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  • Beyond the Native/Settler Divide in Early California
  • Jennifer M. Spear (bio)

Much of the theorizing about settler colonialism has been rooted in analyses of the Anglophone world, but most of North America was initially colonized by the French or the Spanish. What can we learn about the settler colonial narrative by focusing on their colonies? As Nancy Shoemaker notes, there are, in addition to settler colonialism, "many varieties of colonialism," determined by "colonial motivations and [the] consequences" of colonization.1 The cases of French and Spanish North America demonstrate that several colonialisms could exist simultaneously, sometimes in tandem, other times in tension. The complex social and racial orders that developed, especially in places such as colonial California, also make these colonies productive spaces for thinking about how racialized settlers fit into what settler colonial theorist Patrick Wolfe terms the "Native/settler divide."2

Depending on the combination of motivations of those involved, French and Spanish North American colonies could be deemed settler colonies, but they were not always so. Where the extraction of resources (silver in New Spain or furs in New France) could take place with Indigenous labor or where Indigenous knowledge and expertise were needed and few Europeans or Africans settled, the taking of land and denial of Indigenous sovereignty were not the principal focus, and settler colonialism's "logic of elimination" could in fact undermine the colonizers' goals. Colonization taken under the guise of missionization could fall in step with extractive colonialism, as it did in New France, where Jesuit missionaries were forced to operate within the logic of the fur trade, which relied upon Indigenous [End Page 427] expertise and labor for its success. Elsewhere, however, missionaries, like settlers, "relentlessly sought the breakdown of the tribe and the absorption into White society of individual Indians and their tribal land, only separately." In Spanish California (1769–1821), Franciscans did seek the elimination of Indigenous peoples as Indigenous peoples; to paraphrase Wolfe, these Spanish missionaries certainly sought to destroy Indigenous peoples as sovereign in order to remake them as Hispanicized Christians.3 Here, colonization was driven by missionization and what Shoemaker has called "imperial power colonialism" (an effort to fend off imperial rivals), and yet its effects—the destruction of Indigenous sovereignties, high mortality rates, and the grabbing of Indigenous lands—echoed those of settler colonialism.4

For the purpose of this essay, I take settler colonialism to be embodied by invaders' desire for Indigenous lands and their efforts to deny or eradicate Indigenous sovereignty. In Wolfe's formulation, these, when combined, result in settler colonialism's defining feature: the logic of elimination. At a structural level, this way of conceptualizing settler colonialism helps to clearly demarcate it from other forms of colonialism—for instance, where few invaders arrived or did not intend to settle permanently, or where colonizers required Indigenous labor in ways that did not fundamentally challenge the sovereignty of Indigenous societies. Wolfe's logic of elimination is also a useful way of conceptualizing how religious conversion, forced schooling, and "officially encouraged miscegenation" are on the same continuum as removal, wars of conquest, and outright genocide. Far from being categorically distinct, all of these practices sought to erase or destroy Indians as Indians: as sovereign political entities who stood in the way of colonial expansion. Finally, defining settler colonialism as "a structure not an event" usefully forces us to pay attention to the ways in which settler colonialism continues to structure Indigenous-settler relations and governance.5 As Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Eve Tuck argue, wrestling with settler colonialism makes us contend with what "attending to life lived on stolen Indigenous land" means.6

Examining the colonization of California—from the Spanish invasion of 1769 through Mexican independence in 1821 and concluding with the American invasion after 1845—complicates an easy disentanglement of [End Page 428] colonial goals and effects, illustrating how different motivations could work with and against other colonial desires. Despite claiming what would become California in 1542, Spain left its assertion of sovereignty undeveloped for more than two hundred years until both the Russians and the British began to express interest in the region in the middle of the eighteenth century...

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pp. 427-434
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