| Tom Torlino a Navajo student at the Carlisle Indian School Before 1882 and After 1885 Image from Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 40 International License | MR Online Tom Torlino a Navajo student at the Carlisle Indian School Before 1882 and After 1885. Image from Carlisle Indian School Digital Resource Center This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Missing links in textbook history: Colonialism

Originally published: ScheerPost on January 17, 2024 by Jim Mamer (more by ScheerPost) (Posted Jan 22, 2024)

Editor’s Note: This marks the 12th installment in Jim Mamer’s Missing Links series. A former high school teacher and recipient of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) History Teacher of the Year award, Mamer delves into the lesser-known uncomfortable truths of American history that are often obscured or entirely absent from textbooks.

Oh, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practice to deceive.

–Sir Walter Scott, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field (1808)

Colonies, Mythic Tales and a Tea Party

In 1958 I learned that the British established colonies in Eastern North America. I was in 5th grade. In trying to recall how and what names, dates and locations were taught, it proves to be a jumble. But I remember that a lot happened in the early 17th century, including the founding of most of those British colonies.

I remember being told about Pilgrims and their struggle for religious freedom. I also remember learning that there were Indigenous tribes living in the areas colonized, but the clear implication was that a lot of the land was vacant.

I remember learning about indentured servants, but I don’t remember learning anything about the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619.

We were presented with a mythological story of Pocahontas and John Smith and a fictional version of the first Thanksgiving. As the lessons proceeded, new colonies were added and we heard less about helpful natives and more about conflicts such as the one textbooks call “King Philip’s War.”

Then the lessons seemed to skip a century to the mid to late 18th century. We were given an impression, from both the text and the teacher, that the British were abusing the rights of colonists by taxing them too much. We were taught how British colonists (like Sam Adams and George Washington) were forced by British abuses to rebel against British control.

The evidence presented of British abuse included tax laws like the Sugar Act and the Stamp Act.  When a skirmish broke out in Boston, we learned that five innocents were killed in what was described in the text as a massacre.

I remember being confused when we were told how the Tea Act created a tea monopoly for the British East India Company, but cut the price of tea for tea drinkers. I was briefly entertained by the pictorial description of the Boston Tea Party showing colonists dressed as Mohawks throwing tea into the harbor.

As revolution approached, some of us asked if there were any “Indians” still in the colonies and if so, did they also want a revolution? That question was answered vaguely by our teacher, a young Irish-accented nun, when she pointed out that the textbook said that some natives sided with the British and some with the colonists.

These were all stories of minor importance to a 10-year-old kid much more interested in baseball than in colonial history. I don’t remember having any emotional involvement with any of them.

If someone had asked my grade-school-self who was colonizing Eastern North America I would have quickly answered “The British.” I had assumed that British colonists and their descendants (from John Winthrop to George Washington) had taken over much of the Indigenous land and that the Indigenous peoples were the primary victims of British colonization.

But the sad truth is that 5th graders are pack animals and I was no exception. So, as a member of that 5th grade pack, I lost my previous conviction that Jefferson and Washington were among the colonizers and instead accepted the notion that they were among the colonized, fighting for freedom from Britain.

It was not logical, but when you are 10 years old, what is not mentioned matters. A child’s understanding of who was colonizing whom is the direct result of textbooks and teachers that taught very, very little about the lives and struggles of the Indigenous peoples.

What Kids are Not Taught

When we were told that the Declaration of Independence says that all men are created equal, we were never told that one-fifth of the colonial population was enslaved. And we were never told that one-third of the Declaration’s signers were enslavers.

Perhaps more shocking, we were never told that in that same declaration, the Indigenous peoples were described as “merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, genders and conditions.”

Occasionally I found the time to wonder if I was misunderstanding what was being said or if I was being tricked into thinking, for example, that the Indigenous had just disappeared. I should have asked for clarification.

But in 5th grade I did not ask for clarification. No one did. And, as the lessons continued to be focused on the same colonial men, I got bored. I went back to daydreaming while counting holes in the acoustic ceiling tiles. It was the beginning of my cynicism.

Colonialism is Never Peaceful

For a colonized people, the most essential value, because it is the most meaningful, is first and foremost the land: the land which must provide bread and, naturally, dignity.

–Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth

It should go without saying that if schools really intend to teach something useful about colonialism, they must begin by carefully defining terms. Can colonialism, for example, ever be considered a form of immigration or is it always a violent and arrogant theft of land and labor?

