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What does it mean to be a settler?

  • 02 March 2020


In July of last year, Kurnai/Gunai, Gunditjmara, Wiradjuri and Yorta Yorta freelance writer Nayuka Gorrie asked on her Twitter account, ‘For my non-mob followers — do you identify as a settler? If not, why?’. 

At the time, I read the thread was curiosity and interest. Was I a settler? What did it mean to be a settler? I began asking my non-Indigenous friends around me what their thoughts were on the matter: did they identify as settlers? Some reacted with intrigue and were open to discussing it with me, and others reacted with strong distaste. ‘No’, they would say, ‘I just don’t like the word — it doesn’t describe who I am’.

More and more, I begun to see the term appear within my bubble, and understand that I, of English and Scottish ancestry, was in fact a settler too. Within my sphere, I saw the term used by non-Indigenous Australians, especially around Invasion Day.

On Invasion Day this year, Zambian-Australian singer-songwriter and rapper Sampa The Great tweeted, ‘I stand in solidarity with First Nations peoples of Australia. As a settler on Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung Lands, I know the 26th of January marks the beginning of colonisation and genocide, not a day of celebration. Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!’

On the same day, Australian author and journalist Benjamin Law tweeted an image of the AIATSIS map of Indigenous Australia with the caption, ‘On this day, non-Indigenous folks celebrate our multicultural. Too few know Australia’s always been this way. Fellow settlers: let’s stop being defensive and instead use today as an opportunity to learn about the survival humanity’s oldest civilisation. #AlwaysWasAlwaysWillBe’.

However, outside of the realms of Twitter, I didn’t really hear the label much, as it still only seemed to be used by those in the progressive fringes of the mainstream. So, why were others rejecting it so quickly out of hand? Well, in answer to this, I believe it’s due to the uncomfortable nature of the word, as it nods to the dark part of the British settlement that began in 1788, which saw genocide, massacres and the brutal treatment of Aboriginal peoples as a result. The term settler reminds us of this past, and many would prefer to ignore it than confront the shame and guilt associated with it.


'To me, the term settler acknowledges that we live in settler colonialism, which continues the systematic oppression of Indigenous