Notes from WATERtea:

“Settler Colonialism–The Displacement of People”

with Marian Ronan

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

The audio recording is available here and the video recording is available here.

Introduction, Mary E. Hunt

Welcome one and all to WATER’s September 28, 2021 WATERtea with Marian Ronan, a longtime friend of WATER who will introduce us to the ins and outs of Settler Colonialism. WATER programs are aimed at supporting and igniting social change. Whether in theology, ethics, or ritual, WATER’s efforts are geared to bring together solid academic/scholarly data with the activist commitments of our Alliance. In accord with our commitment to anti-racism, we put a priority on learning about and acting to eradicate injustice. Colonialism in its many forms is just one such issue.

Marian Ronan is Research Professor of Catholic Studies at New York Theological Seminary in Manhattan and a long-time member of the Grail, a women’s movement in nineteen countries around the world. She was a member of the faculty at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, from 1999 to 2009. She is the author or co-author of hundreds of articles and reviews and of seven books, most recently, in 2017, Women of Vision: Sixteen Founders of the International Grail Movement, (with Mary O’Brien).

Marian and I met at Grailville in 1975, in our youth. We were educated and challenged, nurtured, and cared for by wonderful Grail women like Eleanor Walker and Janet Kalven, many of whom have died leaving us and our colleagues to carry on their spirits to the best of our abilities.

I hope Marian has an autobiography on the fire as a few excerpts from the longer sketch she sent me will make obvious:

             “After completing a BA in Religion at Temple University in 1970, Marian got an MS in Education and taught the fourth grade for three years, after which the Lord Jesus appeared to her and said, ‘Marian you are simply terrible at this. Stop it!’ So, she joined the staff at Grailville, the Grail’s farm and national center in Southwest Ohio.”

             “During her five years there, Marian edited the Grail Prayer Book, including writing an inclusive language paraphrase of the Psalms, and co-led programs that formed the basis of her first three, co-authored, books:  Image-Breaking, Image Building: A Creative Worship Handbook for Women of Christian Tradition; Sophia: The Future of Feminist Spirituality; and Wisdom’s Feast: Sophia in Study and Celebration.”

There is a longer story here—an MDiv at New York Theological Seminary in NYC, a PhD in Religion at Temple University, a deep commitment to living in racially mixed places and a long and rich career in writing, administration, and teaching. She is active is SEPA WOC, the Philadelphia area Women’s Ordination Conference group.

A final excerpt from her autobiography will give the flavor for her commitment. Her father, a shift worker and president of his local union taught her “the eleventh and greatest commandment, spouted regularly by her father: if you ever cross a picket line, you will go to hell”.

Thanks to Marian Ronan for a challenging presentation from an experienced teacher.

WATERtea Notes, Marian Ronan with additions by WATER Staff

  • This topic began after a friend in Toronto sent articles regarding the scandal of murdered indigenous children in Catholic residential schools in Canada
    • Can’t forget the wider context– many more groups are guilty of this, not just Catholics.
    • Recall the “happy grade school narrative:” Americans driving out evil British colonizers– Americans were not seen as the colonizers.
  • Perhaps a better revision of this presentation would be: “Settler Colonialism– the Disappearance of People.”
  • This is not a new concept. Colonialism has been carried out by European empires since the fifteenth century.

Colonialism: taking control of other people and areas, generally with the aim of economic dominance.

Settler Colonialism: domination of dense populations, primarily for their resources, usually with an added effort to assimilate that culture into that of the settlers.

