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Agriculture and Dispossession: Saving Settler Colonialism From The Past

Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of New Mexico Alyosha Goldstein’s forthcoming book The Colonial Bind tackles the subject of dispossession, arguing that agriculture promotes the transfer of land from marginalized people of color to white capitalists, and that the law is ultimately incapable of preventing this. Goldstein visited Davis last Wednesday to take part in a works-in-progress seminar hosted by the new Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism.

Before the meeting, Goldstein distributed a chapter of The Colonial Bind via e-mail, entitled “The Ground Not Given: Colonial Dispositions of Land, Race, and Hunger.” There, Goldstein outlines the history of settler colonialism and connects it to how the United States Department of Agriculture continues to dispossess Native Americans in the present.

The chapter’s main argument is that the law has been used to “situate as the past” the dispossession of Native Americans. For instance, though the Claims Resolution Act of 2010 is envisioned by some to be a victory for Native Americans in that it granted them payout settlements, the truth is that such amelioration only works to reinforce dispossession caused by global capitalism by implying that we’ve moved beyond such practices.

As Goldstein put it later in the meeting, law merely represents an “effect of social movements,” rather than a solution to them. The root of the problem is agriculture in the service of capitalism and the ensuing ideology of “use and taking” that justifies the seizure of land held by marginalized groups.

Another of Goldstein’s research goals is to bridge the gap between Black and Indian histories of dispossession. Although Indians are usually referred to regarding the dispossession of their land, and Blacks in regard to their labor, Goldstein argues that Indian dispossession centered on labor as much as it did on land.

Faculty commentator and UC Davis Associate Professor of Native American Studies Beth Rose Middleton expanded upon what Goldstein wrote in his chapter, noting that other things beyond agriculture, such as education, also represent powerful tools and justifications of colonial expansion. She also pointed out how religion, with regard to Catholicism’s Doctrine of Discovery, provides the bedrock for many of colonialism’s claims to the possessions held by people of color.

In the ensuing question and answer period, much discussion was had over Standing Rock, a situation defined by the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline in spite of Lakota concerns that it would do damage to their ancestral lands. Many in attendance wondered why Goldstein’s chapter didn’t more frequently reference it as an example of dispossession, and he responded by saying that he did not want to exceptionalize Standing Rock and perpetuate the idea that it “represents all Native struggles,” as is believed by many Americans.

Louis Warren, W. Turrentine Jackson Professor of U.S. Western History at UC Davis asked Goldstein what message he ultimately wishes to convey regarding the law and its capacity to affect social change. Goldstein replied that he envisions the law as not being “the ultimate horizon of struggle,” and that more systemic changes must be made if we are to break the pattern of dispossession.

This was the Mellon Research Initiative in Racial Capitalism’s final meeting of the Fall Quarter. Meetings will resume in Winter 2018. For more information on upcoming events, please visit the DHI website.


– Nicholas Garcia, DHI Graduate Student Researcher and doctoral student in the Department of History


This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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