Review: Indigenous people vs “settler” migrants?

Nandita Sharma, Home Rule: National Sovereignty and the Separation of Natives and Migrants, Duke University Press, 2020.

Nandita Sharma has written a very useful book that rightly polemicises against those on the progressive left who counterpose the rights of Indigenous people to those of migrants. As Sharma explains, it has become quite common in left-wing activist and academic circles to argue that migrants are “settlers” or even “colonisers”, immigration is “conquest”, and that Indigenous people need to be “centred” at the expense of migrants. Migrant populations, including those that have suffered – and continue to suffer – from racism are often portrayed as a privileged layer who benefit from the racism directed towards Indigenous people.

This is a profoundly conservative world view that expresses some of the worst, and most self-defeating, aspects of privilege theory politics. To start with, as Sharma writes, it downplays the racist treatment of migrants:

Portraying all non-Indigenous people as “settlers” assumes that no clear distinction was made between Whites and non-Whites in the “White Settler” colonial projects, nor that any distinction is made between those racialized as White and those racialized as not White in today’s White National-Native projects. Instead, those whom imperial states (and later nation-states) clearly racialized as undesirable and inferior (e.g., Trask’s “Asians” in Hawai’i) are now represented as having been a party to the very projects they were expressly – and juridically – excluded from. Indeed, in the effort to render the experiences of Indigenous National-Natives and Migrants as incommensurable, the violence done to those who were made into Migrants is rendered as politically unimportant. (p.254)

One particularly terrible example that Sharma cites are the arguments of Bonita Lawrence, a Métis scholar, and Enakshi Dua, a self-identified “Asian settler colonist”. Lawrence and Dua argue that in Canada, all

people of color are settlers. Broad differences exist between those brought as slaves, currently working as migrant laborers, refugees without legal documentation, or émigrés who have obtained citizenship. Yet people of color live on land that is appropriated and contested, where Aboriginal peoples are denied nationhood and access to their own lands. (p.252)

That’s right folks…even slaves were privileged settlers!

Lawrence and Dua also assert that campaigns by migrants against racism actually contribute “to the active colonization of Aboriginal peoples” and that “anti-racism is premised on an ongoing colonial project” and accepts “a colonizing social formation” (p.252).

These arguments are not confined to obscure academic journals. Here in Australia there have been multiple examples of people on the progressive left dismissing the struggles of racially oppressed non-Indigenous groups on the basis that they are somehow less legitimate than the struggles of Indigenous people.

In 2020 for instance a group of Sudanese high school students, inspired by the Black Lives Matter rebellion in the US, tried to organise a solidarity rally in Melbourne. They were instantly denounced on the internet as “settler” Africans. It was asserted that they had no right to organise such a rally as their experience of racism was supposedly fundamentally different from that of both Indigenous people and African Americans. This totally ignored the fact that Sudanese people in Melbourne had been the target of racist police harassment and hysterical right-wing media campaigns for years.

Similarly, during the campaign against the right-wing Reclaim Australia movement there were significant sections of the Sydney left who argued that unless Indigenous issues were the dominant theme of the rallies they were essentially reinforcing racism. This was despite the fact that Reclaim Australia’s central focus was on opposing a supposed Islamic takeover of Australian society. In fact Reclaim Australia raised no racist demands about Indigenous people (although undoubtedly there were people in it who had racist ideas about Indigenous rights) and even flew the Aboriginal flag at their rallies. The idea that Muslims should have a central role in combating a movement dedicated to deporting them en masse from the country was never raised.

As Sharma explains, the counterposition between Indigenous struggles and other anti-racist struggles is rubbish. Often it is based on the idea that Indigenous struggles are radically anti-nationalist, while, as Lawrence and Dua argue, the struggles of other racially oppressed groups are “premised on an ongoing colonial project”. This ignores the fact that most Indigenous struggles also accept the existence of capitalist states and national sovereignty. As Sharma puts it, “while sometimes deploying radical, anticolonial discourse, Indigenous National-Native nationalist projects do not disrupt a postcolonial world of separate and national territorial sovereigns”, in fact they “reproduce it” (p.251).

