“Settler Colonialism as Domestication and Depoliticization of Indigeneity” for What is a Colony? What is Colonialism?

University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC.


Among the distinct features constituting settler colonialism we can identify the dispossession of Indigenous peoples of their lands, a correlative assertion of settler sovereignty over the land, and the moral imperative of economic exploitation of land. I have argued elsewhere that colonial dispossession in the New World context was organized around the categorization of Indigenous peoples as perpetual children (Rollo 2016) rather than the elimination of Indigenous peoples (Wolfe 2006). European doctrines of discovery, terra nullius, and Manifest Destiny were predicated on the idea that minors, and by extension Indigenous peoples who are legally and politically situated as minors, are precluded from making recognizable claims to political agency or territorial jurisdiction. In the following I argue that justifications for the two other aspects of settler colonialism, economic exploitation and political authority, are premised on the relegation of land to the domestic sphere of household and economy. This depoliticization of Indigeneity through domestication transmutes Indigenous land into private property, the protection and use of which requires a corollary assertion of political sovereignty.

I argue further that settler colonial depoliticization is not static and has shifted as new interpretations of the political/domestic divide emerge historically. As workers, women, and people of colour liberated themselves from economic necessity to be included in a political realm defined by the use of autonomous reason, settler colonial institutions could no longer be sustained by narratives of natural sexual, racial, or class subornation. In the early 20th century, then, justifications of the settler colonial political economy were conceptually organized around the sole remaining occupant of the non-political domestic sphere, the child, and the sole remaining function of the domestic sphere, civilization out of domestic subordination through education. Whereas early settler colonial depoliticization involved Christian ideals of spiritual progress realized through a lifetime of physical labour cultivating the land, in the contemporary context it is sustained by Enlightenment ideals of civilizational progress realized through intellectual labour toward active citizenship and private ownership of land. I conclude that Indigenous anti-colonial resistance therefore involves a repoliticization of that which has been depoliticized, rejecting in both theory and practice the relegation of children to a degraded apolitical status, as well as any naturalized distinction between political and economic, intellectual and practical, normativity and land.