What Is Settler-Colonialism?

A viral video of high school students and a Native elder in D.C.—and the responses that followed—shows why we need to introduce students to the concept of settler-colonialism.
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Photography by Reuters

Video from last Friday’s standoff at the Lincoln Memorial between an Omaha Nation Vietnam veteran and a large group of white boys from a Kentucky Catholic school in Washington, D.C. has people across the country taking sides. 

Over the weekend, as the story unfolded, both subjects of the video made statements, emphasizing the presence of a third group—the Black Israelites, classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, which was shouting hateful rhetoric at both the boys and at Native protesters. Nathan Phillips, the Omaha elder, explained that his goal was to step between the boys and the other group. Nick Sandmann, the Kentucky student, argued that he too was trying to diffuse the situation, that what looked like smugness was really discomfort. 

As those on both sides of the confrontation shared their stories, the original video continued circulating. It was supplemented by additional recordings, showing Phillips approaching the boys and offering better views of the boys who surrounded him, dancing, chanting and “tomahawk chopping” as he sang. 

And though it is easy to get caught up in the political context—the boys’ MAGA hats and chants, the fact that this standoff coincided with the end of the Indigenous People’s March and the March for Life rally—there is a way to help students understand what happened outside the frame of partisan politics. 

A crucial aspect of social justice education is learning to differentiate between intent and impact. For students with privilege, particularly, this means understanding where and how their own actions align with or amplify power structures that benefit them while oppressing others.

The pain, anguish and anger expressed by Indigenous writers, artists, activists, scholars and musicians responding to the video is real and irreparable. Reminders of abuse at Indian boarding schools, recollections of historical domination by Christian churches—particularly the Catholic missions in California—over Native peoples, and other historical traumas were being relived on social media throughout the weekend.

Even as this story unfolds, helping students to see this moment from an Indigenous perspective—helping them recognize the impact of the confrontation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial—is a necessary step toward untangling its complexity. It’s just one reason educators need to teach about settler-colonialism.


What Is Settler-colonialism?

We can begin by defining settler-colonialism as it relates specifically to Indigenous peoples of North America. The goal of settler-colonization is the removal and erasure of Indigenous peoples in order to take the land for use by settlers in perpetuity. According to Laura Hurwitz and Shawn Borque’s “Settler Colonialism Primer,” “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.” 

Historically, the settler-colonial agenda involved committing genocide by murdering Indigenous peoples (see Manifest Destiny, the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890 and the Wounded Knee siege of 1970, the Sand Creek Massacre, King Philip’s War and countless other conflicts). That agenda also meant stealing land through treaties that were later broken or ignored (see the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie and the history of the Lakota and the unceded Black Hills). Students should understand that the United States couldn’t exist without its settler-colonial foundation.

Today, settler-colonialism plays out in the erasure of Indigenous presence. American schools do not teach about Native Americans, past or present; when they do, information is often wrong or incomplete. Students are rarely taught about contemporary Native peoples who have survived the settler-colonial process and continue to thrive, create, practice their traditions and live modern lives. 

Mainstream media outlets rarely feature stories about Indigenous peoples, and exceptions are usually during a crisis (see #NoDAPL and this latest event in D.C.). The government diminishes and destroys Indigenous nations by denying their sovereignty or stealing land for private corporations to use for drilling, mining, fracking, farming and more.


Who Are Settler-colonizers?

Students often think that settlers are people from the past—early Europeans who came to North America to establish colonies. This is true. But understanding settler-colonialism means understanding that all non-Indigenous people are settler-colonizers, whether they were born here or not. Understanding settler-colonialism as both a historical position and a present-day practice helps students see how they fit into a settler-colonial system—and how that system shapes the impact of their actions, regardless of their intent.

This dual understanding is also useful when it comes to understanding how students without European ancestry benefit from settler-colonialism. Enslaved Africans, for example, weren’t settlers. They had far more in common with Indigenous Americans; they were also colonized in their diaspora. But all non-Indigenous Americans benefit from the settler-colonial system as it stands today. It’s just that those of us with primarily European ancestry in particular continue to benefit the most from that initial colonization and erasure of Indigenous presence. As you teach students about settler-colonialism, it is important that they understand that this isn’t about guilt. Rather, this is a reckoning. 

Acknowledging our own individual roles and culpability in our settler-colonialist society hurts, but what is worse is denying this fact. When we don’t see that, we can’t see the real impact of our actions.


Resources for Learning More

To build your own understanding of settler colonialism, I recommend watching—and possibly excerpting for students—two videos by Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, historian and author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States

Settler-Colonialism and Genocide Policies in North America” shows how the settler-colonial agenda of the United States (and Canada to a lesser degree) enacts the ongoing, violent agenda of conquest.

Settler Colonialism, Land, Capital and U.S. Social Movements” dives into what a settler-colonial project means today for social movements related to race, class and gender.


Suggestions for In-class Activities

You can begin by asking students to reflect on their own experiences. Many students say they believe in social justice. They are repulsed by images of white mobs surrounding peaceful protesters during the civil rights movement. But what if they had walked up on the standoff at the Lincoln Memorial? What would they have done? 

You might try sharing a video from The Washington Post featuring several recordings and accounts of the events. Lead a discussion with students, asking them to connect their own experience to what they see and hear on the video. Have they ever been bystanders or upstanders in situations like the one in the video? What would being an upstander look like in a situation like this?

After students have considered the encounter through a broad social justice lens, you might ask them to view the video through the more specific lens of settler-colonialism. Ask them to watch carefully, identifying moments that show evidence of a settler-colonialist mindset. As a companion piece, you might share Phillips’ full interview with The Washington Post and ask students to compare and contrast the different perspectives of the encounter. 

Finally, educators can offer students a way to take action. Since I am also a writing teacher and a writer, I find that writing helps to process situations like this one. Try giving your students in-class time to write out how they feel about Phillips, the boys and public responses. Allow them the full breadth of responses without judgment before bringing it back to action. 

Once they’ve expressed their feelings and reactions, ask them to identify one action they can take as individuals to create a safer and healthier culture for Indigenous peoples in our society. That might be finding an Indigenous artist or musician on Instagram to follow, writing an opinion piece about this situation for the school newspaper, standing up against appropriation when it concerns friends or family, or simply sharing the writing and creative works of Indigenous peoples on their own social media feeds. 

We may not be able to dismantle the settler-colonial structure upon which our culture, educational institutions and government are built, but we can show our students that knowledge, understanding and small movements can make a difference. We can help ensure that they understand the power and privilege that non-Indigenous people carry with them, and we can help them see how to use that power to fight for equity.

Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.

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