The French claimed they were on a “Civilizing Mission” in 80 colonies. And, the British claimed that they had a legal and religious obligation to control the land and people in 120 colonies. These justifications are little more than piously constructed nonsense. And they are closely related to Manifest Destiny in North America.

Colonialism has more than one meaning and scholars distinguish between various overlapping categories. Two of the most useful for classroom instruction are settler colonialism and exploitation colonialism. It is important to discuss these with students and to encourage them to sort out how the two might work in a variety of circumstances.

Exploitation Colonialism

Exploitation colonialism is historically quite common. It involves fewer colonists and focuses on the exploitation and theft of natural resources and/or on the exploitation of the local population as cheap labor. Among nations described as demonstrating exploitation colonialism are Britain, Russia, France and Spain. Examples follow:

When King Leopold II of Belgium colonized the Congo in 1885, it was because it was rich in resources such as ivory and rubber. He also found it possible to use the native population as forced labor. Control was brutal. Failure to meet rubber collection quotas was, for example, punishable by death.

In the Philippines, Spain consolidated large tracts of land in the hands of Spanish colonizers. They exploited natural resources and used the Indigenous as forced labor in the production of agricultural produce.

When Spanish colonial control ended in 1898, the United States took possession of the islands and exploited the islands’ economic resources until U.S. colonial control ended in 1946. The U.S. also used the country as a military base until they left in 1992.

Settler Colonialism

Settler Colonialism is well described in “Not a Nation of Immigrants” by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. It involves genocide and is often related to white supremacy. The goal is to displace an existing population and replace it with a new settler population. British colonies in Australia, the U.S. and Canada are examples of settler colonialism. Among other nations suggested as demonstrating settler colonialism are South Africa, New Zealand and Israel. Examples follow:

Colonialism in Australia involved the elimination of Indigenous Australians (Aboriginals) and their replacement by a settler society. Initially this involved a great deal of violence including massacres, dispossession of land and starvation. It continues today in the form of cultural assimilation.

In the U.S., settler colonialism developed over 170 years of British control in North America and has continued after the American Revolution. Those referred to as “founders” in U.S. history were, according to Dunbar-Ortiz,

not an oppressed, colonized people… They were imperialists who visualized the conquest of the continent…

In virtually every U.S. history text I’ve read, colonialism is portrayed more as adventurous struggle than armed theft. In teaching that history, especially in high school, it is instructionally useful and historically more accurate to explain how the United States is an example of settler colonialism.

It will take work, but most textbooks provide a few sentences that create opportunities for stimulating discussions. In “History Alive!” there is this accurate description of settler colonialism:

The land that drew colonists to America was already occupied…. settlers eventually stripped eastern tribes of most of their land through purchases, wars, and unfair treaties.

In The Americans I found an appropriate contrast between exploitation and settler colonialism:

Unlike the Spanish, the English followed a pattern of driving away the people they defeated. Their conquest over the native peoples was total and complete, which is one reason a large mestizo population never developed in the United States.

In political rhetoric and in textbooks, it is common to direct attention away from settlers by asserting that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants. This may sound helpful and inclusive, but it is misleading.

According to Dunbar-Ortiz the phrase, “a nation of immigrants,” was a mid-twentieth-century revisionist origin story. It began in 1958 when then U.S. Sen. John F. Kennedy published a book titled “A Nation of Immigrants,” which suggested that the United States should be understood through the diversity of immigrants it had welcomed since independence.

This has become part of the liberal consensus. While it is often meant to counter xenophobic fears of new arrivals, it also serves to cover up the violence that colonialism visited on the Indigenous peoples. And it obscures the fact that from the start, immigration to this country has been overwhelmingly a welcome to white immigrants.

Before the American Revolution, the majority of European settlers were Protestant Anglo-Saxon, Scots Irish, and German-speaking people from the areas which, in 1871, became Germany. That pattern continued after the revolution.

It is significant that the first federal immigration law was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which barred immigrants coming from China, determined that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to the Chinese and decreed that those already in the U.S. were permanent aliens. It was repeatedly extended until 1943.

Dunbar-Ortiz also writes that, after WWII, the phrase, “a nation of immigrants” served to “conceal any trace of the United States colonialist roots, system of slavery, and continued segregation as [the U.S. government] developed military and counterinsurgent strategies to quell national liberation movements in former European colonies.”

Who is Who? What is What?

In a classroom it is important to distinguish among labels applied to different groups of people. Indigenous peoples, settler colonialists, immigrants and the descendants of enslaved Africans brought to the U.S. by force are very different populations with very different historical trajectories.

