Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
When first writing to Student Government, in regards to the poster in Shane Lounge advertising the Dorm Games, NASA was unsure what the response would be. After learning that Student Government was willing to cooperate with us in addressing the issue, we were hopeful that this might become an opportunity for widespread acknowledgement and discussion of the role of colonialism in the everyday. In order to clarify our understanding of colonialism and why it was necessary to address this poster, we have reproduced sections of the correspondence between NASA and Student Government, outlining the ways in which this poster reproduces colonial discourse, some of the consequences of that discourse, and what type of response we thought was appropriate. We hope that this statement along with Student Government’s message will encourage open discussion of the global colonial experience.
It should be noted that by colonialism we are referring to continuing systems of settler-colonialism within the borders of the United States in particular. By settler-colonialism we refer to the means by which indigenous lands were/are invaded for the express purpose of occupying, settling, and establishing a non-aboriginal community. While this historical process creates the physical reality we live in today, it is accompanied by simultaneous institutional and ideological processes that subvert indigenous sovereignty, knowledge systems, and histories, thereby silencing indigenous voices, breaking apart indigenous communities, and necessarily erasing indigenous existence in order to secure settler prosperity.
The Dorm Games poster recreates a history for the College, outlining fictional origins of the different dormitories and their corresponding “tribes.” NASA first wrote to Student Government because this history, by reproducing the narrative of settler-colonialism, reflects and propagates those same damaging ideological processes of colonialism.
It begins by explaining that Swarthmore was an ancient civilization. The first people to live here discovered a desolate patch of virgin land which they transformed into a city.
Although the U.S empire is founded upon the notion that this continent was uninhabited at the time of “Discovery,” there were in fact millions of people and hundreds of nations who had existed here for millennia. This campus and the surrounding territory belongs to the Lenape, a people who still live here and whom the College has at least symbolically recognized as the original inhabitants of these lands. Swarthmore College on the other hand is an institution that exists in and belongs exclusively to the modern era on land which was stolen from an indigenous people. The fantastical history of this poster is imaginative and entertaining, but recreating a fictional, ancestral tie to settled land is a regularly employed tool to justify the continued occupation and further theft of indigenous lands.
The poster continues narrating how successive waves of settlers, wanting to share their love and knowledge, established colonies in the surrounding unoccupied territory. These people brought with them skills and crafts and as their society grew, they cultivated the wasteland.
Settlers not only viewed indigenous lands as unoccupied, but uncultivated as well. Because American lands were thought to be untamed wilderness, European powers felt justified in taking lands which they perceived to be unused. And because civilization was, to the European mind, based on specific forms of lands use, indigenous peoples were viewed and portrayed as savages. These two notions have worked together for five centuries to deny indigenous land claims and the right to self-governance.
Nearing its conclusion the document states that for 250 years the empire of Swarthmore carried on in peace.
Swarthmore was founded in 1864–150 years ago–and has, at multiple times, experienced periods of unrest. However, retrospectively declaring eras as peaceful and prosperous is a powerful and often used method of destroying history that might recount abuses of power and authority. For example, one can look to the retelling of the stories of Columbus and the First Thanksgiving. Within Swarthmore’s own history the rhetoric of peace has not only been used to wipe out institutional memory, but to silence voices and movements that sought systematic change. See the work by Dr. Alison Dorsey’s class Black Liberation 1969.
Lastly, in a direct address to the reader, the poster declares that as the ancient civilization of Swarthmore begins to fail, it becomes the destiny of the newly arrived Swarthmoreans to claim their birthright and establish a new empire.
As the United States massacred indigenous peoples, abrogated treaties, mandated assimilation, it regularly justified its actions in the inevitable decline and extinction of indigenous peoples. This reasoning, of a Manifest Destiny to spread over the lands as wilderness and savagery gave way to civilization, informed legal and social policy which cleared indigenous lands for settlement and destroyed indigenous communities. It is an old ideological construction that can be traced from a papal bull issued by Pope Nicholas V hundreds of years earlier, which itself was a descendant of the Crusades. This doctrine employed words like destiny and birthright to sanction genocide.
On its own, no one is likely to ever believe that this poster is an accurate history of the College. We did not write to Student Government out of fear that someone will take it as such, but because this poster belongs to the well-established American tradition of fictionalizing and glorifying colonization. This tradition continues to perpetuate a very real system of inequality that denies indigenous peoples basic human rights. This document in itself is no more damaging than any of the other fictionalizations of American history. But it does expressly reproduce the values and assumptions of settler-colonialism while erasing the actual history of violence and oppression upon which it is founded. The members of NASA agree that this document, and the events of which it is a part were most likely created with the best of intentions. We however believe that because this poster fictionalized a history which obscures the existence of indigenous peoples and propagates a myth that has done untold damage to millions of people, Student Government, representing the entirety of the student body, has a responsibility to acknowledge and disrupt the processes of colonization implicated in that document.
In the days following our first message Student Government worked with NASA to create a response that we thought would be both an honest acknowledgment of what had happened and an illustrative example of how to redress processes of colonization on the daily. We would have preferred, however, that Student Government not apologize for having offended us, because we were not offended. The reality of colonialism is its pervasiveness. It forms our legal and social structures, which in conjunction with a diversity of media, invade and colonize the mind. It is a complex system that perpetuates violence on an ideological level among all peoples, colonizer and colonized alike. There is no one who can claim to be free from harboring colonizing thought. And so it was not surprising to see that this poster also reproduced colonial narratives. Nor were its sentiments especially offensive. We are subject to more aggressive, harmful, and subtle colonial influences everyday. But beyond redressing offense, the importance of talking about colonization is to stop its perpetuation. That is why we first wrote to Student Government and why we are writing this piece now. As the heirs and objects of colonization, we all have a collective responsibility to discover colonizing thought and practices, expose them, and put them in the grave.