, whose conception of the five communications that pertain to coloniality are imagined through a sort of taxonomy that I’ll share with you. For Torrico, the first form of communication, or colonial communication, would be what he described as ‘pre-colonial communication’. This is not very much studied in our field. It would require, really, an investment into the study of native languages. I also think it would require an epistemology of relationship with the natural world. Isabel Altamirano-Jiménez, a Zapotec scholar, discusses that land was not empty when colonizers arrived, rather, it was pristine precisely because of the symbiotic existence enjoyed by Indigenous groups with their environment. The knowledge produced as a result of this relationship is widely ignored in the humanities. I would argue that this is a form of communication networked through ecosystems that can tell us just as much about our human condition as, perhaps, other approaches to communication.

The second area Torrico describes is the communication of colonial encounter. This is where the Indigenous natives as well as the land stewarded by the Indigenous are rendered ‘incommunicable’. This action of rendering one incommunicable justifies the dehumanization of Indigenous others by colonizing groups, and the exploitability and extraction of economies that are put into place by these colonizing groups. In the field of rhetoric, José Ángel Maldonado writes that incomunicación has long been a tool for political isolation: “Language, among other forms of communication, is at the center of who is, and who is not, sought to be worthy of humanity.” And in reality, this is what remains a primary tool dispossession by settlers, and the seller government, in the United States. This is our foreign policy, our immigration policy, our environmental policy, and today I’m going to talk about how this has become the U.S. education policy and university systems around the country.

The third kind of communication, quickly, is communication that pertains to colonialism, or what Torrico calls colonial communication: the modes by which a colonizing group distributes and maintains control over the political, social, and economic hierarchies. Walter Mignolo refers to this as the rhetoric of modernity. In a recent forum in communication and critical cultural studies,  I also describe how this form of communication, or what we call rhetoric, the form of communication that celebrates public address, that celebrates presidential rhetoric and the rhetoric of the descendants of white settler colonizers, is, in reality, a celebration of this third kind of communication that Torrico refers to as colonial communication.

The fourth type of communication, and I think one that many of us in these circles are familiar with is decolonial communication. It’s communication that speaks to the resistance of coloniality. Still centralizing colonialism in its power to shape new futures, but resisting that power. So Tuck and Yang remind us that colonization is not a metaphor, and, thus, the decolonial communication should strive for a deprogramming. Too often, though, especially for those who claim to do colonial work simply out of the happenstance of their identity or out of the start of orientation of being interested in the kind of work are really just doing it as a metaphor, and I think rather we should think about the coloniality as a practice of strategizing the end of colonial power through the material recognition of Inidigenous sovereignty. For me, this means nothing short of land back. I look to Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz’s work, especially her book, Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, as an exemplary work of this type of decolonial research.

Finally, there’s a communication beyond the constraints of the colonial, or what Torrico calls ‘comunicación humanitario’, humanitarian communication. This kind of communication is a future-looking orientation, and it can imagine the ends of colonialism into a bifurcated, multiple future for sovereign peoples. It’s a world where new modes of subjectivities and relationships with lands and waters and air is one that’s symbiotic, one that returns to what Altamirano-Jiménez referred to as this perfect symbiosis. This is not necessarily post-colonial, because I think that carries within a certain set of assumptions and connotations, but it is, again, ‘‘comunicación humanitario’, or one that exists in a human world beyond colonialism.

For me, then, the importance of this sort of taxonomy is one that, when we render things as ‘incommunicable’, I think that it’s important to think about the metaphor of a hard drive. So, when we delete something from a hard drive, we don’t necessarily make it disappear from that. It’s etched into the hard drive. When you delete something from your computer’s hard drive, you’re actually deleting the pathway, the language coding that connects the interface with the information. So, when something is rendered ‘incomunicable’, it’s not necessarily disappeared, or it hasn’t been removed from the face of the earth. Rather, the pathway, the knowledge, the ways of knowing that part entailed in that are erased. And reconnecting might be just a matter of finding those pathways again.