The term immigrant refers to those who have come to a new country to become part of an existing society, not to replace those already there.

Clearly the descendants of enslaved Africans are not settlers. Settlers come by choice, the enslaved arrived by force. Descendants of enslaved Africans have been, and continue to be, victims of the same “invented racial codes as have the Indigenous inhabitants.”

When Bob Joseph, a Canadian writer and a member of the Gwawaenuk Nation, was asked how he categorized the descendants of enslaved Africans he suggested “stolen people on stolen land.”

None of this history is simple to teach, but it is necessary if we want to encourage an educated understanding of our past and it provides a lot of material for productive classroom conversations.

White Supremacy, Genocide and Settler Colonialism

Earlier, when I first attempted to define “settler colonialism,” I wrote that it involves both genocide and is related to white supremacy. Those terms also need defining.

The meaning of white supremacy seems obvious because it refers to the belief that white people constitute a race superior to others. But that apparent simplicity ignores the bizarre disputes over which groups of people should be considered white.

There are actually numerous complex stories of various groups in the United States striving to be considered “white.” One example is dealt with by historian Noel Ignatiev in the book “How the Irish Became White.”

A precise definition for genocide is found in the international treaty on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. It was presented in the United Nations in 1948 and adopted in 1951. President Truman signed it in 1951 but it only went into effect in 1988 when the US Congress ratified it.

Any one of five acts listed can be considered genocide if “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.” These acts are:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

A charge of genocide usually involves the commission of more than one act. For example: In the case of the United States (or Canada) one could charge that members of Indigenous groups have been killed and also charge that native children have been transferred from their families and tribal communities to non-Indian families across the country.

How Should We Think About Colonialism?

Years ago, I watched a recorded talk given by the great Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, to an audience at Cambridge University. In it he recounted how he had discovered Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” while a student in Nigeria.

Finding Conrad to be a seductive writer, Achebe had identified with members of the character Marlow’s crew as the steamer ship traveled up the Congo River.

Later, when he found himself attending class in London surrounded by a room full of white faces, he realized why he could no longer identify with Marlow’s crew.

In a 2009 NPR/Robert Seigel interview with Achebe, Seigel read what the novelist had written about his experience,

A time came when I reached the appropriate age and realized that these writers had pulled a fast one on me. I was not on Marlow’s boat steaming up the Congo in ‘Heart of Darkness.’ Rather, I was one of those unattractive beings jumping up and down on the river bank making hard faces.

That is the thing about colonialism. It is easy to get confused. Achebe found himself identifying with the colonizers. And unfortunately, I and countless others, have been led to make a similar mistake in believing that well known colonizers were actually the abused colonized.

Obviously this country is home to many immigrants, but I agree with Dunbar-Ortiz that the U.S. cannot legitimately claim to be a nation of immigrants. That assertion covers up too much to be acceptable.

One example of excess is provided by John F. Kennedy. When he published “A Nation of Immigrants,” he labeled the Indigenous as “the first immigrants.” This is simply not credible. The Indigenous were victims of settler colonialism suffering from endless physical attacks, forced displacement and often subjected to forced assimilation, losing both their culture and language.

The two photographs at the top of this article illustrate this. They are both of Tom Torlino, a Navajo student, at the Carlisle Indian School. The school was founded as an off-reservation boarding school by Richard Henry Pratt in 1879. The photos were taken before (1882) and after (1885).

At Carlisle, the students were required to speak English, practice Christianity, take on new names and wear European-American style clothing. Pratt’s motto was, “Kill the Indian, save the man” which fits one definition of genocide, that is,

Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Historical Attempts to Justify Conquest and Genocide

When crimes begin to pile up, they become invisible. When sufferings become
unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer.

Bertolt Brecht, ‘Selected Poems

As may be obvious from what I’ve already written, I attended a Catholic grade school and then transitioned to a Catholic high school. Throughout those years we studied the same things one would study in any American school. But in addition, we took classes in religion and church history.

It was in the context of church history that I first encountered two documents that I have never found in any state approved high school U.S. textbook. I know from experience that they make for productive class discussion.

At the very least, both of these official documents should illustrate the degree of arrogance and delusion used to justify the brutality and theft fundamental to colonial conquest.

The first is the Treaty of Tordesillas which Pope Alexander VI issued in a papal Encyclical (an official letter on church doctrine) in 1493 titled Inter Caetera. It was written to justify Christian European explorers’ claims on the land and waterways they allegedly discovered.