In order to back up this argument, most of Sharma’s book is a history of the formation and development of nationalism and nation states throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As the European empires colonised much of the world they divided their colonised subjects into “Indigenous-Natives” and “Migrant-Natives”, “with the former regarded as more native than the latter”. This division would also shape the politics of the national liberation movements that arose in opposition to the European empires:

Both categories were codified in imperial law so that the two categories of colonized Natives were governed by different laws. These laws, which included differential allocations of land, political rights, and power for people in the two groups, materialized the differences between Indigenous-Natives and Migrant-Natives. Indigenous-Natives were granted formal access to territories and political rights on it through “Native authorities”. Migrant-Natives were not. Such imperial distinctions profoundly reshaped politics in the colonies and informed how national liberation movements imagined which people were the People of the nation. (p.8)

As Sharma explains, national liberation movements “took the imperial idea of indigeneity as a stable and static group and retooled it to fit the nations they were in the process of creating” (p.8). As national liberation movements across Asia, Africa and the Middle East drove out the imperial powers and achieved at least nominal national independence, they also created their own form of national identity that reproduced divisions between “natives” and “migrants”.

This had a devastating impact on those deemed to be migrants, as Sharma details. In Burma, Buddhist nationalists have unleashed waves of violence and forced expulsions of Rohingya people who have been “made Migrants both in national law and in everyday life”. Conflicts in Africa, and in particular Darfur, have been framed as a “racialized conflict between ‘Black African’ National-Natives and ‘light-skinned Arab’ Migrants”, feeding into Islamophobia. The infamous 1994 Rwandan genocide had its roots in “the self-identification of Hutus as the National-Natives of Rwanda and the categorization of Tutsis as colonizing Migrants” who need to be violently removed from a nation that they apparently did not “belong” to (pp.9–10).

In those countries with settler colonial origins like Australia, Canada, the United States of America, New Zealand etc, the situation is different from that in the post-independence nations, but the politics of separating “natives” from “migrants” is also evident. In these countries there are two separate groups claiming to be the real “natives”: the Indigenous populations and the descendants of mainly European settlers. The Indigenous population is of course the oppressed group in this conflict, and socialists support the struggle of Indigenous people against the racism of the capitalist state in these countries. It has also primarily been the capitalist nation state that oppresses Indigenous people that has also oppressed migrant populations. However, as Sharma explains:

[M]any Indigenous National-Natives, since at least the late 1980s, have come to view all Migrants (White and non-White) as barriers to their own claims to national sovereignty. Indeed, a growing chorus of Indigenous National-Native opinion asserts that all Migrants are “settler colonists”. Some Indigenous National-Natives have even said that “the label settler is too historically and politically sterile” and that all Migrants are nothing less than “occupiers” (Ward 2016). As the “White” in White Settler colonialism is omitted and replaced by a generic discussion of “settler colonialism”, negatively racialized people (i.e., Black, Latinx, or, perhaps especially, Asian people) – each of whom was expressly excluded from the White Settler colonial project – are increasingly depicted as colonizers of Indigenous National-Natives. (p.11)

Sharma here is not saying that “White people demanding the expulsion of Migrants in the name of being the ‘indigenous people of Europe’” are equivalent to “various Indian or Aboriginal claims to national sovereignty in the United States, Canada, or Australia”, nor that such divisions lead to genocide in this situation. However, as she writes (the term autochthonous here meaning ideologies based on a concept of Nativeness):

[T]here are important similarities in the different uses of autochthonous discourses – and these are not merely semantic. All autochthonous discourses portray Nativeness as an essential, unpolitical characteristic of some people. Authochthony is further understood as a concept helping us better understand social relations. However, Nativeness is neither an essence nor an analytic tool. It is, instead, a racialized idea and political category allowing some to make claims against others. All autochthonous discourses are also relational. They produce Migrants as the negative others of National-Natives. By articulating Nativeness with “nationness” and claiming that only National-Natives have rightful political claims to power, autochthonous discourses count on the subordination of Migrants. (p.271)

While many Indigenous people claim that their concepts of self-determination or sovereignty are simply a return to pre-colonial Indigenous cultures, Sharma shows that in reality much of the political framework around Indigenous sovereignty borrows heavily from mainstream nationalist ideas. This shouldn’t be particularly surprising for people from the socialist left. After all, as the most famous modern socialist writer on nationalism, Benedict Anderson, explained, all nationalisms, including those of the oppressed, are invented in response to the already established system of nation-states. The idea that they are fully formed, pre-existing, national identities inherited from a distant past is part of the mythic ideology of all nation-state projects, and all movements seeking to become nation-states.[1]

As Sharma makes clear in a reply to a recent critique of her book, this doesn’t mean that Indigenous nationalism is just the same as the mainstream nationalism of countries like Australia. However the pitfalls of Indigenous nationalism can’t be ignored.[2] In her book Sharma explores a number of negative examples of Indigenous nationalism.