And so, despite what appears to be a chronological list of five communications, I think it’s also important to consider that these are all layered and interwoven into one another. I mean, to see an example of this, look no further than the university, a place where a few, or maybe even all five of these kinds of communication are happening at the same time. So when one part of the university might be working on a project, the preservation and revitalization of Native languages, while someone down the hall is teaching a course on real estate speculation. Yet, somebody else is down the hall teaching another class on decolonial approaches to XYZ in terms of paradigms. There are many types of communications for Torrico that happen simultaneously, but I’m here to suggest that while these sort of happen in multiple ways, and talk with each other, the university system in the United States really is primed to reproduce a specific type of settler communication, settler colonial communication. This is really the brand of American universities today, and the characterization of those universities to sort of disavow the history of Indigenous removal, and then to promote an epistemology of U.S. settler colonialism, I think, is part of how we come to grapple with that history, and also where we need to make these interventions. So, in other words, producing a single colonial worldview, and rendering all others ‘incomunicable’, is at the heart of what many of our public universities do today. And for me, this ongoing project, which is sustained by numerous modes of production in the university, especially those that pertain specifically to knowledge production, are in need of interrogation. Institutions of state learning that are implicated in this process of rendering peoples and lands incomunicable are guilty, if they are built from the wealth made off of stolen land, and if they are actively pursuing a single-universal worldview.

So to make this case, I want to talk briefly about the legacy of land-grant universities in the United States, and how the perception of higher education today is really shaped by this legacy. For those of you who attended last week, we were privy to an amazing performance by an amazing group of scholars who sort of introduced us to this idea of how disposition of Native peoples begot the land-grant university, and how many of the institutions that we’re connected to are, in some ways, networked to those original land grants. The Land-Grant Act of 1862, for me, is an example of a federal policy enacted to benefit individual citizens, and U.S. citizenship directly. It is often referred to as the Morrill Land-Grant Act, named for Justin Morill, a Vermont senator who enacted the bill. It was originally proposed in 1857, and it took 5 years to pass, mostly out of objection from Southern states, and from some others who thought the bill lacked other elements of training, like engineering and military training. But the demand for agricultural colleges at the time was so high, that Morrill persuaded others to enact. I think that ironically, though, the reason why food, or agriculture was such an important mechanism at the time was because of the insufficient ability for settlers to use and create a symbiotic relationship with the land. They were destroying land faster than they could produce the food to feed the growing number of settlers, and the panic spurred Justin Morrill to write this bill. Also, 5 years later, in the midst of the Civil War, actually, where we have no congressional members from Southern states, the vote passed and became a congressional act. The bill basically took Native lands that were seized, or obtained through treaty, and sold them, along with the mineral rights and extraction rights. In order to find agricultural colleges and universities in each of the, what at the time was 34 states, but now is in all 50 states. Each state was granted 30,000 acres of land by the United States government, and, along with agricultural education, the bill did implement engineering and military training as part of the core curriculum, added to the classics curriculum that was taught at private universities at the time. So, while most states in the West seized and sold lands within the state borders, for example, like New Mexico and Arizona’s land-grants were built on lands sold and seized from within New Mexico and Arizona respectively, other universities like Cornell, MIT, and Penn State used the sale of unceded lands in places like Wisconsin, California, and the Dakotas, to profit students back East. So, in many cases, land-grant universities still own the script, which is the rights to the mineral and the land. And these scripts can be sold for somewhere upwards of 10 to 20 times the original amount. The plated amount is sort of an investment that is still continuing to pay off dividends for universities, and again, these dividends are off the backs of stolen land. Signed the same year that the Homestead Act was signed, again both of these represent the direct transfer of Indigenous lands and value extracted from those lands to the hands of private citizens. If you add to that, the training that’s offered by these universities, then, not only are citizens being – are profiting off of the land, but then are being trained to further develop that land in a way that benefits settler colonialism.

I’m going to post a link here, in the chat, and if you get a chance, I really encourage you all to check out The authors — Lee and Ahtone — in that project describes in detail how through cession of land, the term used to describe the forced forfeiture of land, usually through a manifestation of violence, led to the investment in what we now call land-grant universities. According to the researchers, there’s vast evidence suggesting that the act was actually intended to fortify U.S.’s capacity to dispossess Native peoples from lands, which affected almost 215 Indigenous tribes. The effort transferred the value of more than 10.5 million acres of land, and, into revenue, the United States would eventually use to build universities with the mission of educating farmers, engineers, and soldiers. The website, which again I shared the link with you all, it details not only these large transfers, but it goes into the sale of each parcel of land that was dispossessed and how they have directly impacted each states’ land grant. The sheer volume of land, and the amount of money that was made from that transfer is just astonishing. But when seen at the individualized, localized level, you get a sense of how many dispossessions had to take place in order for, what we consider our modern university system, to even be operating. Some of the most notable examples of land-grants include the University of Arizona, New Mexico State, the University of Minnesota, the University of California, Texas A&M, dozens of others that are Research I universities, some of which maybe some of us work at. And so for some state systems like Minnesota and Michigan, that land-grant is really central to the state’s agricultural and scientific military medical training, but for most states, like New Mexico, this mission has been networked through the state systems. So, nearly all states whose public education system is networked in this way, has distributed the land-grant mission to all of its public universities, right? This mission, this quest for universal vision for knowledge production, again, contributes to the dispossession of lands of Native peoples, renders both Native peoples and lands incomunicable.