In 1494, the treaty was agreed to by the governments of Spain and Portugal. It divided the “New World” into areas controlled exclusively by these two Catholic kingdoms. Significantly, its only limitation was to stipulate that any lands with a “Christian king” could not be colonized.

The only signatories of this treaty were Spain and Portugal because they were the only European powers claiming territories in the Americas, but when other nations claimed land in the Americas the treaty was replaced by what is a more expansive justification for colonization and seizure of land not inhabited by Christians. It is known as the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery, as absurd as it may seem, remains a fundamental law in the U.S. and is the legal framework that has informed the U.S. colonial system of controlling Indigenous nations.

According to the American Bar Association in “A Short History of Indian Law in the Supreme Court,” published in 2014, “The history of Indian law in the Supreme Court opens with the Marshall Trilogy… .” referring  to decisions made by the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall. The cases are are Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823); Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831); and Worcester v. Georgia (1832).

The Doctrine of Discovery is first cited in the unanimous decision written by Marshall in Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823). Based on the Doctrine of Discovery the decision holds that “a discovering sovereign has the exclusive right to extinguish Indians’ interests in their lands, either by purchase or just war.” It also established federal supremacy in Indian affairs over the states and individuals.

In the last of the three decisions, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the State of Georgia tried to assert the authority to legislate the Cherokee Nation’s government out of existence and then confiscate Indian lands and resources. The Court’s decision, given clear federal supremacy in Indian affairs, favored the Cherokee citing the Nation’s treaties with the U.S. federal government.

Nevertheless, President Andrew Jackson, favoring Georgia’s intent to confiscate Indian property, ignored the Court and is famous for saying, “John Marshall has made his decision: now let him enforce it.” That sent the Cherokee on the Trail of Tears.

The most recent use of the Doctrine of Discovery was in City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York (2005). The case involved tribal lands that were taken from the Oneida Nation 200 years earlier. The land had been repurchased by the tribe and the tribe claimed sovereignty as part of the historic Oneida Indian Nation.

The Court held that repurchase did not restore tribal sovereignty and that it was therefore subject to state and local taxes. The Doctrine of Discovery was cited in a footnote as justification for the ruling stating that “Under the Doctrine of Discovery, fee title to the lands occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign [that is] first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States.”

What Can be Done?

Providing a useful understanding of our past has never been more difficult. Schools at all levels have been attacked for teaching (or discussing) almost anything that disturbs the status quo or makes students think.

In my experience I found that I was able to add material without any problem as long as what I added was relevant and factually correct. I also found that students were appreciative when I added information about historical figures that had been left out of the textbooks. Here are a few suggestions for both parents and teachers that might make the situation better:

  • Put more focus on the Indigenous in American History by refocusing some curriculum in U.S. history on the colonized Indigenous tribes. The Penguin Library of American Indian History consists of seven wonderfully written short histories.
  • Engage children in conversations about the Indigenous whenever there is an opportunity, for example, at Thanksgiving. There are a number of books that provide what textbooks leave out. One of the most useful is David J. Silverman’s This Land is Their Land, which tells the story of Thanksgiving from the perspective of the Wampanoag people.
  • Demystify historical events by adding untold details to the lives of historical figures. For example, by telling some of what really happened to the likes of Pocahontas and John Smith.

I suspect that every elementary textbook mentions Patrick Henry urging support for revolution by proclaiming, “Give me liberty or give me death!” The impact of that phrase would clearly be different if students were told that he owned 67 slaves at his death (likely craving liberty for themselves.)

Some curriculum in U.S. history at all levels should begin to focus on the colonized Indigenous tribes. Organizations such as the Iroquois Confederacy offer Indigenous examples of democratic decision making and living in harmony with nature. The Penguin Library of American Indian History consists of  wonderfully written histories, each volume less than 200 pages.

Following are a number of books and podcasts that I have found helpful in understanding colonialism and its legacy, including two written by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz. Her books, based on extensive research, have been helpful in my attempt to articulate some of the problems with how we teach about colonialism.


Not A Nation of Immigrants by Rozanne Dunbar-Ortiz
An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Rozanne Dunbar-Ortiz
The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild
Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire by Caroline Elkins

Scheer Intelligence Podcasts

California Genocide with Benjamin Madley
It’s Time to Free Leonard Peltier with Kevin Sharp
California’s Grim Genocidal Past with Tony Platt
Settler Colonialism with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

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