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Intro to Decolonization: US History


By: Andy Kovaleski


The history of the United States is taught with significant gaps and falsehoods. In order to be fully informed about the United States, its politics, and its history, decolonizing our understanding is essential. This requires an inspection of settler colonialism, Manifest Destiny, and the Doctrine of Discovery, as well as how these hugely influential concepts and policies have infused every aspect of American culture. Together, these three concepts truly form the foundation of America as a country.

Colonialism is described as an effort by a country or people to overtake another for its own gain. Settler colonialism is when that gain is specifically the seizure of the land for settlement and continued economic advancements. Every step of building America has used white settler colonialism as a guiding premise if only in action, not name.  “The history of the United States is a history of settler colonialism-the founding of a state based on the ideology of white supremacy, the widespread practice of African slavery, and a policy of genocide and land theft (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2015, 2).”  The United States was founded on achieving prosperity for whites through claiming the land and resources and eradicating Indigenous peoples.

Examples of colonialism on behalf of the United States are not constrained to settler colonialism. For example, the colonization of Hawai’i was mostly extractive colonialism. Hawai’i was an economic advantage because of the financial gain that came from extracting its resources, including its surplus food, most notably sugarcane. It was only colonized when settlement was the only way to keep control of those resources. Extractive colonialism is also present in North America, most clearly in the tar sands throughout the continent, but it emerged after settler colonialism had taken its toll on the land. The white settler colonial project, the effort to settle and colonize what is now the United States with white people, is the violent, glorified history of the United States.

In the first years of the US, there was an idea that colonizing the entire continent was necessary to succeed in creating a nation. To excuse the genocide of Indigenous peoples that came with this goal, they needed a justification: A claim that the land was rightfully theirs. This is where Manifest Destiny comes into play. Colonizers claimed that it was their destiny, assigned by God, to take control of the land in his name and to bring Christianity to all Indian Nations. When those nations resisted, they were dubbed “heathens.”

An Indigenous People’s History of the United States describes the colonizers’ claims that they were civilizing and helping those they conquered: “In 1982, the government of Spain and the Holy See (the Vatican, which is a nonvoting state member of the United Nations) proposed to the UN General Assembly that the year 1992 be celebrated in the United Nations as an ‘encounter’ between Europe and the peoples of the Americas, with Europeans bearing the gifts of civilization and Christianity to the Indigenous peoples.” (197)

I’m sure you have heard of Manifest Destiny before. I know in my case it was taught in my public education from elementary school through high school as the reason for westward expansion. Somehow, we never discussed that it was a justification of a goal, not a logical reasoning, nor was it explained that it tied directly into the abuse of Indigenous peoples at the hand of whites. These early colonizers, settlers, and homesteaders were so intent on claiming the whole continent as their own that they didn’t care to think of those who already occupied the space.

The idea of Manifest Destiny comes from the age-old Doctrine of Discovery, which is the single most influential document in the genocide of Indigenous peoples. The early American colonizers claimed that, as the first Christians to discover the land, the Doctrine of Discovery gave them the right to take it. Despite the fact that it was written in reference to land being conquered and colonized well before the European continent was even aware of the existence of the Americas. The Doctrine of Discovery had no regard for the nations of people already living on the land that was to be conquered, if they weren’t white and Christian, they did not have any claim to their own land.

The Treaty of Tordesillas, the last piece of the Doctrine of Discovery, was written to excuse the seizure and colonization of Native land by the Portuguese and Spanish, Columbus in particular. It was written by the monarchs of Spain and Portugal, but its real power came from the support of the Roman Catholic Church. Its authors needed to establish beyond a shadow of a doubt that any white and/or Christian conquerors have the right to conquer non-Christian lands and peoples. The treaty split the “New World” in half through the prime meridian and granted the land west of the line to Spain and east to Portugal for conquest.

The Doctrine of Discovery was completed, given power by the Treaty of Tordesillas, and upheld by the Catholic Church. Centuries later, it was used to justify the conquest of North America, Africa, West Asia, and surrounding territories by white settlers as well as the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Manifest Destiny was applied only in North America, specifically the west, but is born from the ideas in the Doctrine of Discovery and their applications. With Manifest Destiny in their heads and guns in their hands, early settlers took Native land and claimed it for their own.

Any claims that westward expansion was predicated on Christianity or misguided good will simply ignore the very real goal of the people in power: the eradication of Indigenous peoples. When discussing motivations and reasonings, it is easy to focus on the economics of colonizers’ actions, but any claim that anti-indigenous motivations were absent from the colonizers’ ideology is dismissive. Any economic advances would be made at the expense of Indigenous peoples, and those in power were very aware of this. To this day, our economy is based on the abuse of Indigenous peoples and lands. Take the Dakota Access Pipeline and Line 3 for example. The United States’ oil-based economy relies on the continued seizure and destruction of land that not only belongs to Indigenous peoples but sustains them and their way of life. To begin decolonizing our understanding of history, we must start by recognizing the role that white settler-colonialism played in the founding of the United States and how it continues to impact Indigenous peoples and other people of color to this day.

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