I think that we can see this and the way that it operates in our colleges, in our universities. For today’s agricultural college, the goal has been to teach the methods of turning land into profitable food sources, a process that renders lands, again, ‘incomunicable’, destroying what Altamirano-Jimenez describes as that symbiotic harmony. Engineering schools, their goal is to build the machinery of future colonization, whether that be tools of war, tools of exploration, tools to terraform lands once stewarded by Native peoples into permanent settler encampments, right? The goals of engineers are not to meet the lands of the environment, the goals are to meet the demands of the settler imaginary that continues to grapple with a crumbling environment, begot by settler imaginary, and as a settler imaginary builds more technologies, we see those technologies really just turn into more coloniality. Medical schools were built to extend the lives of settler classes, to ensure the production and reproduction of settler populations. Law schools reproduce settler sovereignty by teaching generations of lawyers to maintain jurisdiction over Native lands and people. Business schools teach us how to protect and multiply white settler wealth, I mean even in the social sciences we oftentimes reproduce settler classifications of race and gender and ability, thinking that we’re doing critical or decolonial work. When scholars use these elements as variables, really they end up just recreating the same distinctive differentiates that motivate white settler colonial population productions in the first place. I even look at museums, and other archives that we hold at universities, where the practice of rendering something archivable is really, sort of like a cultural taxonomy. It’s about rendering something dead, or unalive, and then categorizing it within our own single vision of what history is. These practices of our modern university really all participate, for me, in this spirit of a land-grant, which has been modelled in higher education through the state university system. The model is driven really by a single ideological motive: reproducing settler colonial logics, the economic machinery, social values, and legal framework for the advancement of the settler project.

But I don’t think this has to be the case; and in fact, the spirit of the I4C Collective has been to push us, to think about what this university might look like, or other universities might look like if we were to really invest our creative capital and our collective intelligence into bringing about this change. For me, this change looks like the pluraversity, not the university. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, a Brazilian author, who writes in his book, The End of the Cognitive Empire, that while Foucault describes the difference between knowledge and ways of knowing in his project in archaeology, the critique of knowledge by Foucault and others, and the attention paid to that critique has really left little room for the celebration of ways of knowing the world; multiple ways of knowing the world. For de Sousa Santos, this dynamic is embedded in the erasure of what he calls, “epistemologies of the South”. The innumerable ways of knowing the world which fall outside of the singular colonial epistemology of the North: “The epistemologies of the South affirm and valorize the differences that remain after the hierarchies have been eliminated. Rather than abstract universality, they promote pluraversality, a kind of thinking that promotes decolonization, Creolization, or Mestizaje through the intercultural translation.” So, rather than reproducing a single ideology of colonial knowledge production, why not make a university into a space where learners can engage with a wealth of possibilities, that multiple ways of knowing the world might offer. This is not just thinking about interdisciplinarity, though. Because, for me, interdisciplinarity ties multiple strands of the same colonial network together to reproduce that same network. We should really be thinking about the possibilities of opening up the university to new ways of knowing the world, and not just rendering the world knowable. This is an important distinction, I think, between the university and the pluraversity. And this word bills primarily on scholars like Arturo Escobar, and others like Walter Mignolo and Katherine Walsh, to develop a notion of pluraversity that not only embraces multiple ways of knowing the world, or Southern epistemologies, but also celebrates the multiplicity of cultural orientations to the natural world. In my opinion, the notion of the pluraversity is not simply about transforming the university, which means transforming the land and the capital and the people, into a site where multiple worlds can be sustained. What if we were able to use the capacity, use this energy of mobilizing change, to really tackle one of the biggest crises facing humanity today. So, that said, I’ll sort of end my talk by advocating for one specific way that beneficiaries of the university, you and I, can leverage our power to change the coloniality embedded within the university.