  • Two books help with this distinction:
  1. Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration., Aviva Chomsky (Beacon Press, 2021)
  2. Ten Myths about Israel, Ilan Pappé (Verso, 2017)
  • Chomsky distinguishes between colonialism per se and “settler colonialism”
    • Chomsky’s colonialism example: Spanish colonizers encountered densely populated indigenous empires in Central America. They then focused on dominating these empires because they possessed well-developed systems for extracting resources and labor.
    • Chomsky’s settler colonialism example: English colonizers, coming more than a century later, found much smaller populations so spread out that they were harder to control. The English thus set out to eliminate them and replace them with a white European population.
  • Pappé traces roots of settler colonialism back to 19th century German Protestant Pietism.
    • The Pietists believed that by settling themselves in Palestine, they would precipitate the Second Coming.
    • These Pietists established a colony in Haifa in 1866, which was later imitated by early Zionists and Jewish settlers.
    • By 1917, European enthusiasm for resettling Jews in Palestine led to the British Balfour Declaration promising full support for the creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine.
    • Ronan Note: I realize that any criticism of Israel risks charges of anti-Semitism, so let’s get back to settler colonialism in the West.
  • Patrick Wolfe (Australian ethnographer) argues that “Settler-colonialism is a form of colonialism that is exclusive. It’s a ‘winner take all’, a zero-sum game, whereby outsiders come to a country and seek to take it away from the people who already live there– remove them, replace them, displace them, take over the country, and make it their own.” His book: Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology (University of Michigan, 1998) shows that biased Western anthropology dehumanized Indigenous people and thus justified making them disappear.
    • In particular, the disappearing of Indigenous people was to make land permanently available for agriculture.
    • Wolfe calls this mindset the “logic of elimination.”
  • Such “logic of elimination” has been ongoing in American history.
    • It was a cause of the American Revolution: before the Stamp Tax, Washington sent men west of the Appalachians to capture land given to tribes by George II as a reward for their collaboration in the French and Indian War.
    • By the presidency of James Monroe (1817-1825), the United States had Native Americans cleared from all states north of the Ohio River to free up land for crops.
    • In the South, the same elimination happened to make land available for cotton plantations.
    • All this led to the “Trail of Tears” between 1830 and 1850– the removal of Cherokee, Muskogee, Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations to “Indian Territory” West of the Mississippi River, resulting in the death of 4,000 Cherokee people alone.
  • Intrinsic problem: the “removal” strategy was the end of the Frontier.
    • When the US territory reached the Pacific, there was no more land to give to Indigenous persons to move them around– the US needed new strategies to continue the disappearance of Indigenous people.
    • One solution: reservations
    • Second solution: allotments (awarding individual members of tribes parcels of land which they were free to sell to White settlers in exchange for giving up their tribal rights).
  • The problem with allotments: The very idea of “individual” allotments undercut completely the communal identity of Indigenous tribes.
    • There were parallel efforts at assimilation—forcing indigenous children into schools with no native languages allowed.
    • Abolish indigenous identities as members of sovereign states.
  • US also passed legislation to abolish all recognition of tribes as sovereign states. Since the US only made treaties with sovereign states, this abolished all treaty rights.
  • Settler colonialism, indigenous identity and racism are interlinked.
    • Blood quantum rule: 1890s declaration that only those who had at least 50% Indian blood could even qualify for allotments. (Historians call this “disappearance under the skin”!)
    • Contrast with the “one drop of blood” rule— you never stop being a slave, or later, segregated, because of the existence of “one drop” of “Black blood.”
  • These racial blood distinctions were used to justify different kinds of expropriation. Black Americans were primarily colonized for their labor, and thus the colonizers wanted to keep them around. Native Americans were colonized for their land, so the colonizers needed to disappear them to take the land.
    • With this kind of expropriation in mind, Whites in power have targeted indigenous blood for absorption—assimilation. Less than 50% Indian blood, you disappear.
    • Indians were therefore routinely stereotyped as a “dying race.”
    • But Black Americans could never assimilate– not a dying race, but a race meant to be controlled.
  • The US engaged in some of the most extensive settler colonialism in history.
    • Though it must be admitted that the importation of smallpox and other diseases by the Spanish as well as the later English colonizers probably wiped out more of the indigenous populations of the Americas than any subsequent political actions did.
    • Still, approximately ten million indigenous people lived in what is now the United States in 1492. By 1900, that number was under 300,000.
  • Should settler colonialism be called “genocide?”
    • Back to Patrick Wolfe, who acknowledges that some of the most recognized genocides—the Holocaust, Armenia, Darfur, and so forth, —are not examples of settler colonialism.
    • However, Wolfe argues that the “logic of elimination” mentioned earlier underpins something he calls “structural genocide.”

Structural genocide: a more gradual, nuanced elimination of groups over long periods, full of more discontinuities and contradictions than “genocide,” but equally as devastating, which may not be recognized as clearly as other acts of mass murders and eliminations of people.

