Let’s Set the Delicious Apocalyptic Dream of Settler Culture to Rest

“Settler Colonialism” is a serious thing. In fact, in North America it is one of the most serious things of all. It should be handled carefully, like the toxic nuclear waste it is. Here’s an intro:

Settler colonialism is a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty. (The Settler Colonial Present, 2015).

Strangely, some scholars continue to speak a language designed for an audience at an imperial court while seemingly arguing for an end to courtly behaviour. Let me translate:

Invasive Dalmation Toadflax Hanging Out With Some Non-Native Blue Bunch Wheat Grass

Seed for the regional kind of wheat grass just isn’t in a catalogue. (Toadflax doesn’t need a catalogue.)

And that takes us back to our introduction:

Settler colonial states include Canada, the United States, Australia, and South Africa, and settler colonial theory has been important to understanding conflicts in places like Israel, Kenya, and Argentina, and in tracing the colonial legacies of empires that engaged in the widespread foundation of settlement colonies. (The Settler Colonial Present, 2015).

Got that? That’s an accurate description of how these countries were colonized. What’s more, the quote notes that “Settler Colonialism” is useful for tracing past colonial activity as well as contemporary conflicts. I’m all for an overview like that, but … well…a scholar I know put it to me recently when I noted that the theory puts people into boxes: “that’s the point of boxes.”

The Boxes That Are Vancouver

The wealth of my country has gone to pay for these.

This boxing up is, perhaps, useful in a university classroom, where games of social training are fashionable enough. Boxing might be less useful, perhaps, among the people you go out picking choke cherries with. There, boxes only separate.

Recognizing a Bird as a Person is Not the Same as Anthropomorphizing It

Instead, it changes the nature of person — for humans as well. (This might not work well in a university classroom, as birds aren’t often invited to lead graduate seminars. They might be the subject of graduate seminars, but that is not the same thing, nor is showing you this image).

There’s more!

More recently, settler colonial analyses have been extended to the use of settler colonisation in larger imperial projects, and the impacts of settler colonial state power on global politics. As Lorenzo Veracini, a key scholar in settler colonial studies, argues “settler colonialism makes sense especially if it is understood globally, and that we live in a settler colonial global present” (The Settler Colonial Present, 2015).

I think that means that settler colonial theory has evolved to explain globalism, on the premise that humans today live “in a settler colonial global present.” In other words, settler colonial states have taken over the world and what looks “normal” is ongoing settler colonialism. I think what it means is this:

Some Indigenous People in the Syilx tmxʷulaxʷ.

In other words, everyone is living around the edges of, or within, a violence. There is no escape.

A Pink Sun Rises over Richland on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in the Yakama Illahie

Still, this is an example of how easy it does become to wield large theories. Too easy, perhaps. As Neil Nunn of the Department of Geography and Planning in the city state of Toronto says:

I challenge critical geographers to engage in political action without illusions; scholarship that attempts to recognize the full affective and emotional weight of participating in the maintenance of a genocidal state. My hope for myself, and my peers, is that we can find ways through our work to recognize the violence inherent in forget-ting and reproducing benign and benevolent illusory spaces. Precisely because it is so easy to forget, perhaps the most radical thing we can do is search for new  ways to remember. Neil Nunn, Reflections on the illusory and forgetful geographies of settler colonialism.

Well, maybe. But what if one doesn’t accept the settler colonial paradigm at the values given to it by, well, itself? If “settler colonialism” explains globalism, and globalism is driven by American behaviour, it might not be only actual “settler colonialism” that is at play in, say, making computer parts in Vietnam or short-life refrigerators in South Korea or in the dismal conditions (to say the least) at many Indigenous communities under the control of Canada. Other issues are likely at work, including environmental issues and the individual, identity roots of American culture. Like this:

Driving on the Sand at Long Beach, Washington

Don’t ask why.

Those devices, however, are so popular, and so transformative of relationships between humans and other people…

One of the People of the Makah Illahie, Ozette


… or the other people…

Yakima Canyonlands, Yakama Illahie

People everywhere you look.

… that they are completely invisible. Let me translate that:


You’re not going to find a large number of humans willing to give up a fully actualized American self, because it has likely replaced any other self-possibilities and, besides, the most dangerous animals out there are other humans and an actualized self is a darned good way of keeping an eye on the big apes. Like this:

North Korean soldiers stand at their watchtower on the banks of the Yalu River in the North Korean town of Sinuiju, in an image taken from across the river in the Chinese border town of Dandong on February 8, 2016. The UN Security Council strongly condemned North Korea’s rocket launch on February 7 and agreed to move quickly to impose new sanctions that will punish Pyongyang for “these dangerous and serious violations.” With backing from China, Pyongyang’s ally, the council again called for “significant measures” during an emergency meeting held after North Korea said it had put a satellite into orbit with a rocket launch. AFP PHOTO / JOHANNES EISELE / AFP / JOHANNES EISELE (Photo credit should read JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s a thing. This too: currently, the term “settler colonialism” is used to address issues around aboriginal suppression in Canada and the United States. The theory gets stretched enough that it can break people into two groups: “settlers” and “indigenous people.” That’s perhaps more dangerous than helpful, but before we get to that: here, I think this is what it looks like:

Climbing Ropes and Power Wires at the Peshastin Pinnacles, in the Washaptum

Don’t ask why they can’t take their junk home.