First and foremost, I think that the university must become a site of reconnection to the natural world. In our time of global crisis, when Western thought has severed our connection to the environment, it’s really time to transfer the university into a place where reconnecting to the natural world is embedded into every aspect of the institution. Just to be clear, studying the natural world is not the same thing as rebuilding the connections. We have been studying the natural environment for decades, and despite that, very little has been done to push people back into connection with the environment. In fact, I think that things have really only gotten worse. For me, the pluraversity must support efforts to connect people with lands at all levels, including an investment in Indigenous ways of relating to the natural world. From agriculture to astrophysics, the pluraversity should be a site where multiple ways of knowing the world, and really knowing the cosmos, are rejuvenated and taught, not just from a single Western orientation of science, but from multiple ways of understanding and knowing nature and the cosmos. Business schools should not be teaching students how to invest in stock futures, but rather should be teaching about the economic value of symbiosis with nature. We should be investing in natural and environmental futures, and we shouldn’t necessarily be thinking about the value that’s implicit in minerals and extraction, but we should really be thinking about the value implicit in the human capacity to build networks in nature. I feel that every aspect of the university will ultimately transform, and, for me, rendering the natural world comunicable, communicable, is its new mission. Mignolo and Walsh describe this as relationality: “Relationality doesn’t simply include other practices or concepts into our own. Relationality is what some of Andean Indigenous scholars, including Nina Pacari, Fernando

Huanacuni Mamani, and Felix Patzi Paco, refer to as vincularidad. Vincularidad, or relationality, is the awareness of the integral relation of an interdependence on all living organisms, of which humans are only a small part, with both territory and the cosmos.” Vincularidad, for me,refers to both the sovereignty and the interconnectedness of multiple systems that all contribute to what we know as the natural world. This concept recalls Altamirano-Jiménez’s work, where she describes the need to “center the ontological relationship between the human and non-human worlds, but also engage actions that uphold and maintain Indigenous relationality.” Right, so it’s not, for her, just about recognizing that connection, but about foregrounding that connection. Vincularidad demonstrates a commitment to a recovery, it demonstrates a commitment to a rejuvenation of knowledges that have been erased. But not erased off of the earth, simply rendered ‘incomunicable’. We have the capacity through this type of research to render, then again, that natural world communicable. I think that this is really the spirit of what Erick Torrico described as ‘comunicación humanitario’, and in reality, for me this is what the humanities in general should be striving for.

I just want to briefly mention that as part of my research on vincularidad and relationality, I’ve been working with a group of scholars here at UNM to develop a pilot study on multi-user virtual environments. As part of this study, we are going to be testing Altamirano-Jiménez’s hypothesis. We anticipate that folks who participate in this environmental simulation who are willing to embody the natural environment, will start to develop relationships with other users within the simulation. We anticipate that the strategies that folks develop in the virtual simulation can be carried over to folks who are living in the real world, and our hope is that these epistemoligies, especially Indigenous feminist epistemologies become foregrounded as ways for us to think about restructuring our research focuses, not only in the humanities, but across the university.

So, I’ll end by saying that commitment to a new vision of vincularidad, or relationality of higher education, can foreclose the practices of rendering peoples and lands ‘incomunicable’, which have been present in U.S. public university systems for roughly 150 years. In conceptualizing the pluraversity in the United States this way, my hope is to shift away from the land-grant model of the university towards a conception of a land-back university, right? So on one level, this means organizing behind a mission of promoting Indigenous sovereignty, as la paperson or Wang Yang writes about in A Third University is Possible – I completely agree with this. But on another level, I strongly urge us to think about how reassembling the energies and the resources of our institutions, can really tackle the most imminent crisis facing humans today, and that’s global climate catastrophe. Let’s imagine together for a second that we can live in a future where students in our institutions learn to connect again with a world that has been rendered mute by the settler colonial project in the United States, rather than simply participating in that process of rendering it ‘incomunicable.’ So, I invite all of you into dialogue about these ideas through a question and answer session, but before I just wanted to say thank you all so much for attending, thank you to the organizers of this event for having me and allowing me to share my ideas. It’s really been an honor, thank you.

Part 3: Post-, De-, Anti-, and Settler-Colonialism

In his article, “(Re)Bordering the Civic Imaginary: Rhetoric, Hybridity, and Citizenship in La Gran Marcha,” Josue David Cisneros describes reactions to “anti-immigrant, anti-Latino discourse” to illustrate “how protestors enacted US citizenship, simultaneously drawing undocumented immigrants into the US national community and challenging the very process of bordering endemic to citizenship.” (“La Gran Marcha,” p.28) Protestors, in other words, used a rhetoric that performed citizenship and questioned the governing way of separating citizens from non-citizens. For that reason, rhetoric offered a way to resist colonialism. As used by the protestors, it established the fact that the protestors belonged as citizens while resisting the definitions of belonging that purposely excluded undocumented immigrants from citizenship.

