“New World” Settler Colonialism: “Killing Indians, Making Niggers”
by Aman Sium
“New World” settler colonialism can be described as a process of “killing Indians, making niggers.” By this I mean that, within the visionary project of building and maintaining a settler state, there are the immediate projects of clearing “virgin” land for industry and settlement (“killing Indians”), as well as constructing a racial category of enslavable and otherwise indentured labor to help cultivate it (“making niggers”). The colonial end game becomes a world where Indigenous peoples are thought of as always dead, dying or inexplicably disappeared. A world where black life is defined by slavability and being made the necessary causalities of capitalist development. In many cases the “killing” or “making” plays out as the literal removal of black and Indigenous bodies: Indigenous genocide and land theft, black enslavement, police violence and incarceration, murdered and missing women, 60’s scoop, forced relocation, temporary foreign worker schemes, deportation etc. In other cases, the “killing” or “making” is more symbolic: discourses of black criminality, rage and sexual danger; or Indigenous drunkenness, barbarism and extinction. These are just few of the ways black and Indigenous bodies become differently marked for symbolic, but also literal, extermination. Marked for extermination by the law, on the land, and within settler consciousness. It’s further important to point out that the ongoing theft and occupation of Indigenous lands is foundational to all of these things.
Processes of both literal and symbolic “killing”/“making” are mutually generative. The symbolic is used to justify the real and vice versa. Both work to reinforce and explain each other. It becomes okay for Toronto police to assassinate young black men because scripted into their blackness is the potential for sexual and criminal danger. Or, to quote former mayor of New York, Rudy Giuliani, assault should be understood as “the perceived threat of bodily harm,” placing young black men in a constant state of assault. Since they/we’re always read as being a perceived threat to, white women in particular, but also society at large. So when an unarmed Hugh Dawson is riddled with 11 bullets while sitting in his car, “police are just doing their job”, “taking precautions”, “acting in the public’s best interest”, “removing the threat”, or a slew of other excuses used to make common sense of black death.
A “nigger” isn’t something one’s born as or even what one becomes. It’s a colonial invention meant to deny black life, but more importantly, to make sense of black death. “Niggerhood” was invented to recast Africans as the forgotten children of modernity. It was invented to try and fill our hearts with inadequacy, shame, and general resentment toward our blackness. Colonial schooling and society reinforce this resentment from a young age. As James Baldwin recalls: “When you’re called a nigger you look at your father because you think your father can rule the world -every kid thinks that – and then you discover that your father cannot do anything about it. So you begin to despise your father and you realize, oh, that’s what a nigger is”.
Like Baldwin’s “nigger”, a figure deserving of violence without explanation, it’s similarly okay to commit unexplained violence against Indigenous women (among other groups). Indigenous women across Canada are routinely raped and murdered under the watchful eye of RCMP and local police. In some cases by the RCMP and local police. They are deemed rapable, expendable bodies in the colonial imagination and world – an imagination and world that we, as black and other racialized migrants, are invited to participate and be complicit in as junior partners.
Why is it that mainstream and alternative media represent missing and murdered Indigenous women in numerical rather than story-based terms? Even in the present moment of mounting UN pressure for a national inquiry, and government lip service condemning the open season on Indigenous women, the diversity of women and their stories often get reduced to a single statistic: 600+ missing and murdered women in the last 20 years. This is a powerful and important statistic that speaks to the sheer volume of violence the settler state has tolerated, incited and participated in. It can also be a strategic choice on part of Indigenous anti-VAW activists and their allies to use this statistic to shame government into action. There are also collectives like Sisters in Spirit and Walking with Our Sisters who are doing the everyday work of bringing such stories to light. But “600+” is still rarely quoted by non-Indigenous peoples and media alongside specific names, dates, or details on the material conditions that produces violence against women. Like the fact that of the 582 cases investigated by the Native Women’s Association of Canada, 67% are murder cases; the overwhelming majority occur off-reserve and in urban settings; and more than half of the cases remain unsolved. These facts prompt questions such as: What does colonialism’s embedded culture of white supremacist patriarchy have to do with these cases? How is white masculinity, in particular, disassociated and hidden from view in conversations about rape and sexual violence against Indigenous women and women of color?
