The Settler Colonialism Project

I had this fantasy that the New York Times would follow up its 1619 Project look at slavery with a comparable examination of Settler Colonialism. Instead, they made a pivot from slavery to what they are calling the “Inequality Project.

Apparently the Times is OK with that whole settler colonialism thing. Well, not just OK. Wildly enthusiastic would be more like it.

We learn this because on April 19, the very same day the Times revealed the Inequality Project in the Sunday print edition of the paper, an accompanying editorial titled The America We Need said so. Here’s how it begins:

From some of its darkest hours, the United States has emerged stronger and more resilient.

Between May and July 1862, even as Confederate victories in Virginia raised doubts about the future of the Union, Congress and President Abraham Lincoln kept their eyes on the horizon, enacting three landmark laws that shaped the nation’s next chapter: The Homestead Act allowed Western settlers to claim 160 acres of public land apiece; the Morrill Act provided land grants for states to fund universities; and the Pacific Railway Act underwrote the transcontinental railroad.

What’s wrong with that? Those foundational laws are the three legal pillars of post Civil War settler-colonialism. That’s what’s wrong.

What the Civil War era expansion plan envisioned and achieved became the source of untold misery for Native people. It produced uncountable atrocities, large and small. Not only have the moral, financial and cultural crimes yet to be admitted. Those three laws remain a source of ongoing oppression that continues to this moment.

Consider what might seem the most benign of the three, the Morrill Act. It created all those wonderful Land Grant colleges. If you didn’t graduate from one yourself, you may know someone who did.

In March 2020, the High Country News published an exhaustive and devastating study on the past, present and future of what it calls Land Grab Universities. It was sub-titled, Expropriated Indigenous land is the foundation of the land-grant university system.

Here’s a very brief excerpt:

Over the past two years, High Country News has located more than 99% of all Morrill Act acres, identified their original Indigenous inhabitants and caretakers, and researched the principal raised from their sale in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. We reconstructed approximately 10.7 million acres taken from nearly 250 tribes, bands and communities through over 160 violence-backed land cessions, a legal term for the giving up of territory.

Our data shows how the Morrill Act turned Indigenous land into college endowments. It reveals two open secrets: First, according to the Morrill Act, all money made from land sales must be used in perpetuity, meaning those funds still remain on university ledgers to this day. And secondly, at least 12 states are still in possession of unsold Morrill acres as well as associated mineral rights, which continue to produce revenue for their designated institutions.

I long ago rejected the “original sin” framing as a helpful explanation for slavery as a “flaw” of the otherwise idyllic and utopian United States. For now though, let’s set that aside.

If there was an original sin it was not slavery. That could not have been the original sin because it came second. It was preceded by the brutalization of the humans who were already here. First, the Indigenous people had to be slaughtered and displaced so that their land could be occupied. Otherwise, there would have been no place to put the slaves once the white man started bringing them here.

The first wave of colonizer occupation and displacement took place from 1492 until 1776. It is rarely acknowledged, but the motives of the white, male property owners seeking independence from the British were not entirely as pure as our national myths proclaim.

Among the incentives for overthrowing British rule was a bitter dispute over westward expansion beyond the 13 original colonies. An aspect of this is captured in the Declaration of Independence. Most people think the Declaration is just the first two paragraphs. That’s where the noble “all men are created equal” phrase appears.

That is not, however, where the document stops. The Declaration goes on to an itemized list of twenty-seven grievances against the King. It makes for fascinating and revealing reading.

Two items on the list are particularly relevant to the expansionist aspirations of the Signers. This is number seven:

He has endeavoured to prevent the Population of these States; for that Purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their Migrations hither, and raising the Conditions of new Appropriations of Lands. (emphasis added.)

The last of the Declaration’s complaints against the King, the grand finale, the straw that breaks the camel’s back, if you will, says this:

“He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

The Treaty of Paris of 1783 formally ended the war. One of its key provisions was that Britain ceded the Northwest territory to the United States. That territory included what later became the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota. It had been fiercely contested between Natives, the English, the French and the settler colonialists for decades prior to 1776.

In 1787, following what we call the revolutionary war, but before the adoption of what became the Constitution, the Articles of Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance.

That legislation became the first institutionalized claim by the United States government (as distinct from individual colonies) to territory occupied by Native people. In fact, assisting the 13 states with their suppression of Native people became one of the main selling points for the state-by-state ratification of a more powerful Federal government.

By the time the Constitution was formally ratified in 1788, white settlers were already on their way to populate the Northwest territories. We are taught to revere them as Pioneers. A dreadful 2019 best selling book called The Pioneers by David McCullough updated this mythology for the current generation.

The promotional copy for the book is sufficient to reveal what McCullough is up to:

Pulitzer Prize–winning historian David McCullough rediscovers an important and dramatic chapter in the American story—the settling of the Northwest Territory by dauntless pioneers who overcame incredible hardships to build a community based on ideals that would come to define our country.

By 1832, the growth of territorial occupation by white settlers had laid the foundation for Andrew Jackson’s Trail of Tears. That term symbolizes the U.S. Government’s decade-long lethal and brutal expulsion of still more Indigenous people.

By the time of the Civil War, the land grabbing ambitions of the white-male property owning class had expanded even further. Which bring us back to the stunning endorsement of settler colonialism which opens the 2020 vision of what the editors of the New York times believe is The America We Need.

The 1619 Project was a step forward in coming to terms with the history of the United States. Clearly there is still a lot to be learned. What remains mostly hidden is the settler colonialist component in the equation. Understanding how slavery and settler colonialism combined to make such an enduring and toxic brew is essential to deconstructing the racist ideology, culture and policy that dominates the U.S. to this day.

Frank Joyce is a lifelong Detroit based activist and writer. He is a former Communications Director of the UAW. He and Karin Aguilar-San Juan co-edited, The People Make the Peace: Lessons from the Vietnam Anti-War Movement.