There are several terms that describe different kinds of rhetorical resistance toward colonialism. These include post-colonialismanti-colonialismde-colonialism, and settler-colonialism. Althoug there is substantial overlap between these terms, each designates a unique orientation to “the colony” and the larger system we call “colonialism.” As Lorenzo Veracini explains in the quotation below, there are two different connotations for the term “colony.” A colony is both (1) a political unit of organization that is ruled by a group originating from outside of the colonized territory (i.e. exogenous) and (2) the self-reproduction of the exogenous group within a colonized territory. Different terms foreground different aspects of “the colony.” For example, the term settler-colonialism captures both of these connotations.

“Colony” as a term can have two main different connotations. A colony is both a political body that is dominated by an exogenous agency, and an exogenous entity that reproduces itself in a given environment (in both cases, even if they refer to very different situations, “colony” implies the localised ascendency of an external element — this is what brings the two meanings together). Settler colonialism as a concept encompasses this fundamental ambiguity. As its compounded designation suggests, it is inherently characterised by both traits. Since both the permanent movement and reproduction of communities and the dominance of an exogenous agency over an indigenous one are necessarily involved, settler-colonial phenomena are intimately related to both colonialism and migration. And yet, not all migrations are settler migrations and not all colonialisms are settler-colonial: … settler colonialism should be seen as structurally distinct from both.”

Veracini, “The Settler Colonial Situation”

Why is it that “not all migrations are settler migrations and not all colonialisms are settler colonial”? On the one hand, migration something distinct from the act of settlement. Whereas migration describes the natural phenomenon of movement across territory and geography, settlement implies an act of possession and dispossession in which territory and geography are improperly claimed as one’s own. Moreover, if migration describes a shift in location, settlement describes the additional gesture of displacing and dehumanizing the inhabitants of a settled territory. Displacement and dehumanization are ways of justifying the settler’s presence, and seek to craft the settler’s identity as native to settled lands while removing the land rights of original, indigenous inhabitants.

arcGIS animation of the dispossession of Indigenous lands from 1784-1897.
arcGIS animation of the dispossession of Indigenous lands from 1784-1897. Credit to Cladio Saunt, author of West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776. Map animation drawn from

On the other hand, “not all colonialisms are settler-colonial” because the act of settlement adds unique features to colonization, such as the settler-hero and a settler-mythology. Colonialism also takes a number of forms, as does the resistance to it. The sections below (on post-colonialism, de-colonialism, anti-colonialism, and settler-colonialism) describe different ways of thinking about colonialism and the resistance to it. In the United States especially, it has been convention to think of colonialism as a historical era or something which occurred in the distant past (e.g., “the colonists at Plymouth Rock,” “colonial Williamsburg”). However, many if not most of the descriptions below imagine colonialism as an ongoing project that has changed forms over time.


Post-colonialism often describes colonialism as a specific historical occurrence tied to the imperialist expansion of Western European nations and the United States. Colonialism, by this understanding, would encompass (for instance, ) Spanish and British settlements in the Americas, the Atlantic slave trade commonly known as the Middle Passage, and European colonization of the Caribbean, the West Indies, Africa, and India. The prefix “post-” sometimes suggests that colonialism is primarily a historical phenomenon that occurred in the past. For that reason, activists, historians, and critics who identify with the “post-colonial” label are occasionally burdened by the assumption that they write from a point in time after colonization, as if it has already transpired and seek to take stock of its aftermath(s).

This is not, however, the only way that post-colonialism can be or has been defined. The “post-” prefix may also signal a “beyond” to colonialism. This acknowledges that the way colonialism manifests in our present-day goes “beyond” the forms it once took. Post-colonialism is necessary, in other words, because to describe the historical forms of colonialism is not sufficient to account for its evolution and influence. Rhetorical and post-colonial scholar Raka Shome defines post-colonialism in the following way in the essay “Postcolonial Interventions in the Rhetorical Canon: An ‘Other’ View”:

Postcolonialism is the “critical perspective that primarily seeks to expose the Eurocentrism and imperialism of Western discourses (both academic and public). . . .” (Raka Shome, “Postcolonial Interventions” p. 41)

In other words, if we now live at a point in time “after” or “beyond” colonialism, then post-colonialism seeks to capture the residue of colonialism that remains stuck to academic and public discourses. To read as a post-colonial critic means to pay attention to the way that so-called neutral or objective ways of describing contemporary life, politics, knowledge, industry, etc. are still steeped in a Eurocentric perspective and/or imperialist values. For instance, when classes in politics and philosophy only teach thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Locke, Rousseau, Bentham, and Hobbes, this betrays a Eurocentric bias insofar as it centers European philosophies that gained currency because of the colonial powers that elevated them. Alternatively, if we pay attention to the way that military culture is celebrated in popular culture – or how expensive and deadly military campaigns are justified in the name of America’s exceptional democracy – this points to a imperialist bias in which the continued strength of the American empire is supported through common, even ignorable, rhetorical forms.