  • The era of settler colonialism in the US is not behind us.
    • After all, according to the Indian Reorganization Act, passed under FDR, tribes were reestablished, but only if the official structure of the tribe was entirely compatible with the institutions of US society– thereby ridding the US of any now-unassimilable features of Native American tribes.
    • In 1953, under the leadership of Utah senator Arthur V. Watkins, the US Congress passed Concurrent Resolution 108, which made “termination” of native tribes the Federal Government’s ongoing policy. This resulted in the termination of 113 tribal nations, costing these nations their rights to be treated differently than other Americans, as well as all Federal Guardianship responsibilities for their resources.
    • Very recently, after Hurricane Ida did enormous damage to Southern Louisiana, Theresa Dardar (a Grail member), was informed that her tribe was not eligible for federal assistance to reverse the storm’s effects because their tribe was not recognized by the federal government– climate change is the new form of disappearance!
  • At a time when statues of Confederate generals and slave owners are being regularly overturned here in the US, perhaps the founder of our settler colonialism, George Washington, deserves the same treatment.
    • We must always remember, and work for, the mass of reparations the US owes to the Native Americans who have been disappeared throughout our history.

Reflection Questions

  1. What do we know now about settler colonialism?
  2. What do we still need to learn?
  3. What do we do with this information?

Additional Resources


National Day of Reconciliation, September 30, Canada

National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, September 2016

What Is the Doctrine of Discovery? (via Unitarian Universalist Association)

Articles, Media, Learning, Documentary

Secrets of Spirit Lake, Dateline special, Documentary

How The Supreme Court Has Hurt Renters After Hurricane Ida

“Indigenous Canada” offered from University of Alberta through Coursera (free, online course)

Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice by Novalis (Dialogue guide)

Recognizing Indigenous Communities in Hurricane Ida Recovery

Secrets of Spirit Lake, Dateline special

Books (Mentioned in Presentation)

Chomsky, A. (2021). Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and
the Roots of Migration
. Beacon Press.

Erdrich, L. (2020). Night Watchman. CORSAIR.

Pappé Ilan. (2017). Ten Myths About Israel. Verso.

Wolfe, P. (1998). Settler Colonialism. Bloomsbury Academic.

Books (Mentioned in Discussion)

Kalven, J. (1999). Women Breaking Boundaries: A Grail Journey, 1940-1995. State
University of New York Press.

Kalven, J., & Buckley, M. I. (Eds.). (1984). Women’s Spirit Bonding. Pilgrim Press.

Newcomb, S. T. (2008). Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of          Christian Discovery. Fulcrum Publishing.

To Go with your Tea: Cookies of Joy by Saint Hildegard of Bingen

A Prayer from Rev. Cynthia Tootle

Almighty God, creator of us all!

We ask you to bless us and hear our prayers on this day our country celebrates its independence.

We pray with a sense of proud and of shame for the country that has such lofty ideals of unalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness and such history of inequality, persecution, and violence.

Our founding fathers came to a land of beauty and sophisticated peoples and proceeded to kill them and drive them from their lands. They treated with them and broke those treaties–to this day. They sought freedom of religion for themselves as they crushed the spiritual beliefs of those peoples and disrespected their scared lands–to this day.

The founding fathers felt the constitution needed to explicitly state rights for citizens. We all know those rights but those rights were/are. When the beloved wife of a founding father wrote as they considered the constitution of the new country, “Remember the Ladies” they didn’t.

Women and children had no rights nor protection from the “head of the Household”. Decades of struggle were needed for women to obtain the right to vote and the struggle continues for full equality of women in our country, for safety of women and children in a culture of misogyny and violence.

Almighty God, another most grievous fault of this country has been its foundation on the enslavement of people. It took us over 100 years and a civil war to legally set enslaved people free and we continue in all aspects of our government and culture to begin to see freedom and true equality for the descendants of those enslaved peoples.

Our country has and continues to allow persecution and harassment of   LGBT people. To this day there are places in this country where a couple can be legally fired because of a legal marriage, where minors are living in the streets because parents won’t have a gay child in their home. All this and more.

Almighty God, we humbly pray that the country we love be helped and supported in radical change, in release of old patterns, of learning to live in freedom and justice for all. Please, guide us and our leaders and politicians to compassion and love. Guide us that as that Good Samaritan, we might be Good Americans.