In 1981 the Mohawks of Kahnawà:ke (in Canada’s province of Quebec) adopted the Kahnawà:ke Mohawk Law and Moratorium on Mixed Marriages. This law meant that “any Mohawk who married a non-native lost the right to residency, land allotment, land holding, voting, and office-holding in Kahnawà:ke”. The Membership Department of the Kahnawà:ke’s Mohawk Band Council further stipulated that “any Mohawk who married a non-native would leave the community”. The Band Council defined a Mohawk as someone “whose name appeared on the Band list and Reinstatement list and who had 50% or more blood quantum”. In 1981 several forced expulsions based on this law took place, then after a long hiatus they began again in February 2020, when letters were sent to 26 so-called “no-Mohawks” informing them that they had to leave the area.[3]

A similar situation has arisen regarding the Cherokee Nation’s decision to exclude Cherokee Freedmen, the descendants of Black people who were slaves of the Cherokees and were brought with them on the Trail of Tears to lands later claimed as Cherokee national territory. For over one hundred years the Cherokee Freedmen were considered apart of the Cherokee Nation following the abolition of slavery in 1865. In the 1980s an attempt to remove the Cherokee Freedmen from the Cherokee Nation was struck down by a court ruling. In response Chadwick Smith, the principal chief of the Cherokees, “called a special election to amend the tribal constitution to exclude all those unable to prove descent from ancestors enrolled as ‘Cherokees by blood’”. Smith made it very clear that he believed “the sovereignty of the Cherokee Nation was at stake” and “that his action was primarily directed at expelling the approximately 2,800 Cherokee Freedmen” (pp.256–9).

These might seem like extreme examples, but they flow from the acceptance of the nation-state model as one that should be pursued by Indigenous people, albeit in a particular form, in order to apparently achieve sovereignty and liberation. Even when such exclusions aren’t a prominent part of Indigenous nationalist projects, the reality is that all such projects involve coming to terms with the established capitalist state that controls the national territory and entering into an agreement with it, rather than struggling to overthrow it. It is this framework which underpins the counterposition between the rights of migrants and Indigenous people on the contemporary progressive left. To the problems that Sharma identifies with Indigenous nationalist projects I would add that understanding the class dynamics within Indigenous populations is absolutely essential. The narrow framing of Indigenous struggles as movements for the creation of sovereign political bodies, like the First Nations Assembly in Canada, has primarily benefited a small, privileged elite of middle-class and even capitalist Indigenous people rather than Indigenous populations as a whole. This layer has been increasingly promoted by the rest of the ruling class and the capitalist state in former colonial settler countries.

In Australia for instance the Morrison government’s Indigenous Procurement Policy saw 10,920 government contracts, valued at $1.09 billion, awarded to 943 Indigenous businesses in 2020–21. This is set to increase in coming years, with Morrison announcing a target of 3 percent of the value of Commonwealth contracts to be awarded to Indigenous businesses from 2022 onwards. It is also notable that it is often government departments traditionally associated with the hard right of politics that have had some of the biggest contracts with Indigenous businesses. The largest number of contracts is with the Department of Defence, which signed 6,476 contracts (valued at $610 million) in 2020–2021 There is also significant ruling-class support behind some kind of national Indigenous political body, such as an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, a project backed by the Business Council of Australia.[4]

This follows the path already pursued in Canada and New Zealand, where significant Indigenous middle classes have been created that have become a conservatising force as the political bodies they have established have been incorporated into the pre-existing capitalist state.

Sharma’s criticism of the counterposition between the rights of Indigenous people and migrants is useful, but I would go further. The whole framework of settler colonial theory, and its premise that in countries like Australia the key power dynamic is essentially that between “settlers” and “non-settlers”, leads to total confusion. As I’ve explained in a previous issue of this journal:

It is particularly disorienting to argue that the relationship between Australian capitalism and Indigenous people today is “colonial” in nature, with its implication that all of “settler society” is bound up in a colonial exploitation of the Indigenous population. This is to attribute the continuation of Indigenous oppression to the population as a whole rather than Australian capitalism and those who run it.[5]

It also ignores the long history of sympathy for and solidarity with Indigenous struggles by the labour movement and the socialist left in Australia, about which I’ve also written in previous issues of this journal.[6] This is because settler colonial theory is profoundly shaped by the rise of identity politics and privilege theory which seeks, as another contributor to this journal put it, the “elevation of select identity groups to moral and political pre-eminence, while implicitly or explicitly subordinating others”.[7] So something that would have strengthened Sharma’s argument would have been a consideration of how the rise of identity politics has negatively impacted on the socialist left’s understanding of issues of oppression.