One frequent (but incomplete) characterization of post-colonialism is that it is primarily an scholarly or academic way of understanding the consequences of colonialism. This is especially true of the way that post-colonial critique has been adopted and applied within literary studies, which maintains that the colonial destruction of culture is morally wrong, and that contemporary institutions’ default preference for a Western canon of literature and philosophy contributes to this destruction. Often, this understanding of post-colonialism relies upon de-mystifying or de-bunking celebratory narratives of colonization. Such narratives are primarily designed to assure settlers and their descendants that colonization is justified while diverting attention to the generational traumas caused by this system.

Two prominent and important post-colonial critics who fit this description include Edward Said and Gayatri Spivak. Edward Said famously theorized Orientalism, which refers to a fantasy of otherness projected by white and western cultures onto peoples and cultures considered “primitive” or “foreign,” and which often have little to no correspondence with reality. It refers to a patronizing attitude that essentializes societies as static and underdeveloped, enabling “Eastern” cultures to appear simultaneously exotic and threatening. By representing an “other” as feminine, weak, and vulnerable, Orientalism is a fictional lever that allows the Western “self” to imagine itself as masculine, rational, and strong. Gayatri Spivak is a critic of the deconstructionist tradition who most famously theorized the subalternor everything that (and everyone who) has limited or no access to the means of speech and/or representation, which are controlled by a system of cultural imperialism. Similar to the concept of the proletariat, the subaltern refers to a category of personhood that exists within a subordinated position within a cultural hierarchy, and whose speech cannot be heard because there are no channels to access it. These theorists enable us to ask questions like:

  • Are there any popular forms of speech and representation that are not influenced by the history of colonization?
  • Are most allegedly “objective” renderings of non-western cultures in the United States actually westernized fantasies about non-western cultures?
  • For whom do we speak when we speak out against the lasting influence of colonization?
  • How do we know that speaking “on behalf of” is not a form of colonial violence?

Decolonization and De-Coloniality

Decolonization refers to the program of undoing the historical harms wrought by colonialism, past and present. According to Walter Mignolo, there are two movements to decolonization: one of “unveiling” the damage done by colonial governance another “simultaneously affirming the modes and principles of knowledge that have been denied” (Mignolo, “DELINKING: The rhetoric of modernity, the logic of coloniality, and the grammar of de-coloniality,” p.457). De-coloniality is also interested in the future, insofar as it “means working toward a vision of human life that is not dependent upon or structured by the forced imposition of one ideal society over those that differ” (Mignolo, p.459). It is also different from post-colonial critique because it seeks to go beyond diagnosing the lingering traces of colonialism in contemporary speech, representation, and policy by engaging in specific, goal-directed actions. If post-colonialism is about diagnosing, de-bunking, and de-mystifying the assumption that colonization is just a thing of the past, then de-colonization asks what it is that can and must be done now in order to reverse continuing actions that perpetuate the colonial project, today.

“the programmatic of de-coloniality moves away and beyond the post-colonial. … The de-colonial shift, in other words, is a project of de-linking while post-colonial criticism and theory is a project of scholarly transformation within the academy.” (Walter Mignolo, “DELINKING” p. 452)

One important way to understand decolonization‘s orientation toward doing is by ensuring that the act of decolonizing refers to something specific, and not an abstraction. According to Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “decolonization is not a metaphor” because this term cannot be loosely applied. Instead, it must refer to the repatriation of lands stolen from Indigenous peoples. For that reason, a syllabus or a classroom cannot be “decolonized” by adding readings written by Indigenous authors, much in the same way that a land acknowledgment does not “decolonize” but merely acknowledges the fact of colonization, that it has occurred. Decolonization requires an action, one that ensures that the lands that have been seized from peoples are restored to them. As Tuck and Yang write:

“Decolonization specifically requires the repatriation of Indigenous land and life. Decolonization is not a metonym for social justice.” (Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” p.21)

In other words, decolonization cannot be a metaphor, nor can it be a metonym. It cannot be substituted to describe something other than the repatriation of lands; it is not a shorthand for social justice or institutional equity and inclusion practices. Most of all, decolonization is not just rhetoric in the sense of empty speech or flowery language. The point is that it must be literal.

