Commentary: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism, Part II

Lithography of a painting by A. Salm.

*A commentary on Part II of our Engagement thematic series, Life on the Frontier.

By Clint Carroll, University of Colorado Boulder §

Settler colonial studies offers a set of analytical tools that can help make sense of environmental practices and politics—and their resulting effects on people, other-than-human animals, and landscapes. Understanding the environmental impacts of settler colonialism, while unique in its engagement with this relatively new toolset, is not an entirely new endeavor. Dakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. painstakingly analyzed both U.S. colonialism (see, e.g., Deloria and Lytle 1984; Deloria 1985 [1974]; Deloria and Wilkins 1999) and the philosophical rifts between settler and Indigenous views toward land and other-than-humans (Deloria 1999; 2003 [1973]; 2012 [1979]). Other work in environmental history has taken up the similar task of describing colonial and imperial impacts on the land (White 1983; Cronon 1983; Crosby 1986; Merchant 1989). This critical environmental history examined landscape changes caused by contrasting and conflicting environmental ideologies and their accompanying practices. More recent work by political ecologists stresses environmental production as a conceptual lens through which to view such processes (Robbins 2004: 209).

And yet the analytic of settler colonialism—most often attributed to the groundbreaking work of Patrick Wolfe (but see also Kauanui 2016)—allows for new perspectives of environmental change and politics through the concepts of destruction/replacement, elimination, and the overall view of settler colonialism as a structure that continually replicates foreign ideologies in the service of settler control of land and the subjugation of Indigenous peoples (Wolfe 1999; 2006). Tracey Banivanua Mar and Penelope Edmonds nicely capture some of settler colonialism’s geopolitical manifestations:

the impact of settler colonialism is starkly visible in the landscapes it produces: the symmetrically surveyed divisions of land; fences, roads, power lines, dams and mines; the vast mono-cultural expanses of single-cropped fields; carved and preserved national forest, and marine and wilderness parks; the expansive and gridded cities; and the socially coded areas of human habitation and trespass that are bordered, policed, and defended. Land and the organized spaces on it, in other words, narrate the stories of colonisation. (2010: 2)

This picture points to how settler colonialism is entwined with the practices and logics of statecraft and capitalism, which Glen Coulthard and Nicholas Brown have taken up in their analyses of Indigenous dispossession (Coulthard 2014a) and conservation enclosures (Brown 2013).

Further, as Zoe Todd notes in her commentary to Part I of this series, settler colonialism disrupts both physical landscapes and relational systems. The eliminatory project of settler colonialism seeks to acquire land via the uprooting of Indigenous peoples; moreover, assimilatory acts of elimination also seek to uproot Indigenous relationships to land and other-than-humans. Settler ideologies thus work to transform “the environment” into a “thing” removed from the human domain, over which settlers then claim to have control. The beliefs and practices embedded within this foreign ideology are replicated through settler colonialism’s structural logic. Indigenous peoples confront those beliefs and practices both in punctuated acts of resistance—as in the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock—and in mundane, everyday realms such as tribal environmental bureaucracies, wherein tribal resource managers must continually navigate the legacy of the U.S. allotment policy (see, e.g., Royster 1995; Carroll 2014; Ford and Giles 2015).

The contributors in Part II of this Engagement series offer intriguing insights into how localized settler colonial beliefs and practices work to produce specific types of landscapes and social conditions. They present unique cases spanning the globe that speak to how we might understand the origins, pathways, and effects of these settler colonial logics. They also point to some important limitations of the field. I discuss them separately below, followed by an attempt at synthesis, constructive critique, and some thoughts moving forward.


James Blair describes the travel of settler ideologies and practices to the South Atlantic on the British Overseas Territory of South Georgia Island. The island was stage for the world’s first reindeer eradication, which the South Georgia government enlisted Saami reindeer herders to carry out using adapted knowledge and practices from their homelands in northern Scandinavia. The reindeer had been introduced to the island in the early 20th century by (presumably non-Saami) Scandinavians, but were slated for eradication by the British due to the ecologically-disastrous cascade-effects of their proliferation since that time.

Instead of displacing Indigenous peoples (of which there was purportedly no historical presence), Blair notes that the event showed how Indigenous peoples and their knowledge/practices were spatially and temporally translocated. Clashes with conservation officials about the manner in which to perform the task (the Saami emphasized deliberation; the officials favored efficiency) caused a disruption in the Saami herders’ work and ultimately led to an incomplete job that was later taken up by a Norwegian sharpshooter. Blair reports that local South Georgia residents despised the debacle in its cruelty and lack of concern for reindeer lives. These local narratives are interwoven with perspectives of visitors and conservationists that frame the island as terra nullius and pristine, invoking the settler narratives used to displace and uproot Indigenous peoples elsewhere. Here, however, indigeneity is brought in as an “outside” interlocutor that contests and disrupts settler natures, even as settlers frame themselves as quasi-Indigenous environmental defenders.

