Settlers? Immigrants? Invaders?

A sock from the American Southwest, made from cotton with an early form of knitting – 1100-1300 AD

There’s been a lot of people recently trying to encourage Americans to take the side of the refugees waiting at the southern border by saying things like “We are all immigrants.” They’re trying to do good, but of course the first and most important objection to that is that we’re not: millions of Americans are Native Lakota, Paiute, Cherokee, Osage, etc. Many African-Americans are the descendants of people who were forced across the Atlantic in chains – they’re not immigrants either. We can call those objections from the left.

But on the right, Ann Coulter (and a lot of other European-descended people) also reject the idea that they’re immigrants:  “I am a settler. I am descended from settlers — not from immigrants.” They don’t want to support immigration; they hate immigrants, and they want to think of themselves as something closer to the clean, nice Puritans they imagine from their grade school textbooks about Thanksgiving. And, I guess, they also don’t want to think of themselves as “invaders”, which is a word I sometimes use to describe Europeans who forced Native people off their land.

Aztec women making corn tortillas, about 1520 AD (Codex Mendoza)

Well, I’m not likely to convince Ann Coulter to identify with the Guatemalan and Honduran mothers trying to save their lives and their children’s lives from the gang violence unleashed by the global warming she and her “settler” forebears created by driving cars and using air conditioners and refrigerators.

But I do have a related point to make: that today, most Americans, wherever they came from, Native or African-American, Asian or white, have adopted the culture of the land they came to more than they probably realize. The clothing we wear is almost entirely American cotton: the same cotton that Anasazi and Peruvian people wore a thousand years ago, before the “settlers” came. Like them, we often wear it knitted. (Your T-shirt is knitted cotton; so are your socks, and your sweatpants and your hoody. Your indigo-dyed cotton jeans descend from Peruvian indigo-dyed cotton of thousands of years ago.)

Most Americans eat more Native American food than they do European food, too. That’s corn, potatoes, chocolate, peppers, tomatoes, peanuts, sweet potatoes, and avocados – sound familiar? Sometimes we eat them in new forms like French fries, potato chips, ketchup, corn on the cob, peanut noodles, candy bars, and avocado toast. But often we eat them as tacos, burritos, guacamole, hot chocolate, popcorn, etc. It’s not surprising, I guess, that we’re especially enthusiastic about these foods in the South and West, where Native people also ate them more – the Haudenosee and Algonquin ate their corn and beans more often in the form of mush, which has become New England’s cornbread and baked beans, maple syrup and johnny cakes. And they ate a lot of seafood, which has become our chowders and clambakes.


Tobacco is another habit we picked up from Native people, which was widely adopted by “settlers” and remains popular with many Americans even after aggressive efforts to convince people to quit. Many modern medical treatments are derived from American coca plants (anything ending in -caine: Novocaine, Lidocaine, but also lesser-known anaesthetics). Those Honduran refugees we’re looking down on – their ancestors provided many of the things we now take for granted as the basics of our lives.

I still think “invaders” is a more appropriate word than either “settlers” or “immigrants” for people who forced other people off their land at gunpoint and often killed them. And sure, we brought a lot of stuff with us: guns, for example, and other iron-working. Opiates and marijuana and whiskey. Sheep, pigs, cows, horses, donkeys, wheat, and yeast breads. Ocean-going sailing ships. The alphabet, numbers, and algebra. Glass. (Though Europeans didn’t invent these things. Glass, donkeys, sails, and yeast breads probably come from Africa. Horses, wheat, the alphabet, numbers, and algebra we owe to India and the Middle East.)

But most of the inventions white people want to take credit for – steel, antibiotics, internal combustion engines, railroads, light bulbs, etc. – were not brought over by Europeans; they were invented long after most “settlers” came to the Americas. Some were invented in the Americas, like antibiotics, and others, like calculus and Shakespeare, were invented in Europe in universities and factories and theaters built on the profits from looting Native and African-American wealth and work in the Americas.

Well, this could probably be better thought out, and I bet there are still holes you could pick in this argument. But it’s only a blog post – the next to the last one in this three month series! – and I’d better move on to the rest of my day. Thanks for reading my rant, if you got this far!


  1. Very interesting and many points in there I had never really thought about. Of course, in Europe, we have had our own problems in the field of archaeology with the notion of invasion over the last couple of decades. Many archaeologists, particularly in England, became obsessed with the notion that nobody ever went anywhere. Supposedly, they merely adopted cultural fashions from abroad. Fortunately, recent DNA evidence has shown the emptiness of most of these claims and restored a bit of balance to things. In Europe too, we are descended from immigrants or invaders from the Middle East and the Steppes. I’m left wing and so that suits the way I view the world, but of course that’s irrelevant. I want to know what the truth is about the past, regardless of whether it chimes with my personal prejudices or not.


    1. There’s never going to be just one historical truth; every generation reinterprets history through the lens of whatever is going on in their own time. We’re just interested in different things at different times, so we see history a different way. But I’m glad you liked my take on this!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with that to a point but there are interpretations that are either highly unlikely or impossible. I always felt that the immobilist bias of British archaeologists a generation ago made more sense as ideology than as archaeology. Being interested in different things is inevitable but if you’re only finding what you’re interested in, that’s more of a problem! I really liked the article, anyway! 🙂


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