However, this formula also teaches us something important about rhetoric because colonization can and does happen when people seize control of de-colonizal terminology in ways that dilute its meaning or claim it on behalf of the descendants of settlers who merely wish to assure themselves that they are doing the right thing. In other words, when people use the term decolonization inappropriately – that is, without having a concrete action attached that “takes into consideration Indigenous people(s) and the return of their land” (p.7) that rhetorical use language is an act of colonization: it takes a term of art designed to support the territorial and life-giving struggle of Indigneous people and co-opts it on behalf of colonization’s historical benefactors.


Like decolonization, anti-colonialism is a position that seeks the available means of dismantling colonial systems and patterns of action. Tuck and Yang describe it as both a way of celebrating empowered, once-colonized subjects who seize denied once-denied privileges from the city, the state, and the nation. It is also a practice of “following stolen resources,” keeping track of where and how they change hands among members of a settler class. One useful way of understanding anti-colonialism is by setting it alongside post-colonialism. As Robert J.C. Young argues,

“Whereas post-colonialism has become associated with diaspora, transnational migration and internationalism, anti-colonialism is often identified exclusively, too exclusively, with a provincial nationalism.” (Young, “Colonialism and the Politics of Postcolonial Critique“)

In other words, if post-colonialism is a term associated with bringing to light the consequences of  removing, dispersing, and re-settling peoples away from their homelands, then anti-colonialism is sometimes associated with the movements of colonized and formerly-colonized peoples to reclaim their homelands, which can take shape as a kind of national allegiance. For instance, rather than colonized French Algeria, anti-colonization might argue for a more Algerian Algeria, one that restores a homeland to the peoples dispossessed of it. Young also calls anti-colonialism “a de-centered network” that exceeds national boundaries and unifies a large number of peoples in a common struggle against military occupation and western imperialism:

[Anti-colonialism is] a complex constellation of situated local knowledges combined with radical, universal political principles, constructed and facilitated through international networks of party cells and organizations, and widespread political contacts between different revolutionary organizations that generated common practical information and material support as well as spreading radical political and intellectual ideas. (Young, “Colonialism and the Politics of Postcolonial Critique“)

Among the most famous cinematic depictions of this colonizer/colonized dynamic is the film The Battle of Algiers, which tells the story of colonial France’s military incursion into Algeria and the resistance to it.

One example of an anti-colonial theorist is Frantz Fanon, who was an author, movement leader, and a practicing psychiatrist. Fanon devoted his life to treated peoples who were subjected colonization and the psychological effects of racism. In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon argued that the dominant colonial culture identifies melanated skin with impurity, and spreads this false myth by scrupulously avoiding contact with people of different races. For instance, Fanon’s concept of “epidermalization” maintained that “Black children raised within the racist cultural assumptions of the colonial system can partially resolve the tension between contempt for blackness and their own dark skins by coming to think of themselves, in some sense as white.” (Fanon, “Foreword,” p.ix) For that reason, colonization had material, physical, and psychological effects. The last of these took shape as existential dread and different kinds of neurosis. As a practitioner of psychiatry, Fanon’s program of activist engagement took the form of treating people who were subjected to these effects of colonialism, finding lived and practical ways of resisting the forces imposed upon them on a routine, everyday basis.


The final form of colonialism reviewed here is settler-colonialism. Settler-colonialism is unique for the way that the settler plays a central role, writing themselves as a protagonist in the story of colonization. According to Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “settler-colonialism is different from other forms of colonialism in that settlers come with the intention of making a new home on the land, a home-making that insists on settler sovereignty over all the things in their new domain” (Tuck and Yang, “Decolonization is not a Metaphor,” p. 5). It is not a moment in history in the sense of something long past or even that is happening right now. Instead, it is a repeatable pattern that repeatedly organizes narratives, psychology, and a land-economy.

The focus of settler-colonialism upon narratives and psychology makes it similar to anti-colonialism in the sense that it engages both the psychological violence exacted by settler-colonists and the means of undoing or undermining it. Lorenzo Veracini argues that a key aspect of the settler-colonial situation is the way that it installs negative affects (i.e., bad feelings) in both colonizers and those people who they colonize. However, the settler’s experience of these feelings is both a way of maintaining their own fictional innocence and establishing their own victimage. This is because a feature of the settler’s psychology is that they imagine themselves as always at risk of being subjected to colonial violence:

Indeed, ongoing concerns with existential threats and a paranoid fear of ultimate decolonisation can be seen as a consistent feature of the settler colonial situation. Besides Indigenous revenge, other neurosis-generating settler anxieties include paranoid fears about degenerative manifestations in the settler social body, apprehensions about the debilitating results of climate, remoteness, geopolitical position, racial contamination, demographic balances and concerns about the possibility that the land will ultimately turn against the settler project.