Julie Brugger presents a detailed history of US public land policy pertaining to lands in the arid west, and the tensions between cattle ranchers and anti-grazing environmental groups that have ensued over land management and ecological concerns. Her analysis highlights the uneasiness caused by the “multiple use” management framework of public lands, and how rancher livelihoods are precariously positioned within a history of range mismanagement and the resulting biases held by impassioned conservationists that are nonetheless unsupported by current range science.

This history informs her ethnographic work with ranchers and range managers in the Tonto Basin District of the Tonto National Forest in central Arizona, which seeks to facilitate positive working relationships between Forest Service staff and ranchers in the service of co-developing strategies for drought preparation and other land management goals. A framework of “collaborative adaptive management” is working to replace previous top-down models that have soured such relationships and framed ranchers and ranching as the sole cause for environmental degradation. Brugger shows how rancher practices and perspectives are much more nuanced and concerned about ecological well-being than is often presumed, and suggests that sustainable ranching futures depend on renewed trust between ranchers and land managers, as well as the recognition that “the landscape has been forever changed by settler colonialism and it cannot be restored to an idealized pre-settlement condition.”

Branwyn Polykett shows how in South Africa in the 1920s and ‘30s, public health authorities used their declared “war on rats” to justify the construction of built environments that reinforced “settler visions of nature.” According to those visions, pestilence was observed to flourish outside of white bourgeois spaces (cities), but nonetheless posed an imminent threat to society that needed to be addressed in proactive ways. Her approach to this history through the perspective of influential (read: colonial, white) public health officials reveals the “fractured lines of thought in settler modernity” and how proposals for “building the rat out” in order to combat epidemic disease required the extension of white settlement, and with it, concomitant norms of dwelling, hygiene, and ways of life.

Polykett notes that rats—an invasive species—were in fact enabled by the very process of settler colonialism itself, specifically settler cultivation, which in its expansion, decreased the habitats and populations of predators and thus allowed for rodent populations to grow. Although this invites a simplistic analogy of invasive/settler and native/Indigenous, the more complex take that Polykett offers is how settler governance dealt with this problem through proposals for further displacement and by seeking further control over ecological processes, beings, and spaces outside of the city—thus grounding solutions in settler ideology and power.

Tara Joly offers an analysis of “reclamation” in the context of Indigenous expressions of relationality with land and other-than-human beings amid disruptive settler extractive industry in the Tar Sands of Athabasca. Joly signals reclamation in both its settler-capital framework of restoring lands as “productive” for various alternative ends after their mineral or crude resources have been exploited, and its meaning to Indigenous peoples as an act of reclaiming and healing homelands that have suffered unspeakable damages to their embedded spirit. Thus, the dissonance between setter and Indigenous notions of reclamation becomes her central focus for critiquing industries and legal systems that not only “fail” in their kinship with land (TallBear 2016), but further seek to sever Indigenous relationality and thus threaten the ability of Indigenous peoples to fulfill relationship responsibilities with the land into the future.

Nonetheless, Joly reinforces that Indigenous presence and ceremony on the land continually work to defy the settler colonial project, rendering it always contested and unfinished. And while some of her experiences show how Indigenous people refuse to reclaim lands that have had their spirit indelibly taken from them, she highlights how such refusals signal Indigenous demands for alternatives that belie settler logics (Simpson 2014).

Lastly, Paul Burow provides an analysis of bison conservation—and conservation more broadly—with regard to the establishment and management of the National Bison Range on the Flathead Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. He traces the creation of the range in its initial dispossession of Indigenous peoples in 1908 during the US allotment policy to its present-day potential transfer of management to the tribal natural resources department, but notes the profound implications of settler logics of conservation and wildlife management for Indigenous nations and their other-than-human relatives. Viewing territoriality as the “animating focus” of both settler colonialism and conservation, Burow underscores how settler enclosures of land for the purpose of conservation simultaneously enact elimination while they claim to promote biological and ecological flourishing. He writes, “an ethic of care for wildlife (bison) emerges at the same time as the land is being dispossessed and transformed into agriculture.”

In keeping with the critical analytic of settler colonialism, Burow offers insights into how settler colonial practices shape specific relations with non-humans and thus forge particular representations of “nature” that then materially manifest in formations like the National Bison Range. Thinking through the language of conservation, Burow shows how the concepts of “species” and “habitat” transform, in this case, bison and land into identifiable and legible categories, and in the process strip embedded social relations. Importantly, Burow also stresses that despite this divide, contemporary tribally-based conservation projects can adeptly speak the language of conservation while holding true the understanding of land as a web of relationships.


