Patrick Wolfe’s “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native”

Patrick Wolfe, in “Settler colonialism and the elimination of the Native,” lays out a detailed argument in which he seeks to distinguish between genocide and settler colonialism while also illuminating the complexity of their relationship, and in so doing, lays the foundation for the concept “structural genocide” by drawing upon multiple histories, including Australia, North America, Palestine/Israel, and Rwanda.


There were several ideas Wolfe proposed that felt especially significant/resonant:


  • Race is made in the targeting of people, it cannot be taken as a given or merely a social construct without historical purpose & context. “Black people were racialized as slaves, slavery constituted their Blackness. Correspondingly, Indigenous North Americans were not killed, driven away, romanticized, assimilated, fenced in, bred white, and otherwise eliminated as original owners of the land but as Indians.”
  • For Indigenous people, their targeted identity was constructed form where they are & were – they became target simply because of where they were – in the path of settlers
  • Wolfe argues that the “Primary motive for elimination is not race (or religion, or..), but access to territory. Territoriality is settler colonialism’s specific, irreducible element.”
  • Nationalism and its “contradictory reappropriation of a foundationally disavowed Aboriginality”
  • Primitive Accumulation – making previously relied upon sources of livelihood inaccessible unless submitting to introduced economy
  • Wolfe asks, as a way to start getting at the relationship between settler colonialism & genocide, “But if the natives are already agriculturalists, then why not simply incorporate their productivity into the colonial economy?”
    • Wolfe answers this in part by bringing up how several Indigenous tribes were viewed as “civilized” by European standards and that was a threat because it signified permanence
      • Wolfe posits that Indians were essentially the original communist menace
    • Some Chocktaws (for example) were allowed into the fold so to speak because they became citizens à they became individuals and as such, non-threats
    • Settler colonialism continues even with regime change, another important distinction and reason to distinguish between genocide and settler colonialism
    • Settler colonialism should be seen as an indicator, especially in regards to preventing genocides



There are a couple of these ideas that I want to highlight. First, the idea that race is not only not to be taken as given, but that the construction of race begins with the targeting. I want to highlight this because I am always interested in talking about race/exploring ways in which to explain the construction of race, especially to fellow white people. I have always found myself angry when race/racism is simply explained away as “people are scared of differences/our brains like to categorize things/etc” as I’ve found that that completely strips away both the possibility of accountability as well as erases the very real historical contexts in which race has been intentionally created and reproduced. I would very much like to hear thoughts from anyone about how they would begin to explain race/the construction of race based on the arguments put forward by this article.


Next, I’ve been thinking a lot about how Wolfe posits that the Chocktaws who stayed behind were able to do so because they became “individuals” in Euro-American culture. Which meant they became controllable non-threats. I’m thinking about this in relation to how collectivity is viewed as a threat and how history has written past movements like the Civil Rights Movement as having an identifiable leader – like Martin Luther King, Jr. I would argue that it is because he was individualized that the state was able to sanitize him & his image & his reputation and make him into a “beloved leader” rather than a radical who threatened the state. With this in mind, I’m thinking about the power of the Black Lives Matter movement and the power in the collective – perhaps one of its most powerful and threatening aspects being that a single leader has not been able to be identified.


I’m also thinking about the advantages of perhaps thinking about the NYPD in low-income neighborhoods of color as colonial death squads. Would this be useful?


If we are to think of settler colonialism as a structure, how do we challenge that in our specific contexts, as students at a private university in New York City?






  1. cl2483 · September 20, 2015

    Awesome post, OP! I love how you broke down Wolfe’s ideas on settler colonialism and its logic of elimination into small chunks and made different connections.

    With regards to talking about the construction of race, my take is that it allows the targeting of populations to become justifiable by building a racial discourse around it. For instance, “Black people were racialized as slaves” so that they could be dehumanized and reduced to an exploitable commodity. Their status as property makes it “okay” for white people to own them, use them and profit from them. It makes it logical to not treat them humanely, to not give them rights and murder them without feeling the slightest of guilt. The same goes for Indigenous populations. By Other-ing them and dehumanizing them as savages, the white colonists were able to use their superiority to justify their dominion and process of territorial expansion. Under that logic, it made the removal of Indigenous people seemingly inevitable because white colonists were better suited to manage the land and its resources, even though there were clear evidence that proved otherwise.