And this:

Sterile Composted Trees, Shrubs and Human Solid Waste, for “Garden Landscaping”, Vernon, in the Syilx tmxʷulaxʷ.


The Failure of the Grand Coulee American Renewal Dream in the Nimiipu’u and Sinkiuse Spiritual Centre of Soap Lake

Flush from a Cement Truck in the Syilx tmxʷulaxʷ.

Windbreak in the Kittitas, Protecting European Crops in the Land of the Wind

Which is, yes, surreal. (Keep your eye on this image. You’ll see it later in a different form.)

One word sums up these apparitions: replacement. In the image above, the wind of an entire valley has been replaced by a line of trees for the private enjoyment of one man. That’s chutzpah! It’s also tree slavery and a war against the Earth, but the box that separates humans from other people prevents one from getting torn up about that. That’s the point of boxes. They replace indigenous people through the mechanism of property law, but also replace earth-based identity with a social-based one. Everything else that was once attached to an indigenous way of being gets stuck into a series of other boxes, including “nature” and “art” and “resources (ie trees)” and even “indigenous culture,” and then you can close the box. Or pretend to.

Boxland (Superimposed on the Nlaka’pamux Illahie)

Looking across the highway at the church is box work, but so is the church, the train, and even the view out of the church, or the reserve, across the tracks to the river and to the highway on the far side. It is all settler colonialism. For anyone from Cook’s Ferry Band, or anyone who shares something of the earth with them, it’s like having a train not only run through your living room but through your head.

Specifically, in the case of the Peshastin (Pinnacles …

The Great Bird of the Washaptum at the Peshastin Pinnacles

… settler colonialism has replaced a sacred site, otherwise known as a place of human habitation, harvest and celebration (all one concept, for which there should be one word), into a piece of geology (limestone), and a climbing opportunity, protected within a state park (and surrounded by the stink of pesticides sprayed on a sea of pear orchards). All of these are removals are a kind of perennial reenactment of the primary justification for colonialism: the concept of Terra Nullius, or No Man’s Land, free to be claimed. Yeah? But take a look. There, a young bird (or a very ancient one) …

… still needs to eat, or the soul does.

I Came Upon this Offering A Few Hours After it Was Made

It is paying attention that is the gift. This land might have been claimed, but there are those who belong to it still, whose attention is at play with the veneer (box) of ownership placed (claimed) over it. “Settler” and “Indigenous” boxes don’t really contain that attention, whatever it is. The reason for this gap in comprehension is that “claimed” means occupied but is used in the sense of “owned” or “private.” The footing for that construction is wobbly and improvised.

Settler Colonialism at Work and Play at Soap Lake

In the nineteenth-century settlement of this inland Pacific shore, the labour of a man was understood as being inseparable from the “land” it took place on. Anything else was considered slavery. This did not, however, apply to indigenous peoples. Their labour, being of the land (as is the nature of indigeneity) was just another site to be claimed. It was somewhat like this guy:

Indigenous Social Convenor in Ozette

This gap in understandings remains. It has deep roots in racism, but it also has roots in something deeper yet: to be indigenous is to be of the land. It has nothing to do with occupation at all. Take Iceyeye’s Fishnet above the Kooskooskie, for example:

A Landform, a Story, a Village and Fishing Site

Not four things. One thing. A word should be made for it, but, really, one has already been made, over 12,000 years that have not passed by: Iceyeye’s [Coyote’s] Fishnet.

 With that in mind, one could say that settler colonialism creates land by dividing people from it; it objectifies land and people, or makes them into objects, or commodities. Fair enough, that’s the point of capitalism, but it’s not the only way of being in the world. To go further, I’d like to point out that one thing missing in “settler” or “indigenous” boxes is the land itself. It is a settler concept to even have two separate boxes. When the Earth is included in the social group, it becomes story. No box. A net perhaps. You tie it by hand. Some things are caught. Others aren’t.

Seastack? Watcher in the Dreamtime?

No, both at once, at Ozette.

