A white 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.1
The premise of Win the Wilderness is as follows: six white-presenting, conventionally attractive, heterosexual couples—ranging in age from late-20s to 50s and ranging in occupation from “lifestyle bloggers” to “farmers”—arrive at Lost Lake Wilderness Camp outside of Fairbanks, Alaska. With backpacks full of outdoor gear, contestants are prepared to compete in a series of challenges, with the goal of winning the deed to the Oses’s cabin and property on the eponymous Ose mountain. The challenges include building a shelter out of tarps and logs, way-finding with a map and compass, and spending the night in the wet Alaskan woods, equipped with only a few essential survival items.
The winner of each challenge is granted the opportunity to travel via bush plane to Ose Mountain to spend 24 hours with the 70-something-year-old Oses, who themselves had decided that their age was making it impossible to continue living so profoundly off-grid. Following each visit, the Oses decide whether to send the couple home, or allow them to remain in the running. The Oses interview each couple about their plans for the property (proposing an imaginative future use for the land, such as opening it up for public tourism, is a key criterion for winning) and their capacities for living in isolation and maintaining the day-to-day operations of the homestead. The last couple remaining inherits the house and the land.
Like many British reality shows (The Great British Bake Off, for example), Win the Wilderness presents a competition that is wholly congenial, with none of the scheming and conniving of American shows, such as Survivor. There’s very little narrative tension, other than the polite eliminations of one couple at a time, to drive the energy of the show forward.
But what kept this viewer engaged episode after uneventful episode was the anticipation of when—or if—any of the contestants or producers would acknowledge the presence of Alaska Natives or the settler colonial fantasy that the show actualizes with a near-unbearable lack of subtlety. Reader—it never did.
“Win the Wilderness” enacts a perverse palimpsest of American homesteading and British settler colonialism.
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.2
Homesteading in Alaska was made legal by President William McKinley in 1898 (perhaps not so coincidentally, the same year the US illegally annexed Hawaii).3 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.4
Win the Wilderness enacts a kind of perverse palimpsest of American homesteading (the Oses’s building of their cabin) and British settler colonialism (the couples emigrating from Britain to Alaska to inherit the property). At the same time, the show mashes up two genres of reality television: the house-hunting show (House Hunters and its affiliates) and the wilderness-survival show (Survivor, Alone, Naked and Afraid). In the opening montage, a British-accented narrator establishes Alaska as “a vast wilderness where you can still find real adventure and total escape,” while the camera pans over aerial footage of a dense pine forest, then cuts to a bear, teeth bared, devouring a large fish.
This trope—viewing Indigenous land as a space for white-settler pleasure, enlivened by the erotic allure of danger—is familiar to any reader of 19th-century Anglophone literature or to anyone who has witnessed tourist advertising for colonized or formerly colonized places. The “wilderness” is dangerous, but it is also vast and open, available to be settled and “tamed.” But the obviousness of the show’s presentation of colonial desire is compounded by the fact that it’s not solely about intrepid singular settlers, forging their way in a so-called trackless wilderness. Rather, the show is specifically about inheritance, about the perpetuation of property claims across settler generations.
The trackless wilderness is far from the only colonial trope made apparent in this and other property-centric reality shows. The provision in the 1862 Homestead Act that required settlers to “improve” the land hearkens back to the justifications some of the earliest English colonists made to expropriate Native land that they knew to be occupied.
In 1631, Puritan colonist John Winthrop argued that the Puritans were called by God to “replenish the earth, and subdue it,” and that the Native people, not being Christians, ignore this commandment and so leave “a whole continent as fruitful and convenient for the use of man to lie waste without any improvement.”5 The argument that Native people did not cultivate land and, therefore, did not have legal claim to it, was common in that era. So, too, was the settler move to “replenish” and “subdue,” by building houses and fences and by planting crops, in order to soothe their guilty colonizing consciences.
But recent pop-cultural documents suggest that this anxious move to build and plant did not end with the 1986 termination of the Homestead Act. Rather, it manifests now in the move to home improvement and showy public media displays thereof, which we can see clearly in HGTV shows like Fixer Upper, Love It or List It, and Flip or Flop, as well as, albeit in a different idiom, in the Australian Instant Hotel.
In Fixer Upper, perky couple Chip and Joanna Gaines lead (mostly) white couples through sagging, peeling, overly carpeted, or otherwise run-down and unstylish houses in and around Waco, Texas (homelands of the Kiikaapoi [Kickapoo], Tonkawa, and Waco [Hueco] people), which were built as early as the late 19th century or as late as the 1980s. The couples, then, in the narrative of the show, select one of the houses to purchase, at which point the show pivots to the Gaineses renovating the home, and then culminates in a dramatic reveal of the restored and transformed property. Although some of the contestants are nonwhite, and Joanna Gaines is herself mixed race, Fixer Upper draws all of its participants—regardless of their racial identities—into a white-supremacist, colonizing practice.
