D is for Disappeared: Settler Colonialism and the Disappearing ‘Indian’

A few months ago, my daughter came home proud about having made some of her friends laugh.

‘Pet Dinosaur’ by Rob the Doodler

Apparently, she had said, in the context of learning about pre-contact First Nations, that First Nations still exist.  She said that her sisters were “First Nation”.  Some of the kids laughed, she thought, because they didn’t believe her, couldn’t believe that First Nations were not long gone.  It was as if she had told her friends that she had a pet Tyrannosaurus Rex.

My son wandered into the dining room for the tail end of our conversation. “First Nations don’t exist!” he laughed, eerily replicating the dynamic my daughter described. This from a kid whose oldest two sisters are Saulteaux. Clearly, as a parent, I am implicated in this confusion, but its hard to fathom how a kid living with Indigenous sisters, can still see Indigenous peoples as extinct.

Such is the power of our nation-wide mythic and distorted storytelling about Indigenous peoples as ancient and obsolete. Even kids with Indigenous family members fall for it.

For many years I did not teach about pre-contact Indigenous cultures. I was too afraid of supporting, in any way, the idea that Indigeneity was fixed in the past. For years I jumped straight into 1874 and the signing of Treaty 4 with next to no historical context. I figured out that this was pretty short-sighted after a visit to the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, where it became abundantly clear that this was quite a large omission on my part.

So now I start all my units on pre-contact Cree and Saulteaux First Nations with a formal caveat.  I tell my class that I didn’t teach about this for many years for fear that my students would believe that First Nations peoples were extinct. One year, an Indigenous student piped up: “Yeah, madame, First Nations still exist.  If they were extinct, I wouldn’t be here!”. There was an outpouring of agreement from the students in the room. But I could see the wheels turning.  I could see that for many of my students, this was the first time they were connecting tipis and headdresses and bows and arrows to living and breathing Indigenous people today.

Danny and the Dinosaur by Syd Hoff

During this unit introduction, I also make a promise that I will not stop in the past, that this unit will take us right up until the present.  I tell my students that it is very important to understand that Indigenous peoples have not gone anywhere, that their cultures and languages persist, despite all that I am about to tell them about small pox, bison decimation, the Indian Act, Residential schools, the pass system…

It’s an uphill battle.  We are surrounded by images and narratives that fix Indigenous peoples in the distant past. Children’s books are littered with these antiquated and problematic depictions.  My students are excited to be learning about Indigenous peoples so they bring to class all sorts of Indigenous “stuff” to show me.  Unfortunately, most of it requires deconstructing.

Foreign Children by Robert Louis Stevenson

My students are excited to share these representations of Indigenous peoples, in part, because they are so rare.  And how depressing is that?  It’s hard to find any representations of Indigenous people and when we do it is all so wrong.

Fryberg & Stephens (2010) contend that “American Indians are so underrepresented in various contexts (e.g., media, school) that they experience an extreme form of colorblindness; they are invisible,” (p.115).  Furthermore, in the rare instances when Indigenous peoples are represented, the “popular media most commonly depicts American Indians as 18th- and 19th-century figures, such as Pocahontas, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, and Chief Joseph, and rarely depicts them in contemporary ways, as doctors, lawyers, teachers, or business people,” (p.116).

This is no accident.

The Settler-native-slave triad by Eve Tuck (2013)

We are living in a Settler colonial state, i.e. a country that began as a colony but where the settlers have stayed. A common depiction of the cast of characters in Settler Colonialism is triangular (Wolfe, 2006; Tuck & Yang, 2012; Veracini, 2011).  This is sometimes referred to as the settler-native-slave triad (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p.7).  The Settler is at the top.  The Settler needs land, and labour to work the land, to produce capital. (Capitalism and colonialism are intimately entwined.)  At the bottom of the triangle is the slave. The slave’s body is needed to work the land. Slaves are not allowed to own land and are the property of the land owner.  Also at the bottom is the native. Settler Colonialism wants Indigenous land but not Indigenous people, so they are cleared out to make way for colonial ‘progress’. Indigenous peoples are depicted as extinct, disappeared, savage and incapable of using land in a ‘civilized’ way.  They are symbolically removed as part of being physically removed.

One Drop Rule infographic by Curtis Brooks

A clear way of seeing how this works is by looking at the racial taxonomy used by colonial states to differentially identify and classify Black and Indigenous people.  Black bodies are valuable as sources of labour.  Therefore, Black identity was constructed as inclusive so that the offspring of slaves automatically became slaves themselves, thereby further enriching the slave owner.  This is known as the “one-drop rule“, which dictates that any amount of African ancestry, no matter how distant, makes a person Black.  For a contemporary example, consider President Barack Obama, widely touted as the first Black American president even though he is as Black as he is White. It is easy to be identified as Black.

Blood Quantum by Marty Two Bulls Sr.

