Pioneer Lies and Propertied Lives: Cultures of Colonial Unknowing on Turtle Island brings together visual culture and cultural studies specialists to examine the overlapping colonial histories on this land. We draw on the concept of “colonial unknowing” — of not recognizing colonialism when it is in front of us — to pay attention to the familiar legacies of Canadian art historical scholarship (Vimalassery et. al, 2016). By focussing on visual and material sources that explore land, we also critique what Goenpul scholar Aileen Moreton-Robinson has termed the logic of “white possessiveness” when it comes to art, culture, and creativity (2015).

Our research focusses on how the visual and material evidence of white European settlement’s “violent placidity” suggests that there has been no disruption in settler colonial violence despite the ways in which settlers like to creatively reimagine the white settler state of Canada: as innocent, exceptional for its benevolent apologies, and as a less violent place than the United States (Morton, forthcoming). What has resulted is an ongoing expansion of settler colonial violence that has directly followed earlier imperialist violence through the continued over-exploitation of non-human animals, plants, waterways, and land. And throughout, white settler artists emerged to produce creatively nostalgic visions of settler violence as the placid foundations of the white settler state.

The visual histories of settler colonialism are complex and crucial, and they demonstrate how settler legacies of Indigenous elimination and erasure intersect with legacies of slavery and anti-Black racism and what Chicasaw scholar Jodi Byrd (following African-Caribbean poet Kamau Brathwaite) calls “arrivant” colonial encounters — which Byrd refers to as “people forced into the Americas through the violence of European and Anglo-American colonialism and imperialism around the globe…” (2011, xix). Our project research pays particular attention to these intersections as we explore the visual record of these interrelated colonial encounters of settlement, slavery, and post-colonial and anti-colonial struggle.

Erin Morton, Principal Investigator



Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive: Property, Power, and Indigenous Sovereignty (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).

Jodi A. Byrd, The Transit of Empire: Indigenous Critiques of Colonialism (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).

Erin Morton, “White Settler Death Drives: Settler Statecraft, White Possession, and
Multiple Colonialisms under Treaty 6,” Cultural Studies 33 (2019): forthcoming.

Manu Vimalassery, Juliana Hu Pegues, and Aloysha Goldstein, “On Colonial Unknowing.” Theory and Event 19, 4, (2016):

Let your back bone rise

Featured Artwork:
Brandy Saturley, Let Your Backbone Rise, 2016.  Acrylic on canvas (91.5 x 91.5 cm)