Each renovation project insists upon preserving the “history” and the “story” of the house, while still adding an open floor plan, French doors, and new stainless-steel appliances, revealing the settler desire to not erase the past but rather to encapsulate it into their wholly customized version of the present.
The taglines of the show, iterated in the opening sequence of each episode, locate Fixer Upper plainly in a settler colonial fantasy. The line “We take the worst house in the best neighborhood, and we turn it into our clients’ dream home …” traffics in deeply racialized ideas, such as that there’s such a thing as a “good” or “best” neighborhood. Another is that our aspiring property owners have a unique capacity (with a relatively small amount of cash, along with enough metaphorical spit and elbow grease)—both to find a home to settle in that might otherwise be outside of their budget and to offer their own contribution to the “improvement” of the already “good” neighborhood.
In “Fixer Upper,” the Gaineses perform the work of “subduing” and “improving” over and over again, in an uncanny recurring nightmare of settler colonial haunting.
The second tagline—“Do you have the guts to take on a fixer-upper?”—is, like the twinned language of danger and escape used to describe Alaska in Win the Wilderness, figured in terms of a challenge steeped in erotic desire. Purchasing property and contracting an upbeat couple to perform renovations—all of which is tracked via cable television—is imagined to be a dangerous risk, which only the boldest are cut out for. Those with the “guts” to “take on a fixer-upper” are then figured to be intrepid pioneers, improving untamed wall-to-wall carpet into domesticated hardwood flooring.
Unlike House Hunters, a show about the fundamental marital incompatibility of those seeking to purchase a house, Fixer Upper is more about the marital rapport between the Gaines, who regularly exchange terms of endearment and good-natured, deprecating banter. They model, for both the buyer and the viewer, not only the capacity for property transformation but the way such settlement is made possible through the distinct harmony of the heterosexual-couple form. Marriage is, after all, primarily an institution meant to secure the intergenerational transmission of property rights. Many episodes are intercut with segments showing the Gainses working with their children on their own family farm, harvesting herbs and welding I-beams in restored silos, as if to suggest that the Gaineses themselves are the epitome of the “successful” American settler–family fantasy to which their contestants aspire. And, yet, most of the people who actually do the labor “fixing up” the properties are unnamed, uncredited people of color, whose faces are sometimes literally blurred out. In effect, over the course of the show’s 79 episodes, the Gaineses perform the work of “subduing” and “improving” over and over again, in an uncanny recurring nightmare of settler colonial haunting.
The constitutive relationship between whiteness and property ownership under settler colonialism is crystalized in the Australian show Instant Hotel. In this show, five pairs of vacation-rental proprietors (some of which are romantic couples, others are familial) stay in and judge each other’s properties, as they compete for whose “instant hotel” is the most hospitable and luxurious, and offers the best range of entertainment. The vacation rentals are located in a wide variety of locations, from the rural Humpty Doo in the Northern Territories to the upscale Bondi Beach outside of Sydney.
In the first season’s fifth episode, the contestants travel to Port Douglas, Queensland, to stay at the vacation rental of Brent and Leroy, whose identifier is “Fussy Couple.” One of the activities Brent and Leroy provide for their guests in what they repeatedly extoll as a “tropical paradise” (a sure sign of colonialism, if there ever was one) is the opportunity to hunt for mud crabs on Aboriginal land, with a Native guide. In this show, the very existence of Aboriginal people is nothing more than a side note exploited for touristic entertainment.
But an exchange in the confessional interview between haughty mother-and-daughter duo Babe and Bondi (yes, she named her daughter after the beach neighborhood in which they live) encapsulates the way in which these white property owners explicitly define themselves in relation to an Indigenous “other.” After Bondi, who’s played as the “spoiled brat princess” character of the show, shocks everyone, including herself, with her success and enjoyment of the mud-crab hunting activity, her mother, Babe, quips, “Bondi might go Native,” to which Bondi retorts, “Do these eyebrows look like they could live the tribal lifestyle? I think not.” Bondi’s eyebrows serve here as a metonym for her “whiteness as constituted by rental property ownership.” And, just like that, the entire life, culture, and history of Aboriginal Australia is cast aside in order to justify the ongoing, touristic pursuit of white-settler pleasure.
