Settler Colonialism in Turtle Island: Introduction


Several years ago, Melanie worked as a program coordinator for the community outreach division of a tribal college. An inter-tribal workplace, staff and administrators are recruited and hired from dozens of different Native nations. One of Melanie’s colleagues — her boss, in fact — was from Zuni Pueblo, which is about two hours west of Albuquerque and forty minutes south of Gallup, the last major town in New Mexico that drivers heading west on Interstate 40 pass through before crossing the state boundary into Arizona. It is estimated that Zuni Pueblo covers up to 450,000 acres, with its entire western boundary following the state line that demarcates the border between Arizona and New Mexico. It is also adjacent to (almost surrounded by) various legal jurisdictions belonging to the greater Navajo Nation, the Native nation of which Melanie is a citizen.

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Navajo Nation Map. / Navajo Area Indian Health Service, 2006.

To the east and northeast of Zuni Pueblo is Ramah, a small community of Navajos geographically separated from the larger contiguous land base that is more commonly associated with the geography of the Navajo Nation. The reason for Ramah’s separation from the larger Navajo Nation has been relayed to Melanie through oral history by several Diné people. While Ramah is formally incorporated into the polity known as the ‘Navajo Nation,” many narrate its relationship with the larger population in different ways. Some say that the Ramah Navajos did not make the entire journey in 1868 when the Diné made the long return to their homelands after negotiating the end to their forced removal and incarceration at Fort Sumner in what is now eastern New Mexico. This trek home, which spanned a distance of approximately 200 miles, passed through the area now known as Ramah. It is said that the Ramah Navajos were asked to stay behind because they practiced witchcraft. Others say that it was because they collaborated with colonial military forces and sold out their own people. It is possible they simply stayed behind because Ramah is surrounded by beautiful wilderness. Whatever the reason, the story of Ramah is just one part of the complex history of Diné relationships with land.

To the north of Zuni is Chichiltah, a checkerboard area inhabited mostly by Navajo citizens. Checkerboarding, which is common in the eastern part of the Navajo Nation that spans McKinley, San Juan, and Cibola counties in northwestern New Mexico, refers to the mixed jurisdiction of land. In these regions of the Navajo Nation — including north of Zuni Pueblo — land is divided into multiple jurisdictions, included trust lands, fee lands, public lands, allotments, and private property. Looking at a map of this region can make you dizzy trying to discern who owns the hundreds of multi-colored square parcels that checker these lands (see map above). These parcels are managed and owned by different tribal, state, federal, county, and private parties, with little continuity of the type of ownership or stewardship across consecutive parcels of land. This has made this region particularly vulnerable to greedy oil and gas corporations who prey on the tribe — which is hopelessly dependent upon revenues from resource extraction — and individual Navajo allottees to convince them to lease parcels for exploratory drilling and development. And because many allotments are adjacent to public lands held in trust by the Bureau of Land Management, which is a federal entity that mediates leases and acts as the handmaiden to resource extraction in the region, energy corporations specifically target Navajo lands so they can have access to larger, continuous sections for industry operations. Land is a source of perennial conflict in this region where access to it and the profit to be gained from it not only threatens to destroy the land itself, but the historic communities of Diné who claim it as their ancestral homes.

To the west of Zuni Pueblo, just across the Arizona state line, is a Navajo community called New Lands. In 1974 Congress passed the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act, which legalized the forced removal of thousands of Diné families (and some Hopi) from their ancestral homelands in a region of the Navajo and Hopi nations called Black Mesa. As Black Mesa Indigenous Support notes, “This genocidal policy was crafted by government agents and energy company representatives in order to gain access to the mineral resources of Black Mesa — billions of tons of coal, uranium and natural gas” ( Forced removal was made infamous when Diné families on Black Mesa refused to leave their homes and abandon their way of life, issuing a call to the world to condemn this newest iteration of the Indian Wars and support their resistance. Led almost entirely by women, this resistance has captured steady international attention for more than four decades, making it one of the longest land-based Indigenous struggles in the history of North America — and the most expensive relocation effort every undertaken by the U.S. settler state, totaling close to $575 million. To this day, forced removal is still the so-called “law of the land,” and families who refuse to leave continue to face daily police harassment, surveillance, and the impoundment and confiscation of their livestock.

