In order to find a link between colonialism and racism we do not have to look very hard. White supremacy survives and thrives in colonial states even today, as we try harder and harder to show that white supremacy is wrong and damaging to everyone. When Columbus first came to the Americas, he clearly saw the indigenous populations as weaker and less than his European brethren. We can see this by the names colonizers gave to the occupants of the Americas. As history in the Americas lumbered on there is a lot of evidence showing that colonial states perpetually reinforce the idea that people of color are inferior and do not deserve the same rights as those descendants of white Europeans.
When Europeans first arrived, they saw that the people in the Americas looked differently than they did, were not Christian, and spoke strange languages. For European invaders, this meant that they were superior than the Indigenous populations already residing on the land. For instance, when the thief, murderer, and slave trader Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas and observed the Arawak of the Bahamas he stated, “They…brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They willingly traded everything they owned…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them, for I showed them a sword, they took it by the edge and cut themselves out of ignorance…. With 50 men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want.”1 In short, he found that the Arawak people were so generous and peaceful that they should be subjugated. Clearly, he found that his colonial, capitalist, violent, Christian ways were superior to the Arawak. After all, what kind of person gives all that they have and feels no need for violent weapons?
When Europeans came to the Americas, rather than learning the names of the people that were established here, began designating them in their own ways. The European invaders named many of the Indigenous peoples “Sioux”. Sioux is from the Anishinaabe word for “enemy” or “snake”. This was the name given to the Lakota, Dakota, and Nakota peoples. Designating someone or something as “enemy” or “snake” shows a great disrespect and a racist ideology. In European/Christian mythology the snake is not to be trusted. It was the snake that tempted Eve to eat the Apple (A very nutritious food) and thus lead to the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden. They called the Tsistsistas Nation “Cheyenne”, a French version of the Lakota meaning for “talks funny”. They used “Tonto”, which means “stupid” or “silly” in Spanish, for some Apache peoples.2 This list goes on. What all the names have in common is that they are derogatory and they show us that the white European invaders believed themselves to be superior to the inhabitants of the Americas.
In the 1600’s Europeans brought commercial bounty-hunting to North America. “They first paid fur trappers and other mercenaries for the heads and whole bodies of Native men, women, and children.”3 However, this became too difficult, so the payers of the bounties would accept “bloody red skins and scalps as proof of ‘Indian Kill’”4 These people did not see Indigenous people as people, but less than. They saw them as something to be dealt with and extinguished, solely on the basis that they were the Indigenous inhabitants of this land that the European colonizers were violently stealing.
Let us move forward in time a bit to July of 1776. This date may seem familiar since it was during this time that the Declaration of Independence was written and distributed. This is a document that many white people from the United States hold dear. It was a revolutionary document which tells us that, “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”5 This is a great start and it would be something to be proud of if it were not for the later declaration that, “He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction, of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions.”6 Indigenous peoples are here referred to as without mercy, brutal, and cruel. Here again, and in a foundational document no less, we see derogatory words being used in order to declare white supremacy and reinforce the idea that Indigenous people are inferior and thus must be subjugated.
Then there were the boarding schools in North America, which had the goal of “Killing the Indian and saving the man”. Boarding schools were terrible places that wanted to completely and forcibly assimilate Indigenous children. Based on the fact that they were Indigenous, colonizers argued that because Indigenous peoples were not white, Christian, English speaking capitalist, they should be taught the right way to live, the white European way. Children were stolen from their families and forced to live at or spend their days at the government funded boarding schools. The boarding schools were a terrible environment where children would be brutally punished for speaking their native languages, practicing traditional religions, or doing anything that was “Indian”.
Upon the creation of Canada in 1876, the Indian Act was born. This act determined who had “Indian Status”. “Indian Status” refers to the specific legal identity of Indigenous persons in Canada. Within this act we find that under the Indian Act those with “Indian Status” are considered wards of the state and treated like children who need to be led to the path which could “civilize” them. The Department of the Interior, in their 1876 Annual Report, states, “Our Indian legislation generally rests on the principle, that the aborigines are to be kept in a condition of tutelage and treated as wards or children of the State. …the true interests of the aborigines and of the State alike require that every effort should be made to aid the Red man in lifting himself out of his condition of tutelage and dependence, and that is clearly our wisdom and our duty, through education and every other means, to prepare him for a higher civilization by encouraging him to assume the privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship.”7
These are only a few instances and examples of how colonialism breads white supremacy and racism. There are many more examples historically and many more continuing today, like the invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory by Royal Canadian Mounted Police in order to put a pipeline on their unceded territory or the fact that settler/colonial Americans continually use Native American imagery as mascots.
When colonizers first invaded the Americas, they immediately saw that the Indigenous populations were different from themselves. They looked different, spoke strange languages, practiced non-Christian religions, and were extremely generous, thus, the invaders came to the conclusion that the Indigenous populations in the Americas were theirs for the taking. They wrongly decided that they were superior to the Indigenous peoples, this is reflected in language used to describe Indigenous peoples, government policies, and in so much more.
2 For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook, ed. Waziyatawin, Angela Wilson, and Michael Yellow Bird, (Santa Fe, School of American Research, 2005).
7 Department of the Interior, Annual Report for the year ended 30th June, 1876 (Parliament, Sessional Papers, No. 11, 1877), p. xiv.
*This is part of a series on colonialism and decolonization