A Resource for Asian Americans: Understanding Settler Colonialism

A Resource for Asian Americans: Understanding Settler Colonialism

For Indigenous History Month, we would like to honor our Indigenous and Pacific Islander siblings. It's rare to hear their voices within AAPI media, and we believe it is important for non-Indigenous people to understand their relationship to the lands that they occupy and the people who have been displaced. We’ve invited Lauren Markle, a mixed Asian American and Indigenous writer, to share her perspective.

A Resource for Asian Americans to Understand Settler Colonialism

As told by a Mixed Asian American-Indigenous Hawaiian writer


Colonialism (noun): The subjugation of the original inhabitants of an area through past and current physical and political occupation. This often includes resource extraction and economic exploitation.

Settler Colonialism (noun): When the Indigenous peoples of a land are further displaced by settlers who permanently move to this land.

Indigenous (adjective): Native; The original inhabitants of a particular region. Oftentimes Indigenous identity is separate from the State.

Many Asian Americans understand colonization as a part of their family history. These experiences of intergenerational trauma continue today. Examples of colonization in Asia include: 

For many Asian Americans, this history of colonization is a source of trauma and pain. In fact, many Asian Americans have migrated to the United States because of destabilization due to said colonization. 

Settler colonialism is a common type of oppression that happens around the world. Within Asia, just a few examples include:

  •  The Han Chinese colonization of Taiwan during the Qing Dynasty
  •  Japan’s annexation of Okinawa in the early 1600s, and the Japanese government's ongoing refusal to recognize the inhabitants of Okinawa as Indigenous
  • The ongoing settling of Tibet and Xinjiang by people who are not Indigenous to those areas

Settler colonialism in the land we now call the United States began hundreds of years ago and continues today. As non-Indigenous people living in the Americas, Asian Americans also take part in settler colonialism (with the exception of multiracial Asian Americans with Indigenous roots here).

Note: Sometimes nations and states will justify their occupation of Indigenous lands as part of an effort to “civilize”, develop, or otherwise improve a region. Regardless of any helpful intentions, settling a region with non-Indigenous people (without their consent), reducing Indigenous people’s political power, and seeking to change or dilute the cultural/ethnic makeup of a region is settler colonialism.

To be an Indigenous person is to be native to the land; it is to have an ancestral connection to the land; to care for the land and to have the land care for you. Indigenous peoples were self-sustaining, had complex societies, and led fruitful, vibrant lives pre-colonization. Contrary to popular belief, many Indigenous people are worse off due to colonialism. Today, Indigenous people in the U.S.  have limited access to their ancestral lands, suffer financially (1) (Indigenous people have over 3 times the poverty rate of White Americans), have an overall lower life expectancy relative to all other races in the US (2), and continue to be exploited by the United States government

Contemporary examples of continued colonization and exploitation of Indigenous lands and people include the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea, both of which are protested by Indigenous people in those areas.

As someone who embodies both settler colonial and Indigenous history in my blood, I ask that my fellow Asian American peers reflect upon how we continue to perpetuate and benefit from this ongoing colonization of Indigenous lands and people.

The most evident example of how we benefit from settler colonialism is the land we live on. In 1830, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, which allowed the federal government to “trade” land in the west for Native American ancestral homelands in the eastern United States. However, despite creating hundreds of treaties with various Native American tribes, the U.S. government ultimately stole Native land, oftentimes by violent means. Today, there are only 56 million acres of land reserved for Native American tribes and individuals, roughly only 2% of their original ancestral lands. In Hawai’i, only 200,000 acres of land, or 0.04% of Hawaiian lands (3), are reserved for Hawaiian Home Lands, a state program where land is held in trust for Native Hawaiians. Additionally, Native Hawaiians are further restricted from accessing this land due to its extremely long waitlist and its strict 50% blood quantum requirement. The land that we live on was forcefully taken from Indigenous people, and our communities here benefit from their continued displacement. In many places in the U.S., Asian American communities are growing and becoming wealthier, while Indigenous and Pacific Islander communities have yet to see similar gains. For example, Hawai’i’s population of Asian Americans is upwards of 40% while the population of Native Hawaiians is less than 10% (4).  Relative to Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians experience more than triple the rates of poverty (5) and homelessness (6).

