Michael Knowles, host of The Michael Knowles Show. G. Woodman/DailyWire+
Credit: G. Woodman/DailyWire+


Giving Thanks For Settler Colonialism 


This is a portion of a speech delivered by Michael Knowles at Vanderbilt University on Tuesday, November 28, 2023. 

The activist Left — from Hollywood to the newsrooms and especially on campus — has spent nearly two months smearing all of history’s victors as “colonizers” and “settlers.” The reason for this uptick in “anti-colonial” activism is Hamas’ current war with the state of Israel, which the Left has accused of engaging in settler colonialism. And the most prominent defense of the modern Israeli state thus far has been to deny its status as a “settler” or “colonial” entity. 

This, I think, is a bad strategy for a few reasons: first, because the Israeli state manifestly is a settler and colonial endeavor, deriving from the Balfour Declaration of the British Empire during World War I, after which the Brits wrested the territory from the Ottoman Empire; two, more relevant to all of us, because our own nation is similarly a settler and colonial project deriving from the Treaty of Paris, in which the British Empire recognized the United States as an independent nation; and three, because all regimes in history have been established by settlers and colonizers of one kind or another.

Not since Adam in the Garden of Eden have any people sprouted out of the ground. (And in the case of Adam, you might recall, he had a little help.) Borders, nations, and regimes have changed for all of history as people have multiplied, shrunk, and moved around. The aim of the “decolonization” activists is to return land from the people who currently possess it to the people who previously possessed it. That does not seem to me to solve the problem. At best, it only pushes the problem a little bit further back in history.

In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the American government had illegally taken the Black Hills of South Dakota — the site of Mount Rushmore — from the Lakota Sioux. The Court ordered the government to pay the Lakota the initial offering price of the land, plus interest, coming out to a total of $106 million.

The U.S. had pledged in the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1868 to set the Black Hills “apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians,” thus ending Red Cloud’s War. Six years later, however, General George Custer entered the Black Hills amid reports of gold found there. And then, attracted by Custer’s descriptions of the land and the resources on it, settlers began to enter. Initially, the U.S. military tried to honor the treaty and turn the settlers away. But the settlers kept coming, which led President U.S. Grant to tell the military to stand down and stop opposing the settlement.

Eventually, with so many American settlers on the land, the U.S. government decided that the only way to avoid another war would be to pay the Lakota Sioux for the land. Negotiations broke down, Custer led a charge, and the Indians, led by Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, defeated Custer at the famous Battle of Little Bighorn.

The victory didn’t last long. The Americans quickly defeated the rowdy Sioux. Still, the Sioux refused to surrender. But they also didn’t have any means to survive, having been stripped of their weapons and horses. So in 1876, Congress made aid to the Sioux contingent on their ceding the land to the United States. Some Sioux leaders agreed to a settlement — but not enough to satisfy the requirements of the Fort Laramie Treaty, which led to the Supreme Court case more than a century later.

The liberal Court ruled in favor of the Sioux in 1980 over the objections of the conservative Justice William Rehnquist. Notice, however, that the Court did not order the U.S. to give the land back to the Indians. Not only would such an order have been insane; but it would also have been impractical. It’s American land. A quarter-million Americans live there. Four U.S. presidents have their faces carved on the mountains.

Even the Sioux didn’t accept the decision. They hadn’t waited over 100 years to accept what they considered to be blood money for stolen land. By 2011, the settlement was valued at over $1 billion. The Sioux still would not accept it. Today it’s probably worth somewhere in the neighborhood of a gazillion dollars, when you take into account Biden’s inflation. The Sioux still will not accept it. And it’s a lucky thing they won’t. Because the settlement would raise just as many problems as it would solve.

The reason for that is that the Lakota Sioux did not magically sprout out of the Black Hills of South Dakota. In fact, the Lakota Sioux only possessed the Black Hills for about 100 years — less time, in fact, than the United States has possessed it. The Lakota only acquired the Black Hills in 1776. And the way they acquired it was by moving in from Minnesota and conquering the Cheyennes. So should the U.S. government really pay one billion dollars to the Lakota because we took Lakota land? Or should we just pay it straight to the Cheyenne because the Lakota took Cheyenne land?