People live in all kinds of different nets. Currently, some parts of Indigenous identity has been placed in settler boxes, and some parts of settler identity has wandered off into Indigenous boxes, and everyone is doing things in their own way, such as this stump (net) at Ozette:

Stump on the Beach

When you can see it as an active participant in social-environmental culture, you will know you have begun to slip out of the box of self-actualized identity.

In the Pacific Northwest where I live, indigenous people lost their nets in a process that began when they accepted others into them. That was done generously. Take the example of Father Charles Pandosy in the Kittitas in 1848. He was kept as a magic amulet by Kittitas Chief Owhi, in what were essentially slave conditions, and he was starving. (He was proud and believed that God would provide.) Finally, Owhi sent a woman over with a dried salmon, because it was shameful for Owhi to so misrepresent the bounty of his land that anyone was denied it and starved upon it. Ironically, Pandosy, who had gone to preach to Owhi and save his soul, was saved instead. God’s Grace came from an indigenous source. I doubt the irony was lost on Pandosy, whatever sins he has to pay for.

Owhi’s Winter Camp, Mnassatas

Pandosy’s Mission Out on the Kittitas Prairie

Consider this windbreak up the valley:

Look to the Upper Right (Ellensburg Tourism Image)

You saw my picture of this windbreak near the beginning of this post. As far as ponds go, most were Owhi’s wapito gathering grounds. He dragged Pandosy here that summer and put him on display.

The Kittitas were cleared out of their valley during the Yakima War of 1855-58, in which Pandosy, now a slave to Kamiakin, chief of the Yakama, escaped the vigilantes intent on his death as a peacekeeper by fleeing with Owhi in a disastrous night time exodus across the flooding, ice-choked Columbia, yet it is still their valley. The pond image above is written over the act of the Kittitas removal. That windbreak of trees is planted in Owhi and his ancestors. “Occupation” is not going to fix that. This is one of the ways in which the use of overly-broad and limiting ideology as a weapon to settle issues of access to land, water and self-determination of indigenous peoples is destructive of the social fibres it is meant to strengthen. Mind you, the temptation to resort to firing “settler colonialism” like a hand gun is tempting, especially with the profoundly settler-colonial advertising program that Ellensburg is playing with these days, including, for example this slogan:

One of the problems is that self-determination of a people, and the assumption that a people is a self or a body, is an expression of the kind of colonialism that gains control of land by removing one people from a stretch of it and replacing it with another people, whose presence becomes normalized, then nativized, then dominant, then independent of the colonial power and enacting the colonialism within itself. Look again at Owhi’s winter camp:

The hoodoos in behind, and the cottonwoods, are on private “land”, heavily guarded with signs threatening death if one crosses the barbed wire. I can’t help but think that the warnings are directed at any Kittitas wishing to visit their spiritual homes. That shows a very brittle kind of “ownership” indeed. That’s the point we’re at now: of enacting the colonialism within post-colonial societies. It’s not England that is the colony anymore. It is anyone who objectifies space and people. North American culture asks us to do it every moment of every day. It is “actualized” within it. Here is educational consultant Kendra Cherry explaining it all to us:  As she points out (and I really recommend reading the whole article for its beautiful depiction of settler culture):

One characterization of self-actualization is having frequent peak experiences.

According to Maslow, a peak experience involves

“Feelings of limitless horizons opening up to the vision, the feeling of being simultaneously more powerful and also more helpless than one ever was before, the feeling of ecstasy and wonder and awe, the loss of placement in time and space with, finally, the conviction that something extremely important and valuable had happened, so that the subject was to some extent transformed and strengthened even in his daily life by such experiences.”

Now, re-read this as a depiction of moving west on the Oregon Trail in 1835 in order to meet your destiny in God’s Country, and you might get a glimpse into settler culture. It’s everywhere. As for “peak experience,” why, looking at the images that Cherry has picked to illustrate her vision, you get to be White, and American…

Plus addicted to an Apple device.

… or middle class…

Up Early and Waiting to Cook for the Sleepy Others

… or businesslike …

… or retired …

… or just comfortably dominant:

A beautifully staged moment.

What is a person to do? Do not despair. This kind of blind cultural dominance is not an unassailable monolith. You can still, for example, walk down the trail to Owhi’s fishery on the Washaptum. You can still honour that story, whoever you are.

The Icicle Fishery

The key thing to remember here is that although the colony, and the settler culture that supplants it in a normalized form (such as Canadian culture or American culture), has control of land, it has not gained the land.

Or the water.

As so many indigenous chiefs pointed out at the Walla Walla Treaty Council at Waiilatpu in May and June of 1855, and which Pandosy was a semi-official witness, one cannot sell the land because one cannot own it in the first place. To paraphrase: you can’t own yourself. The irony is that if an individual today argues for the individual rights of indigenous peoples, what is being expressed is the primary driver of American settler colonialism: a notion of the complete physical independence of individual humans.