In the settler colonial situation, therefore, disavowal is also directed at denying the very existence and persistence of Indigenous presences and claims. Sources frequently refer to Indigenous people as ‘shadows’,  figures lurking in thickets, and the recurring construction of various mythologies portraying dying races should be refered to a specific settler need to finally disavow Indigenous presences. (Lorenzo Veracini, “Settler Collective, Founding Violence and Disavowal: The Settler Colonial Situation,” p.368)

In other words, settler colonialism embraces and weaponizes the psychology of disavowal (or the “I know very well but nonetheless”). The settler and their descendants often “know very well” that they are historically the perpetrators of colonial violence. “Nonetheless” their anxieties about the decline of contemporary culture and its causes deflect this historical anxiety and the need to make right by endlessly posing the threat that the current form of settler culture will be overturned or destroyed – often by the very people that settler colonialism has displaced and dispossessed.

A key difference between settler colonialism and post-colonialism, decolonization, and anti-colonization is that it takes the form of a structure. How is this different from the other understandings introduced above?

  • Post-colonialism often understands colonization as a historical phenomenon that has changed over time, with lingering and distant effects on the present-day.
  • Decolonization refers to practices that carry the specific goal of repatriating lands to those peoples who have been historically dispossessed of them.
  • Anti-colonialism refers to movements that seek to dismantle colonialism through strategic maneuvers and assertions of sovereignty on the part of peoples historically subjected to colonial governance.
  • Settler colonialism is a structure in the sense that it is a whole framework of representation that seeks to re-shape and replace understandings of land and indigeneity through a character or persona called “the settler.”

As Patrick Wolfe argues, settler colonialism is “a structure and not an event“: it has consistent and repeatable formal features that recur across different time periods, each time taking on different  characteristics, characters, narratives, and representations. As discussed above with the concept of the settler hero, the American settler-colonist in the 18th century who lands at Plymouth Rock is very different from the cowboy who settled American West. However, both concoct false stories about Indigenous peoples as submissive and subservient and at the same time, violent and dangerous.

Squanto (born Tisquantum) of the Patuxet
One example of the false myth about Indigenous peoples that still circulates in the United States today is about Squanto (born Tisquantum) of the Patuxet, who “freely” helped English colonists to survive winters. However, the common telling of that story also erases the fact that before lending assistance to English colonists, The British enslaved Tisquantum, who was forced to travel to Spain and Britain, and eventually returned to their colonies. In the three years that he was gone, diseases brought to the Americas by colonists were estimated to have killed over 90% of the Tisquantum’s tribal community. After his return, Tisquantum had little choice in serving as a go-between between Massasoit, who led the Wampanoag Confederation, and the British colonists.

Ultimately, settler colonialism is unique from the other categories of colonialism presented here, in other words, because of the way that it theorizes a specific and systematic transformation of Indigenous culture. This transformation consists in labeling  objects and peoples as its ‘own’, and then codifies these relationships into law as enforceable through policing and state violence. Some of the features of this structural transformation include:

  • Settler colonialism transforms land into property, restricting human relationships to land to that between a land-owner and property.
  • Settler colonialism restricts knowledge about land and cosmology, either destroying or (literally) burying them, causing a reversal of history.
  • Settler colonialism seeks to make the settler “more native” than Indigenous peoples while erasing the genealogy of Indigenous peoples. It also produces the fictional narrative that the settler is at risk of being displaced or removed from their fictive “homelands”.
  • Settler colonialism seeks to make make the telling of Indigenous history impossible and less important than the settler’s traditions and histories.
  • Once a territory has been colonized and its resource economy has been extracted, settler-colonists blame Indigenous and (formerly) enslaved peoples for the damage done and seeks a new territory to colonize.

Having come full circle, this chapter opened with a discussion of what a “settler colonial situation” is, offered a reflection on the way that even the contemporary American university system is complicit in this situation, before finally discussing some variations upon scholarly and lived understandings of colonialism. Ultimately, colonialism is complex and sprawling phenomenon, one that is not simple to explain or capture, but which all-encompassing and everywhere, difficult to ignore once it enters your awareness.

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Reading Rhetorical Theory Copyright © 2022 by Atilla Hallsby is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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