    As for your thoughts on collectivity, I think it might be useful to also consider the fact that it was important for colonists to enforce individualism, because the idea of collectivity directly opposes capitalism. Communal owning of land was incompatible with the fundamental concept of property. Those that were not willing to buy into the capitalist mode of living/production had to be driven away, because they were obstacles to the colonists’ agenda for territorial expansion. Thus, individualized natives were accepted not necessarily because it made them more “controllable,” but because they were no longer considered threats to settler colonialist system.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. gillespiealli · September 21, 2015

    One thing that you didn’t mention that Wolfe brings up quite a bit – the ways in which the complexities between settler colonialism and genocide are complicating the occupation of Palestine by Israel. Wolfe says “keeping one eye on the Holocaust, which is always the unqualified referent of the qualified genocides, can only disadvantage Indigenous people because it discursively reinforces the figure of lack at the heart of the non-Western” (402). Essentially, in what ways does the Holocaust, as one of the most recognizable genocides in recent history, disguise (or complicate) the settler colonial project in Palestine from being related or tied to genocide/elimination? How does Wolfe’s characterization of race as a way of targeting a group of people in a historical context play into this disguise?

    Liked by 1 person

    • newyorkrhi · September 21, 2015

      Thanks for bringing that up, @gillespiealli! It’s a great point and I feel like Israel’s occupation of Palestinian & Zionism deserves and needs to be talked about in terms of settler colonialism and structural genocide. I was especially appreciative of how Wolfe brought up that Israel decreasing their dependence on Palestinian labor is an ominous sign. I really loved the questions you asked.

      I wonder if Wolfe’s work is influenced by Ella Shohat at all – I feel like Shohat’s work is a great complement to this piece in that she explores Mizrahi identity and the “paradoxical effects on Arab Jews of their two, rival essentialist nationalisms – Jewish and Arab.” As Wolfe looks at the construction of race as a means to target groups of people, Shohat looks at what it means to hold two identities that have been constructed by mainstream narratives to exclude and target each other. I am having the hardest time with wording right now, and I apologize for that!


  3. kms819 · September 21, 2015

    I too loved how everything was broken down and how you highlighted the key elements of the writing. I also agree with what has already been said regarding the construction of race and how it strips away the accountability almost saying that it’s natural. Tying in the ideas from the post and comment, I agree that race was established as a way to make discrimination easier and justifiable. When people fell into categories that were identified as things as “savages,” it was so much easier to do away with them.
    It’s disgusting and very upsetting how invasion of indigenous land has become a “structure and not just an event.” I never understood why oppressors/white colonists felt they were better stewards of the land they didn’t come from. Obviously the people who were there and living sustainably were doing just fine. As for the collectivity, I agree that the reason why movements today are so powerful is because they’ve got many people to back it up (power of the people). I believe the increase in amount of people rising up against things are the reason why the movements today are sustaining its momentum if not getting stronger. Of course it’d be much nicer to deal with beloved leaders rather than thousands of radicals who aren’t willing to back down.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. JC · September 21, 2015

    great post…
    Every time I come across this piece by Wolfe, my perspective and takeaways are changed just a bit. I’d never thought about the actual construction of race in the same way that settler colonialism is an structure rather than an event. The fact that race is even a construct itself proves how the accountability factor is taken away. By compartmentalizing and dehumanizing a group for whatever reason, the ability to emphasize is lost. These ideas are nothing new, but I thought they were interesting.
    It’s important to look at race in perspective to time and history, as its essential in the explanation of the structure of settler colonialism. Regardless of specific instance, the idea of race was and is used as a means of targeting, specifically to conquer. The motivation behind creating a race comes from the desire for land. It’s a poor excuse to say the least.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. lilacarpenter1 · September 21, 2015

    I would like to think about the question raised by this blog post “If we are to think of settler colonialism as a structure, how do we challenge that in our specific contexts, as students at a private university in New York City?” Not only do I think it is important to think of settler colonialism as current and ongoing issue (rather than a historical one), but it is also extremely pertinent to many of us. Thinking about the question two situations immediately come to mind. Firstly, the expansion of NYU through the village and New York City at large. Can this be construed as colonialism? Perhaps?
    More clearly, I think, is the process of gentrification that is occurring in Brooklyn and the outer boroughs (and has occurred in Manhattan previously, and currently in some areas). Many NYU students, myself included, are pushed further from Washington Square as housing in Manhattan is exorbitantly expensive, as is the price of tuition, in doing so housing becomes more expensive in the outer boroughs, and the families (usually non-white) and residents who lived there previously are displaced. Both NYU students and and colonists (ie Protestants, Zionist) move in search of a better quality life, but in doing so commit atrocious crimes against entire populations. How can students fight against this? How can NYU students avoid repeating the same settler colonialist patterns?

