Settler Colonialism and the Indigenous Borderland

JOSHUA L. REID. The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015. Pp. 416. $40.00. Hardback. ISBN: 9780300209907.

STEPHEN ARON and JEREMY ADELMAN, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States and the Peoples In-Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104, 3 (June 1999): 814-841.

PATRICK WOLFE, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, 4 (December, 2006): 387-409.

The readings for this week address historical and modern relationships between Indigenous peoples and Euro-American empires and nation-states through the lens of settler colonialism. Australian anthropologist and ethnologist Patrick Wolfe provides a theoretical background for the process of “settler colonialism,” whereby colonizing peoples occupy a specific geographical territory with the intention of forming a new community there, rather than just extracting labor or resources. As Wolfe writes, “invasion is a structure [and] not an event.” As a unique type of invasion, “settler colonialism” is “eliminatory” but not necessarily genocidal. “In some settler colonial sites,” Wolfe acknowledges, “native society was able to accommodate—though hardly unscathed—the invaders and the transformative socioeconomic system that they introduced.” This question of indigenous-settler accommodation is the over-arching theme of this week’s readings.[1]

The 1999 AHR article by historians Jeremy Adelman and Stephen Aron discusses this question of indigenous-settler accommodation in three historical case studies from the US. These studies are French settlement in the Great Lakes region, Anglo-American expansion in the Lower Mississippi Valley region, and Spanish administration in the Greater Rio Grande Basin. The authors draw on an approach to the study of the frontier by an early-twentieth protégé of Frederick Jackson Turner named Henry Eugene Bolton. In doing so, they use these North American cases to provide a conceptual “exploration of the transition…from borderlands to borders.” Their essay argues for clear distinctions between three terms: frontiers, borderlands, and “bordered” territories.[2]

First, Adelman and Aron describe frontiers as “meeting place[s] of peoples in which geographic and cultural borders were not clearly defined.” In comparison, borderlands are “contested boundaries between colonial domains,” where intercultural relations, between both European and Indian groups, were defined by various forms of mutual accommodation, what the authors refer to as “commercial-diplomatic relations” and shared traditions of “ethnic mixing, syncretism, and cohabitation.” Finally, a “bordered” territory is a product of the modern nation-state; it is an international boundary where the syncretic relations of the borderland, previously formed by inter-imperial struggles, have been hardened into a social, ethnic, and political hierarchy. Adelman and Aron argue that “conflicts over [colonial] borderlands shaped the peculiar contingent character of frontier relations” before the era of clear, bordered territories.[3]

The historian Joshua L. Reid provides us with a case study for evaluating these theoretical arguments. His revised dissertation, The Sea is My Country, traces the history of the Qʷidiččaʔa·tx̌, also known as Makahs or the People of the Cape, from about 1774 to 1999. These years cover this particular Native American tribe from before their first encounters with Euro-American colonizers, through the 1855 Treaty of Neah Bay that established the modern Makah reservation, to the highly contested yet legally sanctioned re-institution of their traditional whaling practices in modern form. Makahs are “an indigenous borderlands people” located about the Olympic Peninsula in the Pacific Northwest. For centuries, they “have shaped marine space in and around the Strait of Juan de Fuca, rather than terrestrial spaces, as the primary locus of their identity.” Reid calls their unique territory the “ča·di· borderland,” and it stretches from roughly the Columbia River in the south, to the upper tip of Vancouver Island in the north, to the inner coasts of Puget Sound.[4]

Reid explicitly draws upon Adelman and Aron’s AHR article for his historiography. While he agrees with these authors’ broad definitions of frontiers, borderlands, and bordered territories, he also believes that the historical case of the Makahs demands two amendments. First, “the actions of Makahs and other indigenous peoples challenge the problematic formulation that only European imperialism produces borderlands.” For Adelman and Aron, the catalyst for the creation of a borderland was the arrival a particular Euro-American power. But Euro-American arrivals to the Pacific Northwest “found themselves in an indigenous seascape [already] defined by particular borderlands networks and protocols.” The ča·di· borderland already existed, and it determined relationships between many Native groups like the Coast Salish, the Clayoquat, and the Mowachaht.[5]

Second, the history of Makah people “complicate[s] the borderlands-to-border process” set down by Adelman and Aron. Instead of a declensionist process where in-between zones of cultural exchange are “rigidified” into “political entities” for the point of controlling “property rights, citizenship, and population movements,” we have a much more complex story of Indian adaptation and perseverance across the “borderlands-to-border” transition. Settler-colonial powers made the modern US-Canadian border in 1846, and it cut right through the ča·di· borderland at the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Nonetheless, Makahs continued to adhere to their traditional borderland “well into the twentieth century.” Their behavior reveals the permeable and porous nature of the international boundary, as well as the continued ability of indigenous peoples to interrupt the imperial process of settler colonialism long after Adelman and Aron’s borderland period has supposedly ended.[6]

Returning to Wolfe, we recall that, “In some settler colonial sties…native society was able to accommodate.” This is certainly the case with Makahs in The Sea is My Country. Far from being eradicated either imminently or gradually through what Wolfe calls “qualified” or “structural genocide,” Makahs have maintained and even recovered the essential borderland characteristic of indigenous self-determination. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Makahs forged what Reid calls a “moditional economy.” They blended traditional practices with modern technologies; they fought new forms of racism disguised as environmentalism; and they lobbied the legal structures of settler-colonialism for their continued sovereignty. As a result, the ča·di· borderland of the Qʷidiččaʔa·tx̌ has changed a lot, but it is still very much alive.[7]


[1] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” Journal of Genocide Research 8, 4 (December, 2006): 387-388, 390.

[2] Stephen Aron and Jeremy Adelman, “From Borderlands to Borders: Empires, Nation-States and the Peoples In-Between in North American History,” American Historical Review 104, 3 (June 1999): 814-815, 816-817.

[3] Ibid. 815-816, 820, 825.

[4] Joshua L. Reid, The Sea is My Country: The Maritime World of the Makahs (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), 5, 14.

[5] Ibid. 14, 21, 33-34.

[6] Ibid. 12, 14-15; Aron and Adelman, “From Borderlands to Borders,” 817.

[7] Patrick Wolfe, “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native,” 387, 403-403; Joshua L. Reid, The Sea is My Country, 17, 202, 199-208.