The framework of settler colonialism invites scholars to use an Indigenous standpoint to better understand history and society. The hashtag #VastEarlyAmerica and the conversations it has sparked urge scholars to account for the complex and varied relations that shaped the settling of the North American continent. In practice #VastEarlyAmerica encourages decentering the standard British colonial, Euro-American, westward-moving narrative of the United States by diversifying the regions, peoples, and forces on which we focus our historical gaze.1 Under this umbrella, settler colonial studies and Indigenous history are often understood as contributing to a more vibrant and complicated understanding of early America, but settler colonialism can offer even more as an analytic tool for shaping methodology when conceptualized as a standpoint.
Standpoint theory was popularized by feminist epistemologists in the 1980s as a way of talking about knowing across differences, whether sexual, racial, cultural, or, in this case, historical. In juxtaposition to claims that all knowledge is grounded in personal experience, Sandra Harding argues that people can learn and think through the perspectives of others in order to take up their standpoint. Furthermore, according to Harding, social justice demands that those with the most social capital, such as scholars, have a responsibility to give voice to the least powerful by cultivating a standpoint that centers marginalized experiences and interests. For Harding, standpoint theory is a political commitment to address unrecognized bias shaping research projects by intentionally seeking to understand and represent the most vulnerable.2 For her part, Patricia Hill Collins describes the theory's resonating logic of prioritizing "subjugated knowledge" as a means to [End Page 399] decenter hegemonic paradigms that normalize structures of oppression, a program that clearly overlaps with the goals of #VastEarlyAmerica.3
To say the least, settler colonialism is a subjugating social structure. Harding's account of standpoint theory argues that those who have the most to gain from an epistemic hierarchy are most blinded to its workings and, conversely, that those who are most marginalized have the most acute understanding of the logics of the system. To extend this idea to settler colonialism, Indigenous and other racialized, colonized subjectivities can potentially offer a more complex, varied account of U.S. coloniality than approaches that reach toward coherent grand narratives from a more mainstream, noncolonized standpoint. Moreover, there is a significant difference between writing histories of Indigenous and settler peoples of the Americas and using Indigenous standpoints to enhance settler colonialism as an analytic framework. Consider the following example.
In 1773 Frances Slocum, the second youngest (and youngest daughter) of ten children, was born in the colony of Rhode Island to Jonathan and Ruth (Tripp) Slocum. Soon after her birth, the Slocums moved to the western frontier town of Wilkes-Barre along the Susquehanna River, near what is now known as Scranton, Pennsylvania. The Slocums were Quakers who believed in pacifism and built regular trading relations with local Lenni Lenape (Delawares). On November 2, 1778, three Lenni Lenape men attacked the Slocum homestead, killing a neighbor and taking Frances and a neighbor boy with them when they left.
Lenni Lenape renamed her and raised her as one of their own. As an adult she married a Miami man and came to be known as Mahkoonsekwa. She died a Miami matriarch near Peru, Indiana, in 1848. Her life story is central to the Indigenous public history of Indiana and the Wyoming River valley in Pennsylvania, and she is gaining renewed attention in the recent surge of settler colonial and Indigenous studies. The older biographies of Frances Slocum are based on interviews with her biological siblings about her capture and the aftermath, and thus they are great sources for researching a settler standpoint on the region or familial experiences of captivity.
Martha Bennett Phelps opens The Lost Sister of Wyoming, her biography of Slocum, by stating, "It is with a feeling of great reluctance that I commence this sad tale of woe and sorrow which befell an ancestor of my mother in Revolutionary times."4 Throughout this biography and others like it, Slocum's capture is figured as a crisis of faith for her family. Historian John F. Meginness explains that "Mr. Slocum, on account of his non-combative principles and the many acts of kindness he had bestowed [End Page 400] on the Indians, considered himself and family comparatively free from danger. His father-in-law, Mr. Isaac Tripp, also a Quaker, entertained the same opinion, as he had frequently befriended the Indians."5 The emphasis on Quaker exceptionalism sets up a contrast to other settlers who were presumably more directly hostile to Indigenous peoples in the region. The presumed innocence and safety of the Slocums is grounded in a sense of moral justification to belong where they wish as long as they abide by the principles of pacifism. Within cultural studies, immigrant "belonging" is a marker of settling used to distinguish between types of colonial structures, diasporas, and subcultures.
