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  • Structures of Settler Capitalism in Abya Yala
  • Shannon Speed (bio)

Latin American states are settler colonial states, though they are rarely analyzed in this way.1 Indeed, there often seems to be a kind of entrenched resistance to thinking about Latin America in settler colonial terms, for reasons that are complex, but have to do in large part to an implicit adherence to some premises of settler colonialism put forward by Patrick Wolfe, who is often credited with having popularized the term and, intentionally or not, generating the field of settler colonial studies.

Wolfe did not, of course, coin the term. Native scholars and activists had been using it for some time, as he himself regularly pointed out. Further, a group of prominent feminist scholars published Unsettling Settler Societies, edited by Daiva Stasiulis and Nira Yuval Davis, in 1995, three years before Wolfe published Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology.2 Notably, Latin America was included in that volume (see contributions by Gutierrez and Radcliffe). That said, Wolfe’s lucid articulation of the structure and logics of settler colonialism has been and remains tremendously influential, and continues to undergird—at times a bit too rigidly—our understandings of the workings of settler power in the field of Native studies.3 In particular, the land–labor binary, the importance of which Wolfe elaborated in most of his works and reasserted in the recent Traces of History (2016), has become an often-unspoken and largely unexamined premise of the settler state in ways that occlude significant complexity and foreclose recognition of settler structures. I do not raise this in an antitheory sense, to challenge abstraction in favor of empirical specificity per se. Rather, I think the specificity of cases all too often discarded without further or sufficient examination may in fact add new richness and dimension to the overall theoretical analytic.

I met Wolfe several years ago through the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. I was one of a small group of Latin Americanists working to stake out a place for indigenous Latin America in the newly founded association and in dialogues about race and settler colonialism. Most people in the association supported this effort, although they did not engage very actively [End Page 783] with Latin America. Wolfe did, in his characteristically intellectually generous way. As a Chickasaw, I am a citizen of a tribal nation based in the United States, but have worked much of my professional life with indigenous people in Latin America, particularly Mexico. I have long been troubled by what I saw as an artificial divide in the thinking on indigenous peoples north and south. In particular, I have found unfortunate what I see as a dual theoretical gap that corresponds to this divide: theorizations of the settler state (largely elaborated in the north) have not grappled fully enough with neoliberal capitalism, and theories of the neoliberal state (a primary focus in the south) fail to recognize the significance of settler logics that structure the conditions of state formation, including in its current iteration.

Wolfe had something to do with this. His elaboration of the concept of settler colonialism was premised on his argument about the land–labor divide. He outlined this in his work as early as the late 1990s and maintained it through more recent work, like the 2016 Traces of History, in which he discussed “historically produced differences . . . between a history of bodily exploitation and one of territorial dispossession.”4 One reason Latin America has been thought to be characterized by colonialism of the nonsettler variety is the perception that, while colonial processes in the Anglophone north focused on land dispossession and the correlated elimination of the native, in the south the focus was on resource extraction and the corresponding marshalling and control of indigenous labor. Wolfe was not focusing on Latin America with his land–labor divide (with the exception of Brazil, which he did theorize, but which has a very particular history in Latin America); he was talking about the different experiences of Black slavery and Native genocide. I suggest that looking at the experience of other parts of the hemisphere changes the picture, because colonialism in much of Latin...


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