Each of these thoughtful and captivating contributions to varying degrees engages the power of settler colonial narratives to shape landscapes through practices justified and rationalized according to settler logics. As we have seen above, these logics reside in concepts and practices like terra nullius, the alienation of land, the expansion of built environments, land reclamation, and conservation. The contributors also engage frontiers, borders, and boundaries, thus illuminating the speculative nature of settler colonialism. As Mark Rifkin (2014: 176) asserts, settler frontiers disavow other (Indigenous) sovereignties and demarcate zones that are “lawless” but nonetheless within a liminal space of settler territoriality. The operative frontiers demarcated and acted upon by settlers occupy geographic locations, as in the lived frontiers of the South Atlantic, the South African countryside, and the Tar Sands (as hinterlands of global capital); they also inhabit epistemological terrain, as seen in the limits of rangeland and conservation science. These contributions push us to think critically and creatively about the spaces and contexts in which settler colonialism implants and enforces its logics of elimination and replacement.

There are, however, some cautions that I would make regarding the limits of settler colonial studies as an analytical framework, and the field’s engagement with (and origin in) Indigenous scholarship. My goal here is not to police boundaries, but rather to point to where I see fissures with the hope that this opens up further avenues of discussion.

As Lorenzo Veracini writes, “like all other conceptual tools, settler colonial studies is useful for some tasks (explaining settler colonial relations) and not for others (explaining other forms of domination)” (2014: 315). In Blair’s South Georgia, the question arises whether this specific time and place might elude a settler colonial analysis. Although the travel of settler logics clearly influences British and South Georgian perspectives on land and environmental management (both terra nullius and the human-nature binary), I wonder if an analysis of imperialism and territoriality could better serve its purposes? And whereas indigeneity figures in the import of knowledge and practices to achieve settler interests, the anchoring analytics of elimination and destruction/replacement that have come to define the field lose theoretical grounding when a history of Indigenous displacement (and continual Indigenous presence) is lacking.

In Brugger’s Tonto Basin of central Arizona, where ranchers must live with “the environmental and social legacy of settler colonialism,” I wonder whether settler colonialism should figure here as an historical legacy or an ongoing structure that has direct implications for US land policy founded on Indigenous dispossession, to reference Patrick Wolfe’s oft-cited aphorism (1999: 2). Although Wolfe (2013) has stressed that settler colonial studies has relevance across human groups living within and navigating settler colonial structures, as J. Kēhaulani Kauanui states, “to exclusively focus on the settler colonial without any meaningful engagement with the indigenous…can (re)produce another form of ‘elimination of the native.’ … Taking settler colonialism as a structure seriously allows US scholars, for example, to challenge the normalization of dispossession as a ‘done deal’ relegated to the past rather than ongoing” (2016). Settler colonial studies may not have all the answers for every case within the territorial grasp of settler states, but I suggest that if it is chosen as an analytical framework, an engagement with indigeneity, and by extension Indigenous studies, is warranted.[1]

In closing, at the point where settler colonial studies leaves off, I suggest pursuing analyses that can recognize distinct colonialisms and their operative features, without centering the colonialisms themselves. As Corey Snelgrove, Rita Kaur Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel state, the field of settler colonial studies risks “de-centering Indigenous peoples[’] own articulations of Indigenous-settler relations, their governance, legal, and diplomatic orders, and the transformative visions entailed within Indigenous political thought” (Snelgrove et al. 2014: 26). This leads us to the question: How might we maintain the critical toolbox that settler colonial studies provides while also looking toward relational understandings of governance that center Indigenous land-based perspectives? This perspective would stress a comparative frame that draws principally from Indigenous philosophies and ideologies, such as those recently put forth by Bolivia and Aotearoa/New Zealand. These are examples of how to operationalize Indigenous perspectives, and they demonstrate the ability of governance structures to assert these perspectives in policy and in practice. Indigenous governance structures can also do this work (Carroll 2015), as well as generative action outside formalized governance structures that asserts “grounded normativity” (Coulthard 2014b: 13) through both affirmative resistance (Indigenous activism) and everyday practice (Indigenous land education programs). Settler colonial studies can help us to understand how settler power works in its distinctive practices and qualities, but it cannot account for the “travel” of settler ideologies that continue to structure environmental governance around the world. As Tara Joly and Paul Burow boldly assert, taking seriously Indigenous alternatives to settler ideologies, like fostering renewed relationships between humans and the land or defending tribal sovereignty, enables the work of dismantling the very structures that settler colonialism seeks to preserve.


[1] Kim TallBear’s (2016) focus on “making kin” could inform attempts to sustain good relations with the land, which is apparent among ranchers in Arizona and further extends to Indigenous cowboy traditions throughout the southwest. She writes, “Thinking through the lens of kin in our understanding of relations between peoples, and between peoples and place, we might chip away at concepts of race produced in concert with white supremacist nation-building”

Works Cited

Brown, Nicholas A. 2013. “The Logic of Settler Accumulation in a Landscape of Perpetual Vanishing.” Settler Colonial Studies. 4(1): 1-26.