    Liked by 1 person

    • newyorkrhi · September 21, 2015

      @lilacarpenter1 I really appreciated this: “Both NYU students and colonists (i.e. Protestants, Zionists) move in search of a better quality of life, but in so doing commit atrocious crimes against entire populations.” Thank you for bringing this up and tying NYU students to settler colonialism!

      I think making the link between NYU and colonial powers is important and useful – especially considering how NYU in many ways uses its poor students to “settle”/gentrify further into New York (not to mention those students who could afford to live near NYU but choose to gentrify Brooklyn especially). Are we, as students of a colonial power so to speak, able to actually resist settler colonialist patterns in an effective and meaningful way? Or are we simply just trying to reduce our impact while our impact, no matter how hard we work, still furthers the process of gentrification?

      Thinking about the idea of “better quality of life”, I wonder if a way to challenge and not repeat settler colonialist patterns would be to challenge the system (capitalism) that determines what “better quality of life” means.

      I’m sorry if this was sort of rambling/incoherent, thank you for your comment!


  6. as7374 · September 21, 2015

    Great post! I do think its absolutely crucial to establish NYU as a neo-colonial power not only within NYC but across the globe (global sites, etc.). The university is profoundly involved in the settler-colonial project of NYC and has played an undeniable role in the cultural devastation of the WSP area and more recently Brooklyn. The question of individual responsibility is always a difficult one in this context because the overall structural reality of neo-colonial gentrification prevents individual acts from ever being effective tools of change and instead are only useful for damage reduction. In other words there is no such thing as a moral gentrifier just as there is no such thing as a “good cop” or a “good CEO” because no matter how nice we are the structures we exist in are morally repugnant. NYU students’ very reputation as gentrifiers means that even being enrolled in this university already positions us as perpetuators of class/race based violence.

    My point is to try to move away from rhetoric of individual responsibility because it often acts as a distraction from the undeniable reality that the only solution is the widespread and unconditional destruction of structural colonialism (aka the destruction of NYU, the destruction of the United States, etc). Individualism, which is deeply ingrained in neoliberal discourse, is useless in the face of an society hell-bent on the eventual extinction of racialized peoples.

    Liked by 1 person

    • newyorkrhi · September 21, 2015

      Thank you so much for this comment! I sincerely appreciate your point of moving away from the rhetoric of individual responsibility as it distracts from the facts: that NYU is indeed a neocolonial power that needs to be destroyed and dismantled like the US. Thank you – this has me thinking in a whole different way!


  7. alw475 · September 21, 2015

    Great post! I think a really interesting and important thing that Wolfe points out is how oppressed groups are treated (killed or not killed) a certain way based on their place in the economic structure; so, under settler colonialism, indigenous people are exterminated because their way of life is completely divorced from and in the way of the Western capitalistic way of life, while black slaves in the US were not killed in the same way African Americans were lynched after slavery ended–their use value to the economy changed and their place in the system becoming threatening to whites. This system of use and violence demonstrates how capitalism as a system necessitates and perpetuates certain forms of exploitation or else just wipes out entire populations. In thinking about what this post said about the NYPD being colonial death squads, this makes me wonder what the place of oppresed groups like people of color in low income areas–the “underclass”–is in our economic system; are they no longer “useful” and can therefore be exterminated in a genocidal fashion? This seems to be how capitalism treats the poor.


  8. thartwell · September 21, 2015

    When I think about race, as it relates to being a construct / social construct, the first thing I like to think about is what / who formed the constructs of these races, and if they were formed in relation to other races. I think this is important because it seems many races are perceived in terms of their closeness and relation to whiteness (closer to white the better). To me, it seems that many races have been distinguished as a way of Othering and controlling the non-dominant race of an area. Even when some races have many commonalities, you still see people looking for differences so they can force “Otherness” on someone not their own race.


