Settler colonial studies have enjoyed rapid growth as a field of scholarly inquiry since the 1990s. Scholars of settler colonialism distinguish it from other forms of colonialism—for example, extractive, planation, or trade colonialism—by positing that settlers move en masse to foreign lands with the intention of staying or permanently settling. Settlers therefore covet the land, not the labor, of Indigenous people, a structural dynamic that precipitates the “elimination” of Indigenous communities. Settler colonial studies have proven particularly germane to analysis of the Anglophone world during the 19th and 20th centuries, and to the study of global systems and transnational histories. While elements of settler colonial studies can illuminate historical understanding of North American history since 1492, the diversity of historical experiences in what became the United States means that American historians have approached this body of scholarship with caution. As is the case with any theoretical construct, historians are well advised to engage settler colonial studies with an active and critical eye before considering how they might best incorporate it into their teaching and research.
Gregory D. Smithers
Benjamin L. Madley
Human beings have inhabited the region known as California for at least 13,000 years, or as some believe since time immemorial. By developing technologies, honing skills, and implementing stewardship practices, California Indian communities maximized the bounty of their homelands during the precolonial period. Overall, their population grew to perhaps 310,000 people. Speaking scores of different languages, they organized themselves into at least sixty major tribes. Communities were usually politically autonomous but connected to larger tribal groups by shared languages and cultures while dense networks of economic exchange also bound tribes together. Newcomers brought devastating change, but California Indians resisted and survived. During the Russo-Hispanic period (1769–1846), the Indigenous population fell to perhaps 150,000 people due to diseases, environmental transformation, and colonial policies. The organized mass violence and other policies of early United States rule (1846–1900) further reduced the population. By 1900, census takers counted only 15,377 California Indian people. Still, California Indians resisted. During the 1900–1953 period, the federal government continued its national Allotment Policy but initiated healthcare, land policy, education, and citizenship reforms for California Indians even as they continued to resist and their population grew. During the termination era (1953–1968), California Indians faced federal attempts to obliterate them as American Indians. Finally, California Indian people achieved many hard-won victories during the self-determination era (1968–present).
The issue of genocide and American Indian history has been contentious. Many writers see the massive depopulation of the indigenous population of the Americas after 1492 as a clear-cut case of the genocide. Other writers, however, contend that European and U.S. actions toward Indians were deplorable but were rarely if ever genocidal. To a significant extent, disagreements about the pervasiveness of genocide in the history of the post-Columbian Western Hemisphere, in general, and U.S. history, in particular, pivot on definitions of genocide. Conservative definitions emphasize intentional actions and policies of governments that result in very large population losses, usually from direct killing. More liberal definitions call for less stringent criteria for intent, focusing more on outcomes. They do not necessarily require direct sanction by state authorities; rather, they identify societal forces and actors. They also allow for several intersecting forces of destruction, including dispossession and disease. Because debates about genocide easily devolve into quarrels about definitions, an open-ended approach to the question of genocide that explores several phases and events provides the possibility of moving beyond the present stalemate. However one resolves the question of genocide in American Indian history, it is important to recognize that European and U.S. settler colonial projects unleashed massively destructive forces on Native peoples and communities. These include violence resulting directly from settler expansion, intertribal violence (frequently aggravated by colonial intrusions), enslavement, disease, alcohol, loss of land and resources, forced removals, and assaults on tribal religion, culture, and language. The configuration and impact of these forces varied considerably in different times and places according to the goals of particular colonial projects and the capacities of colonial societies and institutions to pursue them. The capacity of Native people and communities to directly resist, blunt, or evade colonial invasions proved equally important.