In stark contrast, Indigenous identity is constructed as restrictive. Indigenous people interfere with Settlers’ access to land, so their population increase is “counterproductive” (Wolfe, 2006, p.388). Vowel (2016) bluntly summarizes how Canada restricts Indigenous identity under the Indian Act. “Essentially, you are no longer an Indian once an Indian parent and an Indian grandparent have married out. That amounts to extermination of your identity in two generations,” (p.77).  In our family’s case, my Saulteaux daughters must marry Indigenous men for them to be able to pass on their Indian Status to their children. To this day, blood quantum rules continue to administratively disappear Indigenous people, making it difficult to be identified as Indigenous.

Settler colonialism requires both Black and Indigenous destruction, but in radically different ways. Settler colonialism restricts Indigenous identities and destroys and disappears Indigenous peoples in order to turn Indigenous land into property.  Settler colonialism destroys the humanity of slaves in order to turn Black people into property. Tuck (2013) argues that understanding settler colonialism “helps us to see that racism is not human nature; it was invented to explain stealing land and stealing people for labor,” (slide 14).  (See R.L. Stephens II’s blog post ‘How White People Invented Racism‘ for a good summary of this invention.)

Stealing land by pretending that Indigenous peoples do not exist is the oldest trick in the book.  From the very beginning, colonial occupation was informed by the concepts of terra nullius and the Doctrine of Discovery, both claiming North America as an empty land, a land claimed by no one.  These policies have not changed.  Indigenous peoples continue to face erasure, so that the Settler state can take their land.

“Standing Rock Rising” by Ryan Redhawk

In a time of oil pipelines and increasing resource extraction, the deliberate disappearing of Indigenous peoples becomes even more conspicuous.  The Dakota Access Pipeline is an excellent example of this. The U.S Army Corps of Engineers originally considered a Dakota Access Pipeline route north of Bismarck but abandoned the idea, in part to protect the capital city’s municipal water supply. The pipeline was then redirected through the Standing Rock Reservation’s water supply.  The Standing Rock Sioux are an Indigenous community with legal, Treaty-based title to land, who oppose a pipeline being built through their territory which will threaten their water. The reaction by the pipeline company and the state was to proceed as if these people and this title to the land did not exist, as if the land were empty.  Herold (2016), argues that today’s protests at Standing Rock “can only be fully understood in light of this colonial legacy, which from the beginning proclaimed that native lands were empty and that native people, were, in effect, nothing more than the rocks, the trees, the water that they now so valiantly strive to protect,” (par. 25).

Dakota Access Pipeline Route Map by Energy Transfer Partners

This empty-land narrative is and always has been partially constructed through maps.  In regards to Standing Rock, cartographer Carl Sack, makes the point that the map provided by the pipeline company (Energy Transfer Partners) to explain the project is deliberately vague, a simple dotted line over highlighted counties on a generic road map. Sack writes that “this kind of view erases the people affected by the pipeline – quite literally, by covering over their communities with a hot pink gradient fill,” (Dec. 2, 2016, par. 6).  One of the first steps towards claiming Indigenous land is to erase Indigenous presence from the maps.

This disappearing act extends to classrooms as well as maps, as the experiences of my own children illustrate. When children in 2016 laugh incredulously at the idea that First Nations still exist, we know that we have done an excellent job perpetuating the smoke and mirrors of colonialism.

And we teachers are the best magicians.  By selectively teaching partial history lessons…  By focusing almost exclusively on pre-Contact Indigenous presence (if we teach about Indigenous peoples at all)…  By celebrating only the parts of Indigenous culture that are firmly fixed in the past… We give our students a clear message that Indigenous peoples no longer exist.  And by so doing, we make it all the easier for colonization to continue.


Davis, F. (1991). Who is Black? One Nation’s Definition. Excerpt reproduced at PBS: Frontline.  Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/jefferson/mixed/onedrop.html

Fryberg, S. & Stephens, N. (2010). When the World is Colorblind, American Indians are Invisible: A Diversity Science Approach. Psychological Inquiry. 21(2), 115-119.

Herold, K. (2016, Nov. 14). Terra Nullius and the History of Broken Treaties at Standing Rock. Intercontinental Cry: A publication of the Center for World Indigenous Studies.  Retrieved from: https://intercontinentalcry.org/terra-nullius-history-broken-treaties-standing-rock/

Sack, C. (2016, Dec. 2). A #NoDAPL Map. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/a-nodapl-map_us_581a0623e4b014443087af35

Stephens, R. (2014, Aug. 4). How White People Invented Racism. Orchestrated Pulse. Retrieved from: http://www.orchestratedpulse.com/2014/08/racism-white/

Tuck, E. (2013, April 12). Settler Colonialism an Overview Prezi. Retrieved from: https://prezi.com/_3ldicckpppa/settler-colonialism-an-overview/

Tuck, E. & Yang, W. (2012). Decolonization is not a metaphor. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society. 1(1), 1-40. Retrieved from: http://decolonization.org/index.php/des/article/view/18630/15554

Vowel, C. (2016). Indigenous Writes: A Guide to First Nations, Métis & Inuit Issues in Canada. Winnipeg, Canada: Highwater Press.

Wolfe, P. (2006). Settler colonialism and the elimination of the native. Journal of Genocide Research. 8(4), 387-409.

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