While many stay and continue to resist, approximately 14,000 Diné citizens (3,500 families) have been forced out of the region, with many being relocated to New Lands along the Arizona/New Mexico border. Dislocated: Stories from the Navajo New Lands is an online resource that documents the stories of the Diné families who were driven over 150 miles from Black Mesa into New Lands. The website notes that in 1985, the U.S. government “purchased 352,000 acres of private ranch land near Sanders, Arizona to create communities for relocatees” ( This area became known as the New Lands, and in 1988, was formally incorporated into the Navajo Nation as Nahat’a Dzil Chapter. Chapters are local units of government in the Navajo Nation that have the power to make a number of decisions related to local community concerns.

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“Chinga La Migra!” (“Fuck the Border Patrol!”), an anti-colonial migrant rights organization, marching in the fourth annual Indigenous Peoples Day in Albuquerque.
Photograph by The Red Nation, (2018).

New Lands did not exist prior to the mass removal and relocation of Diné families from Black Mesa in the last quarter of the twentieth century. The area around what became New Lands was certainly populated by Diné families, and like the areas extending to Ramah and the checkerboard region to the east, the area to the south adjacent to what later became New Lands might be considered part of the larger ancestral territory of the Diné predating Spanish, Mexican, and American claims to the region. But New Lands itself is a new community planned, engineered, and built specifically to house Diné who have been relocated from Black Mesa. It is thus only recently that Zuni Pueblo’s western border has become the eastern border of the Nahat’a Dzil Chapter. Melanie’s boss from Zuni Pueblo — the one she began this introduction with — told a story about the New Lands Diné. Since New Lands was created, Zuni tribal police have had to deal with breaches to their western border. One day, a routine patrol of the western Zuni border turned into a strange discovery: several miles of the border between Nahat’a Dzil Chapter and the Pueblo — which is also the Arizona/New Mexico state border — had been moved three miles east. Hundreds of fence posts and miles of wire had been painstakingly dug up, clipped, refastened, and relocated to their new position. Upon inspection, Zuni tribal police surmised that certain Diné residents of New Lands had gone secretly to the border under the cover of darkness for what must have been several weeks to illegally move the fence three miles east. Why? So they would have more land for grazing their sheep.

Sheep are the lifeblood of Diné people. They are relatives who deserve (and receive) respect, protection, and love. Much of how Diné people understand space, politics, and identity — in other words, who they are in the world — comes from their relationship with sheep. In sum, for Diné, sheep is life. As noted above, one of the primary techniques of state-sponsored displacement on Black Mesa has been the impoundment and confiscation of sheep from Diné families who refuse to leave the area. Government officials are keenly aware of the prominent position that sheep hold in Diné life. Sheep are specifically targeted to deprive Diné people of their lifeblood and alienate them from the land. Once the land is no longer viable for sheep — or there are no sheep to graze the land — the hope is that these families will give up and leave. A cursory review of 20th century Navajo history demonstrates how the targeted destruction of sheep by the U.S. government has been a key method for displacing the Diné from their ancestral territories for almost a century. As Nadya Raja Tannous and Omar Zahzah (Palestine Youth Movement) point out in their contribution to this issue, settler colonialism requires “the making of settler-place out of Indigenous place. This can only be achieved, however, through the invention of ‘uninhabited space’ ripe for settler innovation and tenacity. When this fiction eventually runs up against the more formidable duration of Indigenous history and presence, it gives way to a related conceit of superior settler ‘knowledge’ of the land.”