Clearly, the privilege of specificity is reserved for white women. Those who lived in the Toronto area during the 1990’s and 2000’s might remember the names of Georgina Leimonis (1994, Just Desserts shooting) and Jane Creba (2005, YongeStreet shooting), or more recently in national spotlight, Rehteah Parsons (2013, suicide following sexual assault). But it’s rare that we’re able to recite the names and details of missing and murdered Indigenous women with the same familiarity. Or sense of urgency. We’re not meant to speak their names. We’re not meant to know their stories. We’re only meant to feel the mild sympathy that accompanies the vague knowledge that something bad is happening to them. The “them” being Megan Turner, Tanya Nepinak, Lorna Lynn Blacksmith, Carolyn Sinclair, and the many women – both counted and uncounted – before them.
As survivors of these joint violences, it’s our job as black and Indigenous peoples to historicize them at the same time we continue to resist them. We do this to better understand how our struggles might overlap, intersect, or experience tensions. In an attempt to help historicize of our shared experiences of colonization and resistance, I want to highlight just two moments. The first moment can be thought of as the initial point at which black and Indigenous bodies became placed in the same [settler]colonizing structure and where the project to literally and symbolically kill and [re]make us began. The second is a more recent historical moment. One that highlights the subtle ways our resistances continue to intersect with common cause and mutual support.
First, I want to take us back to fifteenth century Europe, where, guided by the Catholic Church, southern Europe is building both a curiosity about the world, and the desire to consume it. The colonial project to simultaneously kill and [re]make the black and Indigenous Other can be traced to a series of papal bulls issued by the Catholic Church, one in particular. On June 18th, 1452 Pope Nicholas V issued the Dum Diversas. The document granted Spanish and Portuguese soldiers the power to “invade, search out, capture, and subjugate the Saracerns and pagans and any other unbelievers and enemies of Christ wherever they may be.” Dum Diversas provided the legal and moral pretext for black enslavement, as well as war with the Ottomon Empire and other “pagans” of the East. And, through the many related papal bulls that followed it, eventually provided the ideological foundation for Inter Caetera (1493). Inter Caetera fueled the post-Columbus settlement and genocide that gave birth to the so-called “New World”. So, from the perspective of historical and ongoing colonialism, genocide and enslavement are two sides of the same coin, each taking shape within the same imperial ambitions. Centuries later, our stories as black and Indigenous peoples remains locked within the same life-granting and life-taking structures. Only now, in place of papal bulls and slave ships, we’re faced with settler constitutions and false promises of “emancipation”.
The second historical moment takes us back to the present. In December of 2011, APTN reported that De Beers’ Vector
diamond mine was dumping sewage on Attawapiskat First Nation, which exacerbated the local housing (Vector was De Beers’ first diamond mine outside of Africa). At the same time residents of Attawapiskat were battling De Beers here in Canada, South Africans were battling its parent company, Anglo American, there. On August 16th, 2012 44 striking miners were shot dead by state police acting on behalf of Anglo American. On the other side of the Atlantic, De Beers was plotting with provincial and federal governments to stifle Indigenous protest to their presence, showing traces of the kinds of trans-Atlantic linkages that continue to lock our peoples in shared struggle, both here and there. This is not to say that black arrivants don’t participate in – and instrumentally support – ongoing land theft and settler colonialism, or that Indigenous communities don’t participate in anti-black racism, but that, in spite of these things, built into our seemingly separate resistances are opportunities for both local and trans-Atlantic solidarities to take shape.
I don’t believe solidarity to be easily achieved. Just as I don’t believe a blog post of 2000 words or less to be the space where we achieve it. Instead, what I’ve tried to do here is offer brief snapshots of the historical moments that have shaped “New World” settler colonialism, and come to characterize the place of black and Indigenous peoples within it. The goal of this article is to put black/Indigenous alliances in historical context; a context that positions our struggles and interests in much closer proximity than we might think. Crucial to the overthrow of [settler]colonialism is the strengthening of these trans-Atlantic linkages and alliances, with the joint promise and desire of subverting the colonial world’s vision of the future, a future in which we’re either marked for death (“killing Indians”) or remade altogether (“making niggers”). In defiance of this future, we refuse to die. We also refuse to be remade. In a colonial world, anti-colonial thought and organizing begins with the fact of our survival. Our very survival becomes a threatening reminder of colonialism’s failure.
Aman Sium is a Tigrinya/African/Indigenous activist and doctoral student in Sociology & Equity Studies in Education, at the University of Toronto. He is also the c0-Editor of the open access, peer-reviewed journal, Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. You can follow him @amansium.