I find the sense of Quaker innocence in the Slocum biographies a useful example for thinking about settler logics and further understanding how settlers morally justified their participation in the mass displacement of Indigenous peoples in this era. The story could be included as a snippet alongside all that was happening in 1778 to illustrate the scales and geographies of violence in revolutionary times. Today, when incorporated into public history programming or educational curricula, Slocum's story is taught as Native American history because it allows for discussion of Lenni Lenape and Miami Indians.
The inclusion of this story, then, checks off a variety of boxes for people trying to account for marginalized histories—Indigenous people, a female historical figure, the logics of settler colonialism, and religion in early America. And yet this story simultaneously obfuscates Indigenous history and perspectives by focusing the time and space in which Indigenous figures appear in the historical record squarely on the experience of settler loss and the resulting sense of injustice. In other words, it is an interesting story that continues to center and normalize settler logics.
Likewise, when conceptualized too broadly, settler colonial studies and wider calls for #VastEarlyAmerica risk seeming to shift the places and people on which we focus our inquiries while actually maintaining a settler standpoint. Within Indigenous studies, scholars such as Aileen Moreton-Robinson assume that Indigenous scholars have a distinctive way of seeing the world and argue for fundamentally shifting the gaze of Indigenous scholars toward the mechanisms of settling. In her own work, Moreton-Robinson takes a Goenpul perspective on Australian surfer culture as an appropriative practice that naturalizes white Anglo-Australian bodies as surfers who belong on the beach.6 Rather than telling Indigenous histories or histories of settling, this approach to studying settler colonialism takes up the more critical intervention of describing the actions of settlers [End Page 401] from an Indigenous perspective and documenting the impact of settler practices—such as the policing of black bodies on the beach and the loss of access to fishing and other lifeways—on Indigenous people.
To revisit Slocum's story from an Indigenous standpoint requires first considering what kind of Indigenous perspective to take up. The varied languages, geographies, and political economies of the Indigenous nations of the Americas make it imprecise to attempt to think through a generic Indigenous standpoint. In the Wyoming River valley alone, there were villages from at least five Indigenous nations when the Slocums moved to Wilkes-Barre. Since the Lenni Lenape captured Frances, it makes the most sense to think through their position. The Lenape had already been pushed southward into the region by Iroquois forces who took a strong-arm approach to recruiting Indigenous peoples into their confederacy in order to try to counter the large numbers of settlers taking control of the Atlantic coast and pushing westward. In other words, the Lenape faced mounting pressure from other Indigenous nations as well as explosive European immigration to Wilkes-Barre.
I have not found firsthand accounts from Lenni Lenape of this time and place, which means that I cannot represent a Lenape perspective. However, I can think through a Lenape standpoint of this event by centering the sociopolitical position of the Lenape, which leads to different kinds of research questions and a greater frustration with the coloniality of the archive. For the Lenape, what were the dynamics shaping violence and livability in this river valley? What Lenape stories and cultural assumptions affected how the Lenape made sense of the varied settlements?
A Lenni Lenape standpoint also encourages us to rethink the Slocums. Their relocation to the frontier was financially sponsored by the colony of Rhode Island, which sought to expand its territory via settler occupation. From a Lenape perspective, the Slocums were not a single family with purely—to say nothing of pure—personal motives who moved in nearby. They were part of a massive influx of settlers to the region, claiming territory, cutting down trees to build houses, and protecting their property by ringing alarm bells when groups of Indians were seen. In fact, when the Lenape men raided the Slocum house the morning that Frances was taken, the rest of the children ran to the nearby fort for protection. Even if the Slocum family members had respectful relationships with individual American Indians in the region, they were clearly under the protection of the settler structures being built through the development of the town, displacing and harming Indigenous lives and communities. Those realities, highlighted through a Lenape standpoint, make it hard to imagine how Slocum religious beliefs could distinguish them from the larger settler project of Wilkes-Barre. [End Page 402]
Nevertheless, the Lenni Lenape raiding party did target the Slocum family that morning because of the actions of Frances's eldest brother, Giles. Unbeknownst to the elder Slocums, Giles had used his knowledge of American Indian places, gleaned from his father's trade relations, to guide a pioneer raiding party to a Lenape village at night. The settlers burned the homes with families in them.7 From a Lenape perspective, this certainly seemed like a direct betrayal of whatever relationships they had with the Slocum family, and their response in attacking the home of the man who guided the raiding party was targeted and proportional. Where the Slocum family felt anger, fear, and loss, the Lenape logics at play in the capture of Frances were most likely grounded in a desire to partially restore balance to the Lenape village burnt by Anglo settlers. When the Lenape renamed Frances as Weletawash, she was adopted into a family who had lost their daughter.
