jessica cattelino on the united states as settler society
Analyzing the United States as a settler society has the potential to bring together insights from the anthropology of Native North America and the anthropology of the United States. This article suggests several justifications for and implications of doing so, with focus on citizenship, sovereignty, economy, and nature. [settler colonialism, indigenous peoples, state of the field]
While considering the conference theme of power in contemporary America, I have been reflecting on the ways that Americans come to understand what kind of society we share and struggle over. Anthropology, with its comparative scope, has the opportunity and indeed responsibility to undertake “location work” in the United States. By “location work,”Gupta and Ferguson (1997:39) refer to the “idea that anthropology’s distinctive trademark might be found not in its commitment to ‘the local’ but in its attentiveness to epistemological and political issues of location.” As I discuss in an essay in the Annual Review of Anthropology (Cattelino 2010a), anthropologists of the United States have been concerned to locate the anthropological field (as discipline, ethnographic site, and theoretical domain) in three ways: in space, epistemology, and, more recently, in settler colonialism. In these comments, I focus on settler colonialism, suggesting that to think of the United States as a settler society illuminates forms of power that organize American and American Indian lives in perhaps unexpected ways. These sometimes reach the surface of public debate around tribal gaming, a phenomenon that has unsettled the economic position of some (but by no means all!) American Indians relative to other groups and has provoked heated debates on and off reservations about the social meanings of wealth, indigenous sovereignty, and the connections between the two.
Of all “location work” undertaken by anthropologists, perhaps none has been so vexed as the relationship to Indian Country. The anthropology of the United States and the anthropology of Native North America have been maintained to a large extent as separate anthropological traditions. For example, Michael Moffat reflected the state of the field when he defined the scope of his 1992 review of ethnographic writing about American culture as follows: “American in this article means ‘of the continental United States [excluding native American peoples]’” (Moffatt 1992:205 n. 1, brackets in original). To be sure, some have included American Indians within U.S. courses, anthologies, and the like. But I want to point to the need for a somewhat different project, one not of inclusion but rather of redefinition: to think of the United States as a settler society. Native America’s relatively marginal status in the theory-building projects of the anthropology of the United States and its ongoing legitimacy as a distinct site of anthropological study seemingly outside of the study of American cultural life (e.g., as a separate area of specialization for the purpose of job searches) reflect and reinforce the positioning of indigenous peoples as outside the time and space of modern American life. This is despite the work of a number of anthropologists (see, e.g., Biolsi 2005; Blu 2001; Sider 2003; Simpson 2008), including SANA members, who have worked to incorporate American Indian with more broadly American questions that go beyond the important but also constraining framework of Indian-white or Indian-black race relations.
By settler society, I refer especially (if not only) to the liberal democratic settler states of the former British empire with indigenous minorities: Australia, Canada, Aotearoa/New Zealand, the United States. The historian Patrick Wolfe (1999) differentiates settler colonialism’s target of land dispossession from the expropriation of labor in dependent colonies. Thinking in terms of settler society integrates indigenous and non-indigenous lives, while sustaining attention to power, by attending to the ways in which all of our conditions are structured by the legal, historical, cultural, and economic formations that are characteristic of settler societies.
What might some of these formations be, and what can we learn from analyzing them? In the spirit of a collective project, I do not offer answers but rather some suggestions—admittedly, ones clustered around areas of inquiry connected to my own research—for where we might look and what we might learn by thinking in terms of settler colonialism.
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