Horsethief Lake State Park, Wishram Illahie

At its root, this concept holds that this ultimate, unrestrained freedom is the only human state that is not slavery. This is the concept Kendra Cherry showed us so clearly above. Here, she explains further:

Another characteristic of self-actualized people is a tendency to be open, unconventional, and spontaneous. While these people are able to follow generally accepted social expectations, they don’t feel confined by these norms in their thoughts or behaviors. Kendra Cherry

Here’s how she illustrates that point:


Unconventional: to ride a bicycle on the beach instead of driving a truck on it. Really pushing the envelope. So it seems. However, there is a world beyond American culture and its insistence on the “natural state of all humans.” That’s just too convenient, and, besides, it is not an indigenous concept. In Canada, a country that has taken in millions of immigrants in the last decades, many of them indigenous peoples from the rest of the world, individual self-determination means that ever more settlers are brought into the country, all of whom exacerbate the replacement of the indigenous people owned by the Canadian state (or at least which the Canada Indian Act says the state owns), even though they are good people, with good intentions, and although many of them are fleeing real oppression and need loving support. Canadians, including Indigenous people, are happy to give it, because our land and our communities have the capacity to hold them. It’s something given to Canada by its long closeness to indigenous life. But let’s not delude ourselves:

This meta-narrative of “settler colonialism” is a white story, with pioneers opening up and developing the land with the sweat of their own brows and fashioning a new nation based not on “white supremacy” but founded on liberal democracy. In this manner the settler colonists transcend their settler origins and become the new “natives”, with the old “natives” literally and metaphorically pushed to one side. When liberal democracy is achieved, the idea of the “settler” is redundant because “settlers” have transformed themselves into citizens of a nation-state who have dispensed with their imperial overlords (and one-time protectors) and inhabit a modern, urban-based society. In the personification of nationhood, settler societies are “born” to mother countries (sometimes, but more rarely, fatherlands), become young nations in the making, and then “mature” to stand on their own as “new nations” amongst older nations that welcome their offspring into the Western fold of advanced, responsible governments. Source

It is hardly a white story anymore, even though whiteness was a powerful driver for it. As an expression of liberal democracy, it is so for indigenous and non-indigenous people alike. None of us know what is going to come after liberal democracy, but it had better be robust, to fight off the truly bad actors who will move in to repeat the colonial replacement if space is left for them. In Africa, the Ukraine and the Middle East today there are currently highly visible examples of the violence that settler colonialism can release in its global form. For this reason, the oversight of adherents to the concept of “settler colonialism” to acknowledge the good actors within bad societies of replacement, including (as one small example) the power of women in colonial Oregon to influence their husbands over time to curtail the action of the sociopathic class, misrepresents the historical narrative, and so constrains the ability to transform the future into a viable story. For this reason, “settler colonialism” is a form of that other great American pastime:

What we need to do is talk about the net, not the box, and the people who have woven it and used it well. And for that, later this week I will tell you about the Beauchamps, a Canadian-Indigenous family in Oregon before the Cayuse War initiated settler colonialism in the Pacific Northwest. (This post is close to 4,000 words, after all. You deserve an award for getting this far as it is.) The tensions they faced 17 decades ago were simply sidelined, and then passed on from generation to generation. Our generations alive today owe them the respect of carrying their story forward. Without that specificity, those individual actions of real people, any cry for remembering, forever, risks remembering only the bastards who dispossessed them. That’s such an apocalyptic story, it risks becoming another form of continuing the moment of contact between cultures forever. This, for example:

I challenge critical geographers to engage in political action without illusions; scholarship that attempts to recognize the full affective and emotional weight of participating in the maintenance of a genocidal state. My hope for myself, and my peers, is that we can find ways through our work to recognize the violence inherent in forget-ting and reproducing benign and benevolent illusory spaces. Precisely because it is so easy to forget, perhaps the most radical thing we can do is search for new  ways to remember. Neil Nunn, Reflections on the illusory and forgetful geographies of settler colonialism.

This is hard stuff. We need to change ourselves. Completely. And we can. Well, for today, let’s give a last look to the present before we leave it for the future and give Cherry the last word. As she points out, self-actualized people…

Fully Enjoy the Journey, Not Just the Destination


While self-actualized people have concrete goals, they don’t see things as simply a means to an end. The journey toward achieving a goal is just as important and enjoyable as actually accomplishing the goal.

Isn’t that nice.

3 replies »

    • I tried to soften it by writing it carefully and in detail. It took me some 30 drafts. Glad you made your way through it! The one today on pretty green water is closely related… and short! 🙂 Yay!



  1. as a rich white woman, i feel like i am the camel being pulled through my own eye.
    i don’t know how to live without my needle—


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