Starting in the mid-1930s with the U.S. federal policy of livestock reduction, the containment, impoundment, and eradication of sheep became a centerpiece of the United States’ efforts to civilize Diné people and modernize their economy. Citing the reduction of livestock like sheep as a superior way of conserving the land for Navajo prosperity, white settler administrators like then-Commissioner of Indian Affairs, John Collier, championed livestock reduction with the same tenacity that Christian missionaries brought to their efforts to save Indian souls through conversion. Collier along with dozens of other colonial administrators pioneered technological innovations in disciplines like range management and conservation science to save the Navajos from destroying the land with overgrazing. Their logic? Navajos had too many sheep and continued to accumulate more. There was not enough land to provide for the grazing needs of those herds. As the entity tasked with the responsibility of watching over the Indians and implementing policies on their behalf to improve their lives — this is called the trust relationship between the U.S. government and tribal nations, and it is a pillar of federal Indian policy in the United States — the federal government therefore needed to reduce the number of sheep on Navajo lands so that the land (and the people) could remain healthy.

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A memorial outside City Hall in Toronto for Colton Boushie and Tina Fontaine. / Photograph by Nick Estes (2018).

The story of New Lands and the clandestine efforts of Diné relocatees to make more room for their sheep by moving the state border demonstrates the fundamental colonialism of U.S. policies related to Navajo lands. Had Diné lands not been permanently reduced and surrounded by the United States through decades of colonial policy, livestock reduction would not have been necessary. Diné people are highly mobile. They move according to the seasons, they follow their livestock to fertile grazing lands, and they have an incredibly expansive view of territory, kinship, and labor. This expansive view describes their general relationship with land. Borders do not matter in this view. It it relationality (with other humans, with sheep, and with the land itself) that dictates how different family and political units are meant to share space and approach mutual land use practices. The issue in the 1930s was thus not that the Diné had too many sheep; it was that they did not have the adequate land base to accommodate their expansive and mobile approach to relationality. Why? Because the United States, through active colonial projects that sought to liquidate Indigenous land holdings in order to open up space for white settlement and economic growth, had imposed hard borders and laws of containment — otherwise known as “Indian reservations” — to enclose Diné people, sheep, and life. The goal? To prevent them from interfering with settler colonialism and capitalism, two pillars of the United States.

Melanie sympathizes with her Zuni relatives to the east who, like her own people, are forced to contend with the constant encroachment, conceit, and condescension of the U.S.’s colonial Indian policies. They also contend with the unruly and defiant relationship that her people maintain with the same land. Being an Indigenous nation surrounded by thousands of Navajos who continue to enact an expansive and highly mobile relationship with their territory — regardless of the fences, police, laws or oil rigs in the way — cannot be easy. But her intention in repeating the story relayed to her by her Zuni boss is not to deride or cast judgement on her people (or his). Rather, this story is a poignant snapshot of the assemblages, layers, and constellations of carcerality that characterize the topic of this issue: “settler colonialism in Turtle Island.” New Lands, Ramah, the Long Walk, Black Mesa, and the Chilchitah checkerboard region, all show how carcerality and its multiple intersecting logics of containment, management, surveillance, (dis)possession, exploitation, extraction, detainment, coercion, elimination, enclosure, and removal are persistent and violent modalities of settler colonialism that the Diné cannot escape no matter where they live in the larger geography of the Navajo Nation. Whether it be through police harassment on Black Mesa, the selling off of thousands of acres of land in the checkerboard region for oil and gas exploitation, the detainment and elimination of sheep, the removal of families from one region to another without their consent, or the imposition of borders and boundaries that dictate where they (and their sheep) can and cannot go, Diné people experience settler colonialism through carceral entanglements carved into the land; their land.