  9. leilakg · September 21, 2015

    I’m intrigued by the collective versus individual discourse that you highlight. (Although I have to disagree with your example of MLK Jr., as he was viewed as a threat, and his pacifism was sanitized through his contrast to Malcolm X, who was demonized.) Becoming “individuals” seems synonymous with loss of cultural differentiation, and incorporation into national identity. An individual leader working to define the goals of a collective is different from becoming an individual integrated in a society, without power from mass mutual support. I also agree with the first commenter’s point that collectivity is a threat to capitalism. In the reading Wolfe stresses that resources were not just taken away from Native Americans, but taken into private ownership.


  10. daniellubliner · September 21, 2015

    I remember reading Wolfe and seeing that he made a distinction between settler colonialism and genocide, and I was bothered by it but I couldn’t explain why. I think my issue with it now is that it’s reductive, seeing as given every historical context in which settler colonialism took place, genocide accompanied it. He says that colonialism was eliminatory but not inherently genocidal and he said that settler colonialism can lead to genocide. I didn’t understand his need for the distinction between the two, until new forms of settler colonialism arose. New forms of settler colonialism that are now disguised as people moving to neighborhoods, primarily neighborhoods of color, and changing the neighborhood completely all the while displacing its original inhabitants. We know it as gentrification. Much like how racism has changed over the years and is often overlooked, settler colonialism (not completely) has morphed to fit the white American narrative. Some people see gentrification in a positive light as they see it as “improving” the neighborhoods, but in reality, it displaces those who already live there, eliminates a lot of the neighborhood’s culture, forces people to assimilate to a culture. This is where the distinction lies between settler colonialism and genocide.
    I found this really well written, and it’s clear you understood the piece very well. The idea of race being constructed to serve a purpose to white colonists is extremely important for people to know, because it shows the reasons for the construction of race instead of an oversimplification. I studied this concept in regards to orientalism, and the way colonists viewed (Eastern) Asia changed over the years, allowing for multiple perceptions of Asia. Being aware of the specific forms of racialization is a good step in fixing problems. It’s important to deconstruct these ideas, point them out, and address them, so we can learn to fix internal and systematic oppression for people of color.


  11. bexakeakamai · September 21, 2015

    I agree with the comment above, that it is important to look at resources in terms of ownership. I was also intrigued by how Wolfe discusses the distinction between domain and occupancy, and how these distinctions were used as tools in the formation of the settler-colonial state. I was wondering if the judicial standings referring to the transferring of occupancy in terms of “consummation by possession” are the current grounds for squatter’s rights? I find it very interesting that the same folx who recognize and chastise the colonial history of the current United States are many of the same folx who strive to take advantage of tools like squatter’s rights.


  12. justinhong123 · September 23, 2015

    Great, really thorough post! Awesome job!

    I was really moved by Wolfe’s point that eliminaton isn’t exclusively defined by “the somatic”. Assimilation is also a form of elimination! To strip a people of their culture, identity, and language in order to absorb them into the normative social order is, in fact, to eliminate them. And this point has profound implications. The most important of which, I think, is the idea that culture and language are constitutive of, and not merely auxiliary to, reality/life. That the erasure of culture/language is the erasure of a people is essential to understanding how genocide transmutates itself according to changing historical and material circumstances — how genocide persists beyond its moment of incitation into and as a structure.


  13. tz482 · September 28, 2015

    I really like the train of thought that you’ve got going here; the idea that the collective power of minorities is what gives them legitimacy in political and social struggles is fascinating. Wolfe argues that stripping the individual away from the collective weakens the individual’s power – a point he reinforces with his examination of the Chocktaw people. I am reminded of the Asian American struggle for recognition during mid 20th century New York. Though many felt slighted and burdened by social pressures and systematic oppression, it was not until they unified as a collective (the Asian American Writer’s Workshop, the beginnings of the Museum of Chinese in America, the Asian American garment workers) that they truly gained the power necessary to challenge the status quo.

    I am also reminded of the Filipino struggle against injustice in the eviction of I-Hotel. The power of a unified collective of Manong laborers allowed them to challenge the oppression of bigoted landlords.

    In some regards, I wonder if we’ve become too reliant on the collective power, that individual struggles are meted out of the collective narrative. It feels as if becoming amalgamated strips away the stories that the individual brings to conversation, and a lot of powerful stories are lost in this process.


  14. arnulfo · July 18

    Reblogged this on The grokking eagle.


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