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  • Tracing Settler Colonialism's Eliminatory Logic in Traces of History
  • Jean M. O'Brien (bio)

No concept has reoriented the field of Indigenous studies recently more than the theoretical framework of settler colonialism. And although Patrick Wolfe would be the first to insist that he did not invent it, his 2006 article, "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native," offered a language for settler colonial studies that has been immensely influential. He places genocide in relation to what he calls "the logic of elimination," concluding, "settler colonialism is inherently eliminatory but not invariably genocidal,"1 and that "invasion is a structure not an event," meaning that it is an ongoing process rather than something accomplished at a single moment.2 As he states, "settler colonialism destroys to replace."3 The elimination of Indigenous populations can be accomplished by deliberately genocidal projects, by the unrestrained homicidal actions of boots-on-the-ground settlers, or by assimilatory campaigns of infinite imagination. In the US context, Wolfe foregrounds the postemancipation racial regime dictated by the "one-drop rule" that relegated Black people to slavery, with the polar opposite fate for Indians, who were subjected to the harsh calculations of blood quantum. One of his masterful contributions is not just his incisive and broadly persuasive theorization of settler colonialism but also the elegant simplicity of the language others can deploy in their own work. His insights have become ubiquitous as countless scholars embrace the phrase "the logic of elimination" and point to the fact of invasion as "a structure not an event" that invokes his work without even needing to attach his name to this formulation.

This article deeply influenced his two chapters on the United States that I take up from his magisterial Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race, a deeply provocative analysis of race over more than four hundred years.4 But his book goes much farther, offering a broad and sustained analysis of racialization that attends to settler colonialism. His book is ambitious and bold, stunning in its command of the vast literature it embraces, synthesizes, historicizes, and theorizes. He persuasively argues, "Races are traces of history," with racial identities emerging out of their enactment, a diversity of unequal outcomes [End Page 249] securing White supremacy in dialogue with particular racial regimes that in turn secured colonialism's domination over time.5 Racialization for Wolfe is a spatial practice. It comes into being when colonizers must share space with those they seek to dominate, making other people's homes their own. In the United States, Wolfe triangulates race, differentiating between emancipation for African Americans that produced Jim Crow and "territorial engulfment" of American Indians, in which their territorial exclusion maintained Indian sovereignty as separate from settler sovereignty.6 He asserts this as a regime that is actively produced through political domination although contested and inherently unstable, thus making it a process rather than an ontology, with an objective of securing White supremacy.

Traces of History offers powerful arguments for thinking about the racialization of American Indians into the twentieth century. I want to focus first on his intriguing dissection of the Marshall Trilogy that wrote into case law the fundamental conceptualization of Indians within the settler colonial state. This discussion enables Wolfe to elevate the horror of Cherokee Removal to a global stage and point out that the Cherokee Trail of Tears was not an exceptional event. In making this claim, he draws directly from his 2006 article. Returning to the core arguments of that article, I here offer a critique of his analysis of Indigenous racialization in Traces of History that traces back to tensions I see as inherent in his theorization in "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native."

Wolfe frames his discussion of American Indian racialization by examining the political and legal framework whereby the United States sought to contain Indians within the federal system. He argues that the Marshall Trilogy is the juridical foundation for working through the fact of invasive "dominion without settlement … [which was] the theoretical or inchoate stage in the formation of the settler-colonial state."7 This stands in opposition to the notion of mere Indian occupancy that dictates who...


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pp. 249-255
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