As Jennifer Denetdale notes in her contributing article to this issue on bordertown violence, “the dispossession and expropriation of Native lands are upheld by a jurisdictional authority that benefits capitalists and settlers. The intention is to literally eliminate […] all that Indigenous life is dependent upon — for the benefit of settlers.” Settler colonialism transforms land — and our relationship with it as Indigenous peoples — into spaces and zones defined by carcerality. The purpose? To manage us. To contain us. To create a complex maze of jurisdictions that multiply ensnare us and make us trespassers on our own land. To facilitate our criminalization and, ultimately, our disappearance, so that capitalists and settlers can have the free and unrestricted access to land they so desperately need in order to fulfill their insatiable desire for wealth and power. Put another way, all spaces (urban, private, public, municipal, trust) in the United States are made and remade through the continual and nonconsensual theft of Indigenous land, life, and resources.

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New Mexico Dream Team protest at the so-called U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, Texas. / Photograph by Melissa Tso (2018).

But this story is about more than the violence of fences or death marches from one open air prison to another. It also about the depth of anti-colonial resistance to these policies. Although Melanie’s Zuni boss ended his story with a snarl of contempt, muttering, “That’s a Navajo for you,” Melanie walked away from that story smiling. The act of moving an official state border (without permission or remorse) is a brilliant form of refusal on the part of the New Lands Diné. It is a refusal to recognize artificial state borders that cut across their ancestral territory. It is a refusal to consent to laws that require them to self-eliminate through denying their sheep the space to graze and move freely. It is a refusal to stop being Diné. This refusal is central to Indigenous traditions of decolonization that have historically pivoted on the transformation of our collective relationship with land. What has perhaps been less clear in these traditions, however, is the role of carcerality and abolition. Indeed, if the politics of space in a settler society is carceral by design, then Indigenous resistance to settler colonialism must be abolitionist in character. This is the argument that Nick makes in his contributing article to this issue. “While it is important to document the nightmare of settler colonialism,” he writes, “it is also profoundly urgent to examine the deep radical consciousness of allied struggles that co-create liberated spaces and communities of freedom, past and present.”

In previous work, Nick developed the concept of “anti-Indian common sense” to describe naturalized, violent process of North American settler colonialism and the elimination of Indigenous peoples, especially in white-dominated cities and towns where the vast majority of Native people today reside. In their interview for this issue, Desiree Martinez and Cindi Alvitre, two Tongva women from what is now known as Los Angeles, California, describe the invisibility and erasure they experience as Indigenous peoples whose ancestral homelands have been completely transformed by mass-scale urban development. “We are the one percenters of the one percenters with LA’s Native american population being the 1%, but we are the 1% of that 1%. There’s such a misunderstanding and a lack of education.” Speaking about the same topic, Mishuana Goeman argues in her contributing interview that “Thinking of cities as not Native land comes from colonial geographies where the only authenticity is the reservation, which is in itself is a colonial construction. […] So how do we begin to think of this and recognize people whose land we’re on at every stage of our lives?” The work that Martinez, Alvitre, and Goeman have done through Mapping Indigenous LA, a project featured in this issue, underscores how cities — often not thought of as Indigenous spaces — are central to the spatial politics of both settler colonialism and decolonization in Turtle Island.

The carcerality of settler colonialism is also deeply temporal, attempting to choke off the viability of an Indigenous future by primarily targeting for destruction the embodiment of that future — Indigenous youth. In 2018, one hundred years after the closing of the Carlisle Industrial Indian School, the horrific mass incarceration of migrant children at the U.S.-Mexico border swept international headlines. Carlisle was the progenitor of the notorious and widespread off-reservation boarding school system in Canada and the U.S., where countless Indigenous children were imprisoned, tortured, disappeared, and sometimes outright killed. The mass detaining of migrant children today, who are also forcefully separated from their families in prison camps and are threatened with adoption into white families, is a continuation of the genocidal logics of Native elimination, which happens both inside and outside the U.S. — demonstrating settler colonialism has always been a transnational project and that land and borders (recognized and unrecognized) are still violently contested. Many of these young people are from Indigenous nations who are fleeing violence in their own homelands, which has only been exacerbated by U.S. foreign policy. To avoid public scrutiny, the kids imprisoned in Texas facilities were moved from detention camp to detention camp in the cover of darkness. The whole affair is merely a continuation of ongoing U.S. and Canadian policies of Indian child removal, to say nothing of the millions of African children taken from their families to be sold into slavery, or whose descendents are currently imprisoned in juvenile detention or killed by police. In the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries, countless North American Indigenous children were removed from their homes, transported hundreds of miles away by rail, often marched through white settlements at night, and imprisoned in boarding schools. Thousands died in these prison schools. Still many more were sexually and physically abused. And an unknown number disappeared. Today, Carlisle, the site of the old boarding school in the small Pennsylvania town by the same name, where hundreds of Native who died there still remain buried, is an active military base home to the Army War College, which trains U.S. military personnel in counterinsurgency tactics against civilian populations around the world.