Carroll, Clint. 2014. “Shaping New Homelands: Environmental Production, Natural Resource Management, and the Dynamics of Indigenous State Practice in the Cherokee Nation.” Ethnohistory. 61(1): 123-147.

—–. 2015. Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Coulthard, Glen Sean. 2014a. “From Wards of the State to Subjects of Recognition? Marx, Indigenous Peoples, and the Politics of Dispossession in Denendeh.” Pp. 56-98 in Theorizing Native Studies, edited by Audra Simpson and Andrea Smith. Durham: Duke University Press.

—–. 2014b. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Cronon, William. 1983. Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang Publishers.

Crosby, Alfred W. 1986. Ecological Imperialism: The Biological Expansion of Europe, 900-1900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Deloria, Vine Jr. 1985 [1974]. Behind the Trail of Broken Treaties: An Indian Declaration of Independence. Austin: University of Texas Press.

—–. 1999. For This Land: Writings on Religion in America. New York: Routledge.

—–. 2003 [1973]. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

—–. 2012. Metaphysics of Modern Existence. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing.

Deloria, Vine Jr. and Clifford M. Lytle. 1984. The Nations Within: The Past and Future of American Indian Sovereignty. New York: Pantheon Books.

Deloria, Vine Jr. and David E. Wilkins. 1999. Tribes, Treaties, and Constitutional Tribulations. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Ford, Jamie Kay and Erick Giles. 2015. “Climate Change Adaptation in Indian Country: Tribal Regulation of Reservation Lands and Natural Resources.” William Mitchell Law Review. 41: 519.

Kauanui, J. Kehaulani. 2016. “‘A Structure, Not an Event’: Settler Colonialism and Enduring Indigeneity.” Lateral: Journal of the Cultural Studies Association. 5(1). Published online:

Mar, Tracey Banivanua and Penelope Edmonds. 2010. “Introduction: Making Space in Settler Colonies.” Pp. 1-24 in Making Settler Colonial Space: Perspectives on Race, Place and Identity, edited by Tracey Banivanua Mar and Penelope Edmonds. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Merchant, Carolyn. 1989. Ecological Revolutions: Nature, Gender, and Science in New England. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Rifkin, Mark. 2014. “The Frontier As (Movable) Space of Exception.” Settler Colonial Studies. 4(2): 176-180.

Robbins, Paul. 2004. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers.

Royster, Judith V. 1995. “The Legacy of Allotment.” Arizona State Law Journal. 27: 1-78.

Simpson, Audra. 2014. Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life Across the Borders of Settler States. Durham: Duke University Press.

Snelgrove, Corey, Rita Dhamoon, and Jeff Corntassel. 2014. “Unsettling Settler Colonialism: The Discourse and Politics of Settlers, and Solidarity with Indigenous Nations.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 3:1-32

TallBear, Kim. 2016. “Annual Meeting: The US-Dakota War and Failed Settler Kinship.” Anthropology News. 57(9): e92–e95.

Veracini, Lorenzo. 2014. “Defending Settler Colonial Studies.” Australian Historical Studies. 45(3): 311-316.

White, Richard. 1983. The Roots of Dependency: Subsistence, Environment, and Social Change among the Choctaws, Pawnees, and Navajos. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Wolfe, Patrick. 1999. Settler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic Event. New York: Cassell Publishing.

—–. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research. 8(4): 387-409.

—–. 2013. “The Settler Complex: An Introduction.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal. 37(2): 1-22.

Clint Carroll is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of Colorado Boulder, located on Cheyenne-Arapaho homelands. He received his doctorate from the University of California Berkeley in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, and his bachelor’s degree from the University of Arizona in Anthropology, with a minor in American Indian Studies. A citizen of the Cherokee Nation, his work with Cherokee government actors and communities in northeastern Oklahoma centers Indigenous environmental governance as it is informed by traditional forms of decision-making and perspectives on the environment. His book, Roots of Our Renewal: Ethnobotany and Cherokee Environmental Governance (2015, University of Minnesota Press), explores the interplay between tribal natural resource management programs and governance models that the Cherokee people have developed, showing how Indigenous state forms can articulate alternative ways of interacting with and “governing” the environment. This work derives from his enduring relationship with a group of Cherokee elders and knowledge keepers in northeastern Oklahoma—the Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers. He is also a recent recipient of a five-year Early Career Grant funded by the National Science Foundation, which he and the Cherokee Nation Medicine Keepers will use to build a Cherokee land education program and to understand Cherokee resource access in Oklahoma.

This post is part of our thematic series: Life on the Frontier: The Environmental Anthropology of Settler Colonialism