In order for non-Indigenous people to live in America and have access to its resources and land, Indigenous people have been subjected to genocide, restricted to small portions of land, and forced to assimilate to the culture of their colonizers. As Asian Americans live here, build wealth, and amass political power, we still perpetuate the ongoing marginalization and exploitation of Indigenous communities, land and culture by occupying land that was seized from the original inhabitants through unjust means. Harming Indigenous people was not our intent, nor that of our ancestors, yet by immigrating and settling here, we still benefit from settler colonialism. Recognizing the shared history of colonization in our respective ancestral lands and as current settlers on this land, we Asian Americans have a responsibility to take action in solidarity.

by Lauren Markle


PRE-COLONIAL POPULATION: The total Indigenous population of the pre-colonial Americas was at least 60 million people. 90% of the Native population died during a roughly 100 year span (7) (1492-1600) due to colonial violence and the (sometimes intentional) introduction of European diseases. In North America, the pre-colonial Indigenous population was estimated to be at least 18 million people. The Native American population was as low as 238,000 people in the late 19th century due to ongoing colonial wars, disease and forced relocations (such as the Trail of Tears). Indigenous people have faced this settler-colonial nightmare with remarkable resiliency.

CULTURAL GENOCIDE: George Washington and subsequent U.S. leaders believed it was necessary to “civilize” Native Americans in order to reduce their political power. Under the  Civilization Fund Act in 1819, the government “educated”hundreds of thousands of Native American children in boarding schools. Children were separated from their families, forbidden to speak their native language and subjected to abuse and inhumane living conditions. Many died due to malnourishment, disease and suicide. Investigations surrounding these schools have only just started. In terms of cultural loss, approximately 300-500 (8)  Indigenous languages were spoken in the U.S. prior to colonization. Only 167 remain today, with the majority considered moribund or nearly extinct. It is estimated that only 20 of these languages will survive to 2050.

Ways in which we can take action to support and amplify Indigenous people: 

  • Support Indigenous-owned businesses! Avoid buying from businesses that culturally appropriate Indigenous cultures. 
  • Call for more accurate representation of Indigenous people in news and media
    • Advocate for Indigenous characters to be played by Indigenous actors 
    • Hire Indigenous sensitivity readers for media related to Indigenous culture and people
    • Listen to Indigenous activists and reporters who speak on topics related to their communities
    • Consume media about Indigenous people by Indigenous people
  • Do not engage in cultural appropriation:
    • Obviously offensive costumes are off the table. Costumes to avoid also include “Hula Dancer” or “Polynesian Dancer.” Many Hula dances are considered a sacred and religious performance. 
    • Using “Hapa” to refer to mixed Asian individuals when Hawaiians have advocated for this term to be used exclusively for mixed Hawaiians
    • Using the term “Spirit Animal” to refer to how much you relate to something, or feel connected to something. This is a sacred concept for many different Indigenous communities.
    • Identifying as “native” to a state if you have no Indigenous ancestry. For example, “I’m a native Californian.” or “I’m a New York native”
      • You can use more accurate terms to describe your relationship to the land, e.g. “I was born and raised in California.” or “I am a third-generation Asian American.”


    1.  2018 Bureau of Labor Statistics 
    2. Indian Health Service Fact Sheet, October 2019
    3. Department of Hawaiian Homelands
    4. Census, 2019
    5. AAPI Data, 2018
    6. Partners in Care, O’ahu Point in Care Report 2020
    7. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2019, “Earth system impacts of the European arrival and Great Dying in the Americas after 1492”
    8. Encyclopedia Britannica, Native American History