Well, hold on. Not so fast. I think you see where this is going. It turns out that those Cheyennes did not just spring out of the ground either. No, no. The Cheyenne only moved in during the 18th century. Before that, the land had belonged to the Kiowa and the Crow before the Ojibwe Indians started taking land from the Lakota, impelling the Cheyenne to start taking the land from the Kiowa and the Crow before the Lakota took the land from the Cheyenne before the U.S. took the land from the Lakota.

How exactly do the anti-colonial activists suggest we decolonize the Black Hills? I’m not asking that just to own the libs, which I’m of course happy to do. But I’d also like an answer. If anyone in this room has an answer, I’m all ears. We’ll have plenty of time during the Q&A for you to solve that problem. What exactly do the “decolonize” activists propose that we do?

The right of conquest has been a universally recognized principle of politics everywhere on earth for all of human history until about 70 years ago, when liberal utopians pretended that a couple of U.N. declarations could fundamentally change politics and human nature and freeze history in place. Today, we are witnessing in real time the futility of such pipe dreams.

Put the current war in the Middle East aside. This is the time of year that the issue of “decolonization” often crops up on its own. And that’s because we’ve just celebrated Thanksgiving. Well, some of us celebrated Thanksgiving. The patriots and the otherwise normal people in this room celebrated Thanksgiving, I’m sure. I celebrated Thanksgiving. I particularly enjoy Thanksgiving because a number of my ancestors were present at the first Thanksgiving. Not on the Italian side; they came over a bit later, my mother used to say on a sardine boat. But on the English side of my family, four ancestors came over on the Mayflower. 

One of them was a Pilgrim, the first doctor in New England: Samuel Fuller. The other ones were considered somewhat less upstanding. One of my ancestors, John Billington, was the first man executed for murder in Plymouth Colony. His friend Francis Eaton, another ancestor, had all sorts of financial problems and died a debtor. And my final Mayflower ancestor, Stephen Hopkins, was so infamous a mutineer on an earlier voyage that his shipwreck around Bermuda served as the basis of Shakespeare’s “Tempest.”

A mixed bag, you might say. But I don’t disavow any of them. Far from it — I just launched a cigar company, Mayflower Cigars, in their honor. And we sold out on the first day, I’m happy to report — four months’ work of stock plus as many preorders as we were allowed to sell. Now, side note, if you’re interested, you can enter your email addresses at mayflowercigars.com to receive updates when they’re back in stock. You must be at least 21 years old to order, some exclusions apply. (I think that’s all the lawyers told me to say.)

In any case, I certainly don’t disavow my biological ancestors for much the same reason that we shouldn’t disavow our political ancestors — men such as Christopher Columbus, the Founding Fathers, all the great men who built our nation, namely, because without them we wouldn’t be here. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and the stupid ones among us think that they’re flying.

Why did our ancestors — literal and political — settle this land? Why did they colonize and conquer this far-flung place? The “decolonization” activists will tell you they did so for material plunder. As usual, these liberal accusations are in fact confessions. The libs are projecting, as they often do. Having adopted the fashionable materialism of modernity, these leftists cannot even imagine that one might be motivated by higher ideals. But in the case of the great men of history that we’re discussing — Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers — they were. And the proof of that is that none of them got particularly rich for their efforts. On the contrary, most of them were personally impoverished.

Columbus was never paid what he was owed by the Spanish Crown. Inasmuch as he undertook the voyage across the ocean for wealth, he did so in search of funds for another crusade to free the Holy Land, as the historian Carol Delaney has demonstrated. The Pilgrims of the Mayflower gave up not one but two lives of relative comfort — one in England and another, even more comfortable, in their adopted home in the Netherlands. After they got to America, half of them died before the first winter was through. 

George Washington lost half his net worth during the Revolutionary War. John Adams faced financial problems throughout the war — problems he might have fixed, but he refused, at great personal cost, in order to continue his service in the Continental Congress. Thomas Jefferson died a debtor, and that debt grew in large part thanks to his 40 years in public service.

For virtually all of history everywhere on earth, mere acquisitiveness sufficed to justify wars of conquest. But ironically, the men the leftists call thieves and plunderers were all motivated by higher ideals, up to and including the highest ideal of all: religion, the worship of and service to God.

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