Settler Fantasies, Televised

tags: colonialism, racism, popular culture, television, Whiteness, Indigenous history

Hannah Manshel writes and teaches about settler colonialism, slavery, and the violence of the US legal system, primarily in the 19th century. She is an assistant professor of English at the University of Hawai’i Mānoa. 

Awhite man finds himself alone in an unfamiliar wilderness. He walks for miles, seeking out the perfect piece of land on which to build himself a shelter. He gathers branches and tree trunks, clears ground, and constructs—laboriously and over time—a cabin. He decides it’s essential to give this plot of land a name—and, so, he gives it his own.

No, this is not the year 1719, and this man is not Robinson Crusoe. Rather, it’s 1985, and this man is Duane Ose, the central figure of the BBC miniseries Win the Wilderness. In the series, six white-presenting British couples compete in various survival-skills challenges to win the grand prize of inheriting the three-story log cabin Duane Ose built with his wife, Rena, in a remote location in Alaska, over one hundred miles from the nearest road.

But why is a white man, in the 20th century, free to claim—and name—such land? The show doesn’t say. Moreover, over the course of Win the Wilderness’s six episodes, not a single one of Alaska’s over two hundred federally recognized tribes is even mentioned, nor is the fabulously literal settler-colonial premise of the show acknowledged or remarked upon.

Such uncritical erasure and triumphalism might seem uniquely distasteful, if not dangerous. Yet, Win the Wilderness is just one, albeit egregious, example of a whole genre of reality TV shows. Including the Australian Netflix show Instant Hotel and HGTV’s slate of house-hunting and home-improvement shows, this genre is premised on fulfilling the settler fantasy of property ownership, as well as that fantasy’s constitutive relationship to whiteness.


Ose Mountain, like so many other white settlements, was made possible by the 1862 US Homestead Act, which allowed any adult (who had not taken arms against the US government) to claim ownership, free of charge, of up to 160 acres of “public” land, so long as they “improved” and “cultivated” it for five years. This act was passed in the middle of the American Civil War to draw white settlers westward, to increase, at least the apparent, strength of the then-divided nation, and to quash the apparent threat of Indigenous sovereignty.

Homesteading in Alaska was made legal by President William McKinley in 1898 (perhaps not so coincidentally, the same year the US illegally annexed Hawaii). Thereafter, Alaskan homesteading was permitted until as late as 1986; Ose, a year prior, had established his homestead on the mountain just in time. (In the continental US, homesteading ended 10 years earlier.) It was under this 1898 act that Duane Ose was able to walk, by his record, over 50 miles into the “wilderness,” to lay claim to the ancestral homelands of Alaska Native people.

Read entire article at Public Books

comments powered by Disqus