FSI-Humanities Center International Visitor Spotlight: Patrick Wolfe

May 17, 2012

By Camryn Douglass

Patrick Wolfe is a professor of history at La Trobe University in Melbourne, Australia and an FSI-Humanities Center International Visitor for 2011-12 in May. We spoke with him a bit about his time at Stanford last week:

What are you working on while at Stanford University?

Patrick Wolfe

What I’m trying to do while I’m here is finish off a large book that tries to put fairly well understood histories of the American West in comparative perspective. I’m organizing established, known material into an understanding that puts settler-colonialism as the primary factor involved in the history of the United States West in the post-Gilded Age era. It operates with a wide time frame, and it’s already taking me much too long to write because I keep adding bits! That’s the problem with comparative work. It just gets more and more tempting to say, “Hey, let’s see if this works somewhere else as well, or doesn’t.” In which case, the difference can be interesting. I’m hoping to leave Stanford with a raw first draft of the whole thing.

Please tell us a bit about how your project started.

My study of aboriginal history and aboriginal issues led me to wider questions of colonial and racial matters. I encountered a lot of U.S. students asking questions about aboriginal issues in relation to civil rights, or in relation to Native American issues. Since then I’ve been thinking more and more comparatively, or perhaps thinking comparatively about more and more places. My work is centered on indigenous histories in Australia and the United States, but for comparative purposes I stray outside those realms to issues regarding African Americans, Afro-Brazilians, and Palestinians.

What is settler-colonialism?

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, and displace them, and take over the country, and make it their own. As such it’s different from the forms of colonialism which we saw in, say, British India, or the Dutch East Indies, or somewhere like that, where foreigners went, and sat on top of Native society, and put it to work for them. In settler colonies foreigners come to eliminate the Natives, to get rid of them. Not necessarily bodily, not necessarily physically. Classically, there are assimilation policies which, rather than physically exterminating Native people, seek to transform them into white people.

In the U.S., reservations are a classic mode of eliminating Natives. They don’t get rid of them, but they box them up in a fixed locale, and that has the effect of rendering the rest of their territory available for settler use for the railroads, for ranches, for plantations, for mining, whatever, it may be for forestry. Another such technique would be the allotment policy that was brought in on a general scale towards the end of the 19th century, which sought to break down reservations into private lots owned by individual families who could, of course, then sell them off to white people. So, again, it’s not the straightforward physical violence of the frontier, but it has the effect of eliminating the Native people.

Patrick Wolfe will give a lecture on settler-colonialism on Thursday, May 24 from 3-5 pm in the Stanford Humanities Center Board Room. All members of the Stanford Community are welcome.