While child removal policies have scarred generations of Indigenous children and families, they have also scarred the land shaping contemporary struggles against extractive capitalism. For example, the current proposed route for the Keystone XL pipelines cuts through heart of the Great Sioux Reservation, the Lakota lands “ceded” to the U.S. during the so-called 1889 Great Sioux Agreement. During his initial visit to Lakota Country, Richard Henry Pratt, the founder of the Carlisle Indian School, was ordered to take Lakota children to crush the Indigenous leadership’s “hostile attitude toward the government.” “The children would be hostages for the good behavior of their people,” wrote Pratt of his mission to Lakota lands. In other words, take the children, detain and incarcerate them indefinitely, to force the leaders to open their land for white settlement through the allotment system. Although initially unsuccessful, his successors eventually coerced the Lakotas to concede, with threats of violence, forced starvation, and the taking of more children. After “agreeing” to accept the breakup of remaining communal lands into individual plots, however, violence, hunger, and theft of youth only increased. And the path carved out for the Keystone XL pipeline through Lakota treaty territory today is only possible because of allotment and white settlement; and the pipeline’s trespass is only possible because the U.S. stole, and continues to steal, Indigenous children.

This is perhaps why the Indigenous youth who survived boarding schools had played such an integral role in the anti-colonial movement known as the Ghost Dance at the end of the 19th century, to protest the imposed starvation and prison conditions on the reservations that they returned to. After all, Indians dancing was an illegal act at the time. A bleak existence, the disillusioned youth were simply transported from one prisoner of war camp (the reservation), to another prisoner of war camp (the boarding school), and back to a prisoner of war camp (the reservation). The Ghost Dance movement was a response to this carceral system of elimination; it promised the annihilation of the colonial system of prisons and the revitalization of an Indigenous lifeworld that could be danced back into existence. Because it posed such a threat to U.S. colonial rule, half the standing U.S. military was deployed to crush a starving and disarmed people, culminating in the massacre of 300 Lakota Ghost Dancers at Wounded Knee in 1890. Such a mass mobilization of the occupying military and its police forces in Lakota and Dakota territory occurred again in 1973, during the Wounded Knee takeover by Red Power activists, and in 2016, during the uprising at Standing Rock led by Indigenous youth Water Protectors.

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Albuquerque’s fourth annual Indigenous Peoples Day march. / Photograph by The Red Nation (2018).

History is hardly the past, and the land and its people are hardly settled. Quite the opposite is true, bearing in mind the relentless genocidal assault on Indigenous life, especially the young. Consider U.S. President Obama’s visit to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in 2014 — one of only eight sitting U.S. presidents to visit an Indian reservation. The visit inspired his administration to create and implement the Generation Indigenous program “to ensure all young Native people can reach their full potential.” Two years later, when Standing Rock youth runners ran thousands of miles across the country to petition Obama to halt the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which trespassed through their treaty lands and threatened their water, he turned his back on the very young people he promised to protect. And Obama sat idly by as these Indigenous youth organizers were pepper-sprayed, tear-gassed, mauled by attack dogs, sprayed with water cannons in freezing weather, and brutalized by police while trying to protect their water, their source of life—thus the Lakota phrase, Mni Wiconi, water is life, that became popular during the uprising. It was, after all, Obama’s “all-of-the-above” energy policy that, with declining Venezuelan imports of crude, increased domestic oil and gas production by 88% during his tenure to drill the U.S. economy out of the Great Recession largely at the expense of Indigenous livelihoods, lands, and waters, a process that set into motion the construction of a transnational networked infrastructure of oil pipelines like Dakota Access, and now Keystone XL.

