White Lies Matter: MLive, Holland and the celebration of Settler Colonialism

On Tuesday, February 9, MLive ran an article entitled, Dutch settlers founded Holland on this day in 1847Screen Shot 2016-02-09 at 4.52.43 PM

The article then says:

It was Feb. 9, 1847 when a small group of settlers led by Rev. Albertus C. Van Raalte built its first cabins nearly three months after the group’s ship, “The Southerner,” reached the New World in November of 1846.

Van Raalte spent five weeks traversing a 30-mile stretch between the mouths of the Grand and Kalamazoo Rivers in December of 1846, before eventually deciding upon 1,000 acres near the southeast corner of Black Lake (Lake Macatawa).

The rest of the MLive story goes on to talk about Van Raalte and provides a lengthy excerpt from then Michigan Gov. Epaphroditus Ransom, where the governor endorses the Dutch “colony,” which is the term the governor used in his remarks.

There are two things that are astounding about this story. First, there is no mention of the Anishinaabe that were living on the land that Van Raalte and his fellow believers had decided would be theirs.

Second, the article is an example of how the dominant narrative about Euro-American settlement in what is now the United States. People came to the New World, (which is how the MLive article described it) settled on land that was seemingly vacant and founded a community without ever mentioning the existence of Native people. In other words, what the MLive article does is to continue the long tradition of Manifest Destiny, which for Native people is just code for Settler Colonialism.

Native scholar Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz describes Settler Colonialism in her bookAn Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States as such:

“Settler colonialism has best been defined as more of an imposed structure than an historical event. This structure is characterized by relationships of domination and subjugation that become woven throughout the fabric of society, and even becomes disguised as paternalistic benevolence. The objective of settler colonialism is always the acquisition of indigenous territories and resources, which means the native must be eliminated. This can be accomplished in overt ways including biological warfare and military domination but also in more subtle ways; for example, through national policies of assimilation.”indigenous-history

In looking at other sources on Van Raalte, I was hard pressed to find much about his group’s decision to occupy land at what is now Holland. One source paints Van Raalte and his followers as having to endure all kinds of hardship, but again, there is no mention of indigenous people.

Returning to his followers, he reached these parts again with a devoted band of pioneers, marching single file along Indian trails, on the 9th ofFebruary, 1847. It is impossible to describe in this brief sketch the deadly struggle waged by the pioneers with the forest tangles and wild animals; with inadequate food and insufficient shelter; with summer heat and winter cold; with the malarial effluvia of the swampy forests, and the resulting decimating diseases; with homesickness and despondency, with detractions and evil reports,and all manner of discouragement. With God’s help they persisted and prevailed. Dr. Van Raalte was the head and heart of the enterprise, and his death, in the early years of the history of the Colonies, would have precipitated the whole desperate undertaking of the inexperienced and poverty-stricken settlers in hopeless ruin and confusion. 

In another source the writer states that Van Raalte, “expected to find their promised land, but instead found an insect-infested swamp and dense forest.” Again, no mention of indigenous people.

In yet another source, the writer states, On Feb. 9, 1847, Van Raalte and six people of his party arrived at the Old Wing Mission, located in northern Allegan County’s Fillmore Township, to begin the Herculean task of transforming the wilderness into a thriving “city set on a hill.” Once again, no mention of indigenous people. 

There are lots of references to Van Raalte and the fact that he founded Hope College and his community had joined the Reformed Church in America (RCA), but one is hard pressed to find any reference to indigenous people living in the area of what became Holland, Michigan. The lack of any reference to indigenous people on the so-called founding of Holland only solidifies how entrenched the values of Settler Colonialism are here in West Michigan, in both commercial media and the dominant culture.

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