The only serious alternative to the politics of ranking different oppressed groups against each other is revolutionary socialist politics rooted in solidarity and working-class self-emancipation. Recently I came across the February 1921 front cover of The Crusader, the newspaper of the African Blood Brotherhood. The Brotherhood was an organisation of radical Black activists in America who after a few years joined the Communist Party. The front cover of this issue of The Crusader celebrated the national liberation movement in Ireland, declaring:

The Irish fight for liberty is the greatest Epic of Modern History. It is a struggle that should have the sympathy and active support of every lover of liberty – of every member of an oppressed group. The Negro in particular should be interested in the Irish struggle, for while it is patent that Ireland can never escape from the menace of “the overshadowing empire” so long as England is able to maintain her grip on the riches and manpower of India and Africa, it is also clear that those suffering together under the heel of British imperialism must learn to CO-ORDINATE THEIR EFFORTS before they can HOPE TO BE FREE.

Clearly these revolutionaries didn’t think that the role of radicals was to diminish the struggles of other oppressed and exploited groups, nor to venerate their own struggle as the one for everyone else to bow down to in moralistic reverence.

An issue that I wouldn’t agree with Sharma about is the acceptance that the “Commons” is an alternative to the nation-state model. I’m a pretty classical Marxist, workers’ state with workers’ control, kind of person, and the Commons is all a bit too vague and prefigurative for my liking. However the thrust of what Sharma is arguing is right. Revolutionaries ultimately should be looking to a world based on human emancipation from national borders, and while we can support the right to self-determination for oppressed groups, that doesn’t mean we have to be uncritical of these movements, particularly considering the more than half a century of negative experiences we can now draw on from China to India and beyond.

I’m reminded of something that the great Irish civil rights leader and socialist Eamonn McCann said at the Marxism conference in 2015. He explained that while socialists of course make a distinction between the nationalism of the oppressed and the oppressor, we should never forget that at the end of the day we are internationalists, not nationalists. When a young comrade asked him what his greatest regret in life was, McCann replied that it was not arguing more seriously and confidently with those activists who went from the civil rights movement into the Irish Republican Army. Within a few years many of them would be dead, and those who survived would see their national movement become a hollow shell of the hopes, dreams and desires that had once animated them to join it.

Real solidarity with oppressed people means being willing to critically engage in struggles and debate out the complex issues.


Anderson, Benedict 1991, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, Verso.

Garnham, Sarah 2021, “The failure of identity politics: A Marxist analysis,” Marxist Left Review, 22, Winter.

Humphreys, Jordan 2021a, “Capitalism, colonialism and class: A Marxist explanation of Indigenous oppression today”, Marxist Left Review, 21, Summer.

Humphreys, Jordan 2021b, “Aboriginal unionists in the 1890s shearers’ strikes: a forgotten history”, Marxist Left Review, 22, Winter.

Humphreys, Jordan 2022, “Red and black: How Australian communists fought for Indigenous liberation”, Marxist Left Review, 23, Summer.

National Indigenous Australians Agency 2021, Indigenous Procurement Policy.

Phinney, Archie 2003 [1943], “Problem of the ‘White Indians’ of the United States”, Wicazo Sa Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, The Politics of Sovereignty (Autumn), pp.37–40.

Sharma, Nandita 2021, “Decolonization without National Sovereignty: a response to Neil Braganza”, Spectre.

[1] Anderson 1991.

[2] Sharma 2021.

[3] To give a sense of how backward a lot of the debates about membership of Indigenous communities have become, compare the decisions of the Mohawks with the position of left-wing Native American activist and anthropologist Archie Phinney, who wrote in 1943 that “It would be a serious loss to the Indian cause if a half-blood or one-fourth blood exclusion rule should be adopted”. Phinney 2003 [1943], p.40.

[4] National Indigenous Australians Agency 2021.

[5] Humphreys 2021a.

[6] Humphreys 2021b and 2022.

[7] Garnham 2021.

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