Unpacking Decolonization Bullshit in Seven Easy Lessons — Lesson Two: Settlers Do Not Unilaterally Benefit from the Disposition of Indigenous Peoples

The second step in decolonization programming is to convince the settler that they not only directly benefit from the dispossession of indigenous peoples, but that they are the only beneficiaries of the dispossession. This narrative suggests that settler colonialism is a one-way conduit of prosperity, extracting wealth from indigenous peoples to deliver into the hands of the settlers. It implies a grossly unfair system of wealth allocation that should never exist in a civil society. A system in which the colonized provide the most labor for the least reward; the settler, on the other hand, extracts most of the wealth with minimal effort on their part. Most importantly, however, is that it implies settlers have most or all of the control over land resources and indigenous peoples have little to none.

It is absolutely true that, regardless of what treaties we may have signed with the natives, settlers have always had more control over land resources, oftentimes total control, resulting in wealth extraction hegemony at the very least and monopoly at its worst. This situation contributed to wealth inequality between natives and settlers that continues today.

Yes, settlers, our ancestors did some fucked up shit. We have benefited from their misdeeds and we should own that fact.

In spite of this fact, the US has come a long way in rectifying this situation at the institutional level. Indigenous peoples now have more autonomy to decide if and how they should extract and distribute their land wealth.

That said, it’s worth asking what lucrative endeavor the Native Americans were were engaged in on their land that resulted in a severe loss of income when they were moved to reservations? It was exceedingly rare, early on, for tribes to use their lands for anything more than hunting, fishing, burial, and religious activities. The settlers had the technology to exploit the resources of the continent; the American Indians not only didn’t have such technology, they didn’t care to have it.

Imagine, if you will, that your neighbor is sitting on a great treasure, literally. You ask your neighbor what he’s going to do with this great wealth and he informs you that it makes a comfortable seat; he has no plans for it other than to sit on it. You try to inform your friend that he can purchase a million seats that are far more comfortable with the fortune he’s sitting on, but he doesn’t want to do that; his ancestors have been using this seat for millennia and he considers it sacred. Given your friend is sitting on a vast amount of wealth, but intends to do nothing more with it than sit on it, would you really be such a bad person if you pushed him off it and took it for your own?

Don’t get me wrong. Doing so is absolutely theft. It is certainly not your seat to steal. However, one has to wonder whether the ends justify the means.

In 1891, Theodore Roosevelt justified the American conquest of the west with the following:

“This continent had to be won. We need not waste our time in dealing with any sentimentalist who believes that, on account of any abstract principle, it would have been right to leave this continent to the domain, the hunting ground of squalid savages. It had to be taken by the white race.”

Granted, that comes off a bit racist, but I decided not to trim the quote for the sake of historical accuracy. The important question is, was Roosevelt wrong? Using a specific example, did it really matter whether the Great Sioux Reservation included the Black Hills or not?

Yellow areas are what was left of the Great Sioux Reservation following the Great Sioux War of 1876.

The Sioux didn’t want to sell the Black Hills because they were sacred to them. But keep in mind, the Sioux hadn’t even seen the Black Hills until 100 years prior, when they themselves stole the Black Hills from the Cheyenne and Arapaho, and had only been in possession of the Black Hills for 25 years before the US Gov’t offered to buy it back. That’s right. Far from being the steal-first-ask-questions-later types, the US Gov’t typically tried to negotiate with indigenous Americans before resorting to force.

Suppose you had a neighbor who literally stole another neighbor’s property, then set himself up as owner of the property. In the course of being a nosy neighbor, you become aware that the walls of a shed on the edge of the property are insulated with $10,000 stacks of cash. You offer to buy the shed from your thieving neighbor, but he refuses to sell because the shed is now his meditation room and he doesn’t want to give up his sacred space. No matter how much you try to convince your neighbor to sell you the shed, he not only refuses to sell, he didn’t give a care about the hundreds of thousands of dollars embedded in its walls. Given he stole the shed to begin with and hasn’t lived there long, is your neighbor being reasonable to refuse to sell? Given the circumstances, if he’s not going to use the money, would it really be so wrong if you broke in and took it?

The preceding allegory is precisely how the Sioux behaved when gold was discovered in the Black Hills. Even though they stole it from other tribes, even though they’d only occupied the land for a few decades, they refused to negotiate with the US Gov’t. The US Gov’t being small back then, it was only a matter of time before rouge prospectors occupied the Black Hills, resulting in the Great Sioux War of 1876. Had the Sioux been more reasonable, perhaps a deal could have been cut. Instead, Sioux obstinence precipitated a war that resulted in them losing most of the lands of the Great Sioux Nation.

When one examines the historical record objectively, it’s plain to see that the decolonization narrative of settlers raping and pillaging their way to dominance has to be tempered by the history of indigenous Americans who raped and pillaged their way to dominance. The popular narrative implies a one-way benefit to settler colonialism. It implies that settlers succeeded at the sole expense of indigenous Americans, without any concern for their needs. Certainly settlers benefited from colonization, but the benefits of colonization enjoyed by indigenous peoples should be tallied as well (yes, there are benefits to being colonized!).

For instance, imagine this is a photo of American Indians in CE 1491. Most would consider this photo to be representative of an “American Indian” at that time, but there are two aspects of the photo that clearly indicate it could NOT have been 1491. Can you identify them? 🤔

Those settlers can be annoying, but check out all this top gear!

