American Colonialism: Not a Thing of the Past

Thursday August 2, 2012

By Dina Gilio-Whitaker

This September the Shuswap Nation and Thompson Rivers University in British Columbia, Canada, will be hosting an international seminar on the doctrine of discovery, one of several that have been held in the past few years. The doctrine of discovery--one of the most harmful legal doctrines to emerge out of the settler colonial state-- has gained global recognition in the last 10 years as indigenous scholars increasingly critically analyze how the doctrine continues to erode indigenous cultures.

In a nutshell, the doctrine is the ultimate expression of European ethnocentricity. It emerged at a time when countries like the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other European settler countries needed to develop legal justification for the lands they took from indigenous populations, and that justification they found in philosophies of self-proclaimed cultural and religious superiority over those of the "heathens" they encountered.

In United States the doctrine of discovery is one of the bedrock legal doctrines of federal Indian law. It enables the United States to deny Native Americans of title to their own lands, which is the essence of ongoing American hegemony (control) over native lands and resources, and the opposite of democracy and human rights. Far from a thing of the past, it is a concept which animates the legal system today's Native Americans are subject to.

The doctrine of discovery is just one of the tools the settler colonial state has developed in order to continually justify their appropriation of indigenous territories and control over indigenous lives. It is increasingly coming under intense scrutiny by indigenous intellectuals, especially since the passing of the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in 2007, and a topic the Canadian seminar will be covering. This week at About.com I've written about colonialism through an indigenous lens in the article American Colonialism 101. I have also created a new subcategory within the Native American History page called "Native Concepts and Perspectives" in which conventional historical narratives that downplay the injustices of American history are challenged and instead presented through the prism of the lived indigenous experience.

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