- Settler Standpoints
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...