Scholars such as Lisa Brooks and Michael Witgen argue for centering Native histories in early America because a closer attention to American Indian networks and knowledges fundamentally shifts how early America is imagined. Brooks's work shows how refocusing on Indigenous knowledges reveals the complex and thoughtful ways in which Indigenous people used writing and knowledge of the land to resist European settling in New England.8 For his part, Witgen shows that when we recast the early history of the Midwest from a framework of removal to one of dispossession, we can better understand Patrick Wolfe's claim that settler colonialism is a structure rather than a past event.9 Such shifts in perspective are often grounded in some sort of personal experience or affiliation with Indigenous peoples. Scholars such as Brooks, Moreton-Robinson, and Paula Gunn Allen use their familial knowledge of Indigenous experiences, landscapes, and languages to produce distinctive Indigenous perspectives on their archives.10
Many settler scholars invested in Indigenous studies have tangential familial affiliations with Indigenous peoples as well, which may spark an interest in American Indian cultures without providing the knowledge of Indigenous worldviews. For instance, several generations of Coll Thrush's ancestors lived adjacent to Miami land in Indiana and attended school with Miami children, but the depth of Thrush's understanding of Indigenous [End Page 403] communities primarily stems from his postdoctoral training while working for the Muckleshoot tribe in his hometown of Auburn, Washington.11 Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars may have familial attachments to Indigenous histories, and both are restricted by the resources of traditional archives. While Brooks leans into the Indigenous knowledge she learns from familial relations, Thrush learned much through building personal relations with members of the Muckleshoot tribe.
Without intentional strategies and relationships to ground research and analysis of settler colonial history in a subjugated standpoint, such work will tend to replicate and validate settler logics and belonging. And doing that intentional, relationship-building work well may require types of labor that are often imagined as outside the role of historians. Eva Marie Garroutte calls for scholars to take up a position of "Radical Indigenism" that requires building real, permanent relationships with Indigenous communities.12 Courtney Rivard's work with the Pointe-au-Chien and Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitmacha Confederation of Muskogees shows how early American scholars can use their professional skills and access to meaningfully contribute to contemporary American Indian geopolitical struggles.13
Harding's standpoint theory provides a methodological approach for studying settler colonialism that does not rely on Indigenous identity or firsthand knowledge yet still resists the move to replicate the colonial gaze on Indigenous histories and subjects. Scholars investigating settler colonialism must commit to understanding and thinking through the interests—the standpoints—of those subjugated in settler structures: particular Indigenous and enslaved peoples. Doing so requires learning about whose standpoint to take up and what makes their standpoint distinctive, such as disentangling the five Indigenous nations represented in the Wyoming River valley at the time of Slocum's capture. A history of the Wyoming Valley in 1778 through an Indigenous standpoint might focus as much (or more) on inter-Indigenous relations as on those with settlers. In this sense, a standpoint is about taking seriously the social and political world of a community by reading and researching as much as is reasonable and then thinking creatively about the sort of research questions and concerns that emerge from this sociohistorical position.
Though deeply grounded in historical records and cultural studies, Marisa J. Fuentes's Dispossessed Lives, in which she takes on the standpoint of enslaved women living in urban Bridgetown, Barbados, well represents [End Page 404] this sort of speculative analysis.14 Fuentes pieces together this narrative through a commitment to recovering lives almost entirely erased from the archival record. This approach to standpoint allows early Americanists both to reach toward new methods that are guided by the questions that scholars most want to ask and to think creatively and determinedly about how to get something like an answer. Standpoint is not pure speculation; doing standpoint well requires a rigorous commitment to accuracy and truth. And yet, such projects cannot begin and end with the archive—they require a dedication to understanding something that cannot be fully comprehended by the academic historian's traditional methods.