The North American oil and gas boom already underway was mere kindling for the Trump administration to set the world on fire. Trump’s self-proclaimed policy of “American Carnage” has opened billions of acres for offshore drilling, threatening circumpolar Indigenous nations as ice sheets melt and global temperatures rise, and has opened millions of acres of the Bears Ears National Monument, a once-protected Indigenous sacred site in the Southwest, for coal and uranium mining. An increasingly far-right leaning judiciary also recently struck down the Indian Child Welfare Act, reversing a four-decade-old law that helped prevent the forced removal by state institutions of Native children from their homes and the placement of them into white families and foster care. Whether it is Democrats or Republicans in power in the U.S., one thing is clear: settler colonialism and imperialism remain fully functional and Indigenous people pay the price, especially the young.

Indigenous youth historically are the biggest threat to settler states not only because they represent the future of Indigenous nations but also because they are at the forefront of radical Indigenous movements. In this issue, Jaskiran Dhillon characterizes Indigenous youth “quite literally [as] the physical and political embodiment of resistance to settler state violence and also the clearest reminder to the state that the land that they have built their society on top of, does not belong to them.” And increasingly today Indigenous youth confront the settler state not on the reservation but in the city and in what is called in Indigenous vernacular, the bordertown, the white-dominated settlements that ring Indian reservations where persistent patterns of violence and discrimination define everyday Native life. Dhillon shows in her book, Prairie Rising: Indigenous Youth, Decolonization, and the Politics of Intervention (2017), that Canadian settler cities like Saskatoon, which are typically seen as white spaces, are also spaces of containment, where settler states try to manage the “Indian Problem” by targeting Indigenous children for state intervention and care when in fact it is the settler state that is also the primary purveyor of violence that makes Indigenous children vulnerable in the first place.

In his poem “The Station Wagon” featured in this issue, Lakota writer Joel Water recounts his childhood traversing the contested on-and off-reservation spaces of the Northern Plains. In his childhood imagination, the prairie is an ocean and his mother’s beat-up station wagon a sailboat traveling unfriendly waters, facing racist police officers in hostile border towns, and showing the literal traffic of Indigenous life between city and reservation. It is a clever reversal of roles — since it was colonizers who first arrived by water and by ship. The European is romanticized as a highly mobile voyager and traveler bringing civilization to North America. Conversely, Indigenous peoples’ mobility is demonized in order to justify their removal and make their deaths, confinement, and incarceration appear as a necessary part of the
civilizing process. They become a spatially and temporally transient people whose presence has to be constantly disavowed or removed to make way for the “real” people and the “real” nation of intrepid white explorers.

This is the most valuable contribution actual decolonization offers: not merely a break with the past or the changing of words, holidays, or statues, but the entire, radical reordering of space (beyond Turtle Island) and a radical reorientation of our relationship to the earth and nonhuman world, a temporal and spatial diffusion of Indigenous justice for settler crimes against history and the planet. Yet, while the world burns and so-called “First World” countries like Canada and the U.S. imperil the livelihoods of the rest of the world, it is important to return to the actual first world that existed (and still exists) in Turtle Island, in spite of and in resistance to European settler empires. In fact, that world — a world in which many worlds fit, as the Zapatistas remind us — is making an historic and monumental challenge to white supremacist empires like the U.S. and Canada, and will continue to do so, so long as the nightmares of settler colonialism and capitalism stalk the globe. As guest editors to this issue of The Funambulist, our humble objective is to merely highlight some of the many Indigenous decolonization efforts across Turtle Island. We hope these stories will inspire the reader the way they have inspired us.