Horses and rifles were not indigenous to Pre-Columbian America. Even tho the horse is such an integral part of American Indian culture that we can’t imagine one without the other, for tens of thousands of years American tribes were horseless cultures. Likewise, an Indian with a rifle doesn’t seem at all out of place. Natives were early-adopters of European smalls arms, occasionally possessing better firearms than the US Soldiers. However, to listen to indigenous communities complain about settlers, one would think they got absolutely nothing in return for the presence of settlers. No matter how much they might like horses, I have never heard an Indian say, “Gosh, I’m glad Europeans settled here otherwise we wouldn’t have all these great horses!” 😒

I understand American Indians have it hard. Tribes have high unemployment rates, high crime rates, and indigenous women are far more likely suffer domestic violence and sexual assault than any other ethnicity in America. But to say tribes didn’t benefit from colonization ignores the fact that they adopted all the trappings of the settlers.

Complain as they will, I don’t hear any Natives wishing they were half-starved, following bison herds across the Plains in the dead of winter, like their ancestors. Yes, the arrival of Europeans brought tremendous hardships, such as epidemics of smallpox that ravaged Native communities, however, do you know what American Indian populations don’t suffer from anymore? Smallpox. When settlers arrived in the Americas, the world was already shrinking. The Thule people (ancestors of modern Inuit) had already made contact with the Norse in Greenland by CE 1500. If it hadn’t been Europeans bringing smallpox to the New World, it would have been some other culture. The only way to avoid such an outcome would have been to stay isolated forever. Europeans may have brought smallpox, but they also cured it. None of us alive today have ever had it thanks to a white guy, and Natives now have all the accoutrements of modern living, so maybe it wasn’t such a bad deal after all.

With regard to the accusation that settlers stole ancestral homelands, yes, settlers did arrive on the continent and take up space as they made their way west, but the last time I checked, AMERICAN INDIANS STILL HAVE ACCESS TO ALL THAT LAND. The area that comprises the United States is THEIR LAND TOO. They can do anything any settler can do. For all the griping about restoring treaty lands, they should really read them sometime because they restricted Indians to the reservations. If we implemented the treaties, as agreed upon, the Rez could be their own personal prison on the prairie; instead they have every bit as much freedom as settlers do, perhaps slightly more given tribal autonomy.

And let’s not forget the Pax Americana. As much as it might suck that another culture dominates indigenous Americans, it probably sucked a whole lot more before they imposed peace on the tribes. Prior to settlement, indigenous Americans were in a constant state of war with their neighboring tribes. It was small scale in comparison to colonization, but it was far more brutal than anything settlers forced upon Natives. The Pre-Columbian tribes were some sadistic sons of bitches. Rape was expected. Slavery was common. The Aztecs sacrificed tens of thousands of war captives at a time to please their gods. The Northeastern tribes had no qualms about cannibalism and mutilation of war captives was standard practice. Ritual torture was commonplace. In fact, I could probably write a whole article comprised solely of short summaries of the cruelty Natives regularly and unflinchingly visited upon the settlers and on other tribes. That’s not to say Europeans didn’t engage in their share of torture orgies, but they visited none of the cruelty on Natives that they did on each other in events such as the Inquisition.

As apologistic as it may sound, settlers didn’t steal indigenous lands so much as they forced Natives to share it. Forced sharing isn’t very nice, but it beats being forced off your farmland, forcibly raped, forced into marriage, forced into slavery, and killed following torture by neighboring tribes. There was no going back home after a neighboring tribe occupied your tribal lands. As much as the Trail of Tears may have sucked, today the Cherokee, Muscogee, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations are free to go back and settle in their ancestral homelands. I could be wrong, but I think that’s an improvement over a constant state of inter-tribal war.

It’s impossible to say whether American Indians would have been happier had settlers not arrived on their shores, but it’s not as if any of them are rushing to live outdoors, chase down game on foot with stone weapons, or wear nothing but animal skins. Whatever the settlers brought with them, the Natives must enjoy it because none of them seem to be giving up the accoutrements of settler society. As much as Natives may hate to admit it, they’re happier with all the cool stuff settlers brought with them, things they wouldn’t have it if settlers hadn’t come to this continent.

If they’re not, then I don’t know why they dress like us, live in houses like us, attend schools like ours, adopt our culture customs, etc. They don’t seem to miss living a nomadic lifestyle, using stone tools, kidnapping, torture, forced marriage, scalping, or child slavery. In fact, if I didn’t know any better, I would think they’re trying to imitate settler colonization. 🤔

However, if indigenous Americans really want their land back, that’s fair. We’ll give it to them on one condition … that we take everything invented or brought to the Americas by Europeans with us — the roads, the rails, the cars, the trains, the planes, the TVs … everything. They can keep the bison. However, if they would miss air conditioning, gas stoves, light bulbs, etc, more than they’d enjoy having their land back, we’ll agree to stay.

The point being that anti-colonialism pretends that indigenous cultures reap no benefits from colonization. However, if that were the case, it’s surprising that I can’t think of a single post-colonial society that didn’t carry with it many of the traits of its former colonizer, willingly.

Nice administrative services center you got there, Standing Rock. You use traditional American Indian construction technology to build it? Probably not.

Coming Soon — Lesson Three: We are a Nation of Immigrants Whether You Like It or Not