Settler colonialism seems to be the least tolerable thing I have every tried to explain (for white settlers that is, Indigenous People’s know and live the reality with or with out the term). Unsettling is the perfect way to describe this work since most white settlers seem to get almost physically sick and extremely enraged over these concepts. There are many demotions to one’s status in settler colonizer society by becoming what I will call, borrowing from Meme, a self-rejecting settler (1). This is a small start in confronting settler privilege. In the big picture, decolonization has far more to offer to the self-rejecting settler than the toxic privilege that they/we embody. Fully gaining their/our humanity, reentering their/our place in the human family, freedom from an alienated, individualist, hierarchical existence, and continued life on this planet to mention a few (2). But time again I have experienced white settlers clinging to their identity, imploring poetic “moves to innocence,” and oozing with fear and anger when presented with ideas of unsettling, unwilling to accept that they/we are settlers and that settler colonialism continues to this day (3). This is the case even with white settlers who are “good people,” have done work as “allies” with Indigenous People’s, and claim a radical politic.
Where I live is a (very, very) small community in the Karuk Homeland in so called Northwest California. It is approximately half indigenous and half settler and not a federal reservation. The work of unsettling is inherently intimate and personal. My partner and myself recently lost a close friend over these conversations (things might still come around in the future but that would take a lot of work that I am not sure he wishes to engage in). Most of this went down on a social media platform I will not give free advertisement to. Although the debate was virtual, the pain of the loss of a friend is real.
This incident reminded me of a conversation I had a few months past with my friend Michael Yellowbird, who is an Indigenous professor and teaches decolonization to often adversarial students. I was asking advise about when to engage folks in these issues, when not to, and if the approach matters? This idea of approach has been a theme in our group of settlers and with other local indigenous activists who are working to decolonize where we live. We have had lots of conversation questioning if one can make these ideas palatable to settlers without sugar coating the issues? Yellowbird explained the process of unsettling settlers as akin to a death. This I believe cuts to the heart of the defiance we often come across. This is a fatality of their/our settler identity, a fragile selfhood constructed in the denial of history and current material realities, pillaring settler privilege. This identity has been stroked by all settler colonial institutions from birth, yet shatters with the smallest pebble thrown at it. Yellowbird suggested seeing this death of identity of the settler through what Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, in her famous book On Death and Dying, describes as the five stages of grief. These are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (4). Clearly not everyone goes through these exact stages, in this exact order, or even at all but it is still a useful analytical tool. As mentioned above, “moves to innocence” permeate through all these stages.
These stages of grief mirrored my friend’s process, minus—notably—the last step of acceptance. I have seen this same process when engaging with other white settlers. After explaining to white settlers that “invasion is a structure and not an event” of the past, and that they/we are settlers on stolen land, benefiting from a continual system of settler colonialism, denial is often is the first response (5). One comes across a straight rejection of the reality of the circumstances: a denial that they/we are settlers and a claim to not profit from colonialism. This also manifests as, “if you didn’t talk about this, everything would be fine, you’re creating the problem,” i.e. a complete rejection of the facts on the ground. As this description of the first stage of grief explains:
“It is a normal reaction to rationalize overwhelming emotions. It is a defense mechanism that buffers the immediates hock. We block out the words and hide from the facts. This is a temporary response that carries us through the first wave of pain (6).”
The next stage is anger. This comes in personal attacks on the person presenting them with information, rage against Indigenous People’s for countless reasons and lashing out against unsettling settlers (treated as “race traitors”) (7). This stage is explained as follows:
“The intense emotion is deflected from our vulnerable core, redirected and expressed instead as anger . . . Anger may be directed at our dying or deceased loved one [those challenging settler identity]. Rationally, we know the person is not to be blamed. Emotionally, however, we may resent the person for causing us pain or for leaving us. We feel guilty for being angry, and this makes us more angry (8).”
The third stage, bargaining, happens because, “the normal reaction to feelings of helplessness and vulnerability is often a need to regain control.” All forms of liberal reformism white settlers present fit into this stage, while seeing actual decolonization as “unrealistic.” Many an “if only” are invoked to avoid responsibility. Others wrangle for some type of “reconciliation” (in a form that would not relinquish land):
“Secretly, we may make a deal with God or our higher power in an attempt to postpone the inevitable. This is a weaker line of defense to protect us from the painful reality (9).”
Depression is the next stage. This is broken into two types, “the first one is a reaction to practical implications relating to the loss (10).” White settlers are melancholy over the loss of privilege, resources, innocence, etc. that would come from decolonization. “The second type of depression” is explained as, “[M]ore subtle and, in a sense, perhaps more private. It is our . . . preparation to separate and to bid our loved one farewell (11).” Dismal and often disingenuous hysterics of, “we are just pieces of shit then,” “we should just die,” or “what do we do, go back to Europe?” emerge in this stage as well (not that a return to Europe should be completely ruled out of the possibilities).
Acceptance, the last stage, does not always happen. “Reaching this stage of mourning,” it is said, “is a gift not afforded to everyone (12).” This was the case with my estranged friend, after depression he slid back to the fortress of denial. It is infuriating that recognition of being a settler and how settlers gain at the expense of Indigenous People’s, which is such a small step in actually undoing settler colonialism and bringing about a decolonized future, is met with such hostility. Yellowbirds framing unsettling as a death and observations on the grieving process that accompanies it has helped me work through some of this frustration. I hope it helps others working to bring about decolonization. As for my friend, and other white settlers going through these stages, “The best thing you can do is to allow yourself to feel the grief as it comes over you. Resisting it only will prolong the natural process of healing (13).” And the real grief is not the loss of settler fallacies but the pain perpetrated by the structure of colonialism.
1.) Memmi, Albert, (1967), The Colonizer and the Colonized, Orion Press, Boston.
2.) On white settlers reentering the human family see: Hurwitz, Laura, “Got Land? Thank an Indian: Settler Colonialism and the White Settler in the Karuk Ancestral Territory.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations, Issue 36, 2014 59.
3.) On moves to innocence, see Tuck, Eve. & Yang, Wayne, (2012), “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, Volume 1 No. 1, 1–40.
4.) Page 2, Wolfe, Patrick, (1999), Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event, Cassell, New York.
5.) Kübler-Ross, E. (1969) On Death and Dying, Routledge,
7.) On January 6th, 1855 settlers of what they called Orleans Bar, California held a public meeting and authored a resolution banning Indians from possessing firearms. This was a pivotal event in the lead up to the Red Cap War, in which Karuk and other Indigenous groups resisted settlers through armed struggle. This settler resolution also banned other white settlers from selling or trading guns to Indians and threatened a punishment of shaving their heads, twenty-five lashes, and banishment from town. Sometimes I wonder if my fellow settlers today, in the same town, might reinstate such a punishment against settlers calling them settlers?