Approaching settler colonialism via standpoint theory encourages thinking-in-time from an Indigenous perspective, which highlights the uncertainty and unevenness of settler projects in early America. For instance, Stewart Rafert shows that when the state of Indiana was founded in 1816, the U.S. government recognized that the majority of the territory was legally controlled by American Indian nations.15 Statehood established U.S. intent to control the land, but it did not make it so. Indiana state histories emphasize the removal period and mention that the Miami were the last American Indian nation to sign a removal treaty. Commonly omitted from the narrative is that less than half of the Miami were removed in 1847; the majority legally remained in the state through treaty negotiation.
A history of American settler colonialism from a Miami standpoint may be one of exhaustion, but it is also an ongoing history with Miami triumphs along the way. The removal period was devastating, but it was not a complete loss for the Miami, many of whom remained in place with tax-free titles to the land that they were already living on. Annuities from previous treaties were still collected locally at Fort Wayne, and many of the Miami who were forcibly removed by settler militias walked back home after arriving on the new reserve in Kansas. A Miami standpoint on these decades might point to the many failed attempts to settle the lower Great Lakes, or it might memorialize moments of Miami success brushed over by public history. Rather than foreground the place where the Miami were gathered for removal, for example, a Miami standpoint might choose to memorialize the treaty negotiations that set the stage for the Miami to permanently remain in their homelands. The standpoint from which a historical project begins fundamentally shifts how questions are asked and answered from conception to research and on to writing.
Comprehensive narratives of U.S. settler colonialism should be resisted because the United States colonized thousands of Indigenous nations, [End Page 405] bands, and villages, each of which constitute a fairly distinctive settler dynamic. A heterogeneous collection of accounts of early American settling that prioritizes subjugated experiences will contribute to #VastEarlyAmerica while unsettling monolithic narratives of U.S. expansion by illustrating the messy tactics of a not-quite-inevitable United States. Standpoint theory offers a framework for reflecting on the base values that underpin research interests and questions. Thinking through settler colonial studies as a standpoint asks that we consider deliberately and precisely whom we center in early America, why, and to what end. [End Page 406]
Ashley Glassburn (Miami Nation of Indians of Indiana) is a President's Indigenous Peoples Scholar and assistant professor of Women's and Gender Studies at the University of Windsor in Ontario.
1. Karin Wulf, "Must Early America Be Vast?," Uncommon Sense (blog), Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, May 2, 2019, https://blog.oieahc.wm.edu/must-early-america-be-vast/.
2. Sandra Harding, The Science Question in Feminism (Ithaca, N.Y., 1986), 136–62.
3. Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2d ed. (New York, 2000), 251.
4. Martha Bennett Phelps, Frances Slocum: The Lost Sister of Wyoming (New York, 1905), v.
5. John F. Meginness, Biography of Frances Slocum, the Lost Sister of Wyoming. . . . (Williamsport, Pa., 1891), 12.
6. Aileen Moreton-Robinson, "Bodies that Matter: Performing White Possession on the Beach," American Indian Culture and Research Journal 35, no. 4 (2011): 57–72.
7. Meginness, Biography of Frances Slocum, 12.
8. Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis, 2008).
9. Patrick Wolfe, "Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native," Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4 (December 2006): 387–409. For a discussion of Witgen's approach, see Wulf, "Must Early America Be Vast?"
10. Paula Gunn Allen, The Sacred Hoop: Recovering the Feminine in American Indian Traditions (Boston, 1986), 222–44.
11. Coll Thrush, personal communication, June 2, 2019.
12. Eva Marie Garroutte, Real Indians: Identity and the Survival of Native America (Berkeley, Calif., 2003), 99–138.
13. Courtney Rivard, "Archival Recognition: The Pointe-au-Chien's and Isle de Jean Charles Band of the Biloxi-Chitmacha Confederation of Muskogees' Fight for Federal Recognition," Settler Colonial Studies 5, no. 2 (2015): 117–27.
14. Marisa J. Fuentes, Dispossessed Lives: Enslaved Women, Violence, and the Archive (Philadelphia, 2016).
15. Stewart Rafert, The Miami Indians of Indiana: A Persistent People, 1654–1994 (Indianapolis, Ind., 1996), 78.