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  • “Settler”
  • Alex Trimble Young (bio)

The word “settler” tends to carry with it connotations both bucolic and nostalgic. Even certain dictionary definitions are at pains to remove it from the colonial circumstances in which it is most often employed. The Oxford Living Dictionary offers a definition and sample sentences that exemplify the willful act of erasure at the heart of everyday understandings of the word:

A person who settles in an area, typically one with no or few previous inhabitants.

“the settlers had come to America to look for land”

“Jewish settlers”

The field of settler colonial studies has worked to undo the erasure performed by this definition by theorizing settler colonialism as a distinct structure of imperial domination defined by a genocidal project aimed primarily at seizing Native territory rather than exploiting Native labor. Settler colonialism, in the United States and other settler societies around the globe, is a structure that must be dismantled in the present, rather than an event that can be consigned to the historical past (Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism” 388). For settler colonial studies, “settler” names both the perpetrators and the beneficiaries of this form of structural violence.

Since Indigenous studies scholars in North America began to engage settler colonialism as a category in the 1990s, debates about the utility of settler colonial studies as an analytic in the US context have bumped up against a key question: who exactly is a settler, and to what extent can settler as a category be understood as coextensive with whiteness, heteropatriarchy, or other structures [End Page 75] of domination? Australian theorist Patrick Wolfe insisted that settler colonialism is structured around a binary division between non-native settlers and Indigenous peoples, a binary that operates irrespective of the positionality of the non-native (“Recuperating Binarism” 257). Various Indigenous and critical ethnic studies scholars in the United States maintain similar positions and have explored the circumstances in which people of color in settler colonies have participated in and benefited from the violence of settler colonialism, many taking up Haunani-Kay Trask’s term “settlers of color” to describe this phenomenon (Trask 6).

Chicano/a studies scholars have undertaken an especially robust exploration of this question in considering the complex and overlapping forms of racialization and coloniality in the US–Mexico borderlands. Various settler colonial studies scholars have argued that the state-sanctioned embrace of mestizaje in Mexico suggests that the settler colonial paradigm does not adequately describe the mode of coloniality at work in Mexican contexts (e.g., Veracini 30). Chicano/a studies scholars including B. V. Olguin and Nicole Guidotti-Hernandez have argued, however, that settler colonial dynamics developed in the near-stateless spaces of Mexico’s northern frontier (and the subsequent borderlands that emerged there). While eliminatory violence was often brought to bear against Mexican subjects by Anglo settlers and the US state, in certain circumstances Mexican and later Chicano/a settlers also exerted a “hegemonic mestizaje” when they mobilized genocidal violence, often in concert with Anglo settlers, against Indigenous collectivities (Olguin 31, 45). Olguin and Guidotti-Hernandez argue that the legacy of this anti-Indigenous violence should temper too-easy identifications of twentieth-century articulations of Chicano/a nationalism and claims to Indigeneity with decolonial resistance (Guidotti-Hernandez 19).

Discussions regarding the biopolitical boundaries of the category “settler” necessarily engage questions of gender and sexuality as well as racialization. Grounded in an extensive body of Indigenous feminist scholarship on the centrality of heteropatriarchal violence to settler colonialism, queer and gender studies has worked to track settler colonialism and heteropatriarchy as structures that [End Page 76] are coconstitutive but not coterminus. While settler colonial societies have attempted to coerce Indigenous peoples into conforming to the norms of heteropatriarchal sexuality, they have also accommodated deracinated forms of feminism and queer sexuality within the settler collective.1

Despite the fact that many scholars of settler colonialism argue that “settler” is a category that does not always map neatly onto dominant racial or sexual categories, most scholars have not followed Wolfe in reading the term “settler” as one that should be applied to all non-Natives living on Indigenous land. In contrast to Wolfe’s binary scheme, Lorenzo Veracini and Jodi...


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pp. 75-80
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