So, how should viewers reckon with these shows that are as oblivious to colonial history as they are successful in commercial terms? Are they so rotten as to be worthy of being canceled, in both the literal and the more colloquial sense? Might it be that this rottenness is part of their appeal? It would seem trite to suggest that any of these shows would be improved by the addition of a pat land acknowledgement running over the opening or closing credits. A title card stating that “Fixer Upper Is Filmed on Wichita and Tonkawa Land” would act only as a token of liberal inclusion, while changing none of the underlying structures motivating either the shows or the home-improvement and real-estate markets.6
One show that fits in this settler-fantasy genre, the History Channel show Alone, does include one minor, meaningful political gesture. Though far from admirable in its representations of Indigeneity, and still trafficking in the contestants’ ahistorical, racist fantasies about “going Native,” Seasons 1, 2, and 4 of Alone were, in fact, produced in consultation with the Quatsino First Nation of what’s now called Vancouver Island. The fact of this partnership does not absolve the show of its faults, but it, at least, means that Alone’s underlying structure includes a more substantive acknowledgment of Indigenous people’s claim to the land on which it is filmed.
The actual show, alas, resembles its peers’ ignorance in how it portrays contestants’ relationship to land and to Indigenous cultures. In the show, contestants are tasked with surviving alone in the wilderness with only a set number of items for as many days as possible, and in the seasons set on Vancouver Island, the tribe hosts the contestants on their reserve land, invites them for a send-off ceremony, and grants them tribal hunting and fishing permits for the duration of filming.7 But even if the material conditions of Alone’s production take First Nations lives and perspectives into account, the actual narrative that the show presents either completely ignores the presence of actual First Nations people, or figures the relationship as one of host/guest that erases the violent history of colonialism.
In their engagements with modern-day settler fantasy, these property-pursuing shows range from the sly (Fixer Upper) to the blatant (Win the Wilderness). Win the Wilderness wins this contest for lack of subtlety in its outright—even titular—embrace of settler-colonial ideology and aesthetics. Its absolute refusal to acknowledge that embrace, or to propose any alternative, is almost embarrassingly brazen. As it turns out, America’s long-standing project of colonial expansion and its accompanying colonial rhetorics are so mainstream as to be unremarkable for many viewers (and TV executives).8
Thanks to its tremendous amounts of aerial footage, Win the Wilderness positions the viewer (and the contestants) as Gods surveying unpeopled land. In the final episode, the winning couple inherits and carries on not only the deed to the property but Duane Ose’s settler imaginary. (Ose compares the competition between the final two couples to the O.K. Corral, quite literally invoking 19th-century cowboy aesthetics.) In the final episode, a member of the winning couple describes Alaska as “the final frontier.” And in a closing montage, looking out over “his” newly inherited land, he muses “it’s a kingdom, it’s a huge kingdom,” of which, of course, he now believes he has become his own tiny sovereign. It’s this white, settler sovereignty, rather than the self-governing sovereignty of Native people, that these shows unabashedly glorify.
This article was commissioned by Sarah Kessler.
- See Cheryl I. Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review (1993) vol. 106, no. 8, pp. 1707–1791, and Aileen Moreton-Robinson, The White Possessive (University of Minnesota Press, 2015), see especially pp. xi-xxiv. ↩
- Kevin Bruyneel, The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of US–Indigenous Relations (University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. 46. ↩
- US Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, “History of Alaska Homesteading: The Last Chapter in America’s Homestead Experience” (brochure), March 2017. ↩
- The politics of Native land in Alaska are complicated and unique: in fact, in 1971, the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act eliminated Alaska Native people’s title to their land, and created 12 (later 13) regional Alaska Native Regional Corporations, for-profit corporations, held by Alaska Native shareholders, which retained the title to the land and distributed profits of the land claims to those shareholders. See Roy M. Huhndorf and Shari M. Huhndorg, “Alaska Native Politics Since the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act,” South Atlantic Quarterly, vol. 110, no. 2 (2011), pp. 385–401. ↩
- John Winthrop, “Reasons to Be Considered for the Plantation in New England,” (1628), The Winthrop Society, 2015. ↩
- See Lou Cornum, “Burial Ground Acknowledgements,” The New Inquiry, 14 Oct 2019, https://thenewinquiry.com/burial-ground-acknowledgements/, accessed August 8, 2020 and Eva Hageman, “Debt by Design: Race and Home Valorization on Reality TV” in Racism Postrace (Duke University Press, 2019), pp. 221–244. ↩
- David Wiwchar, “History Channel’s Hit Series Alone: A Collaboration with Quatsino First Nation,” Indiancountrytoday.com, 17 July 2017, https://indiancountrytoday.com/archive/history-channel-s-hit-series-alone-a-collaboration-with-quatsino-first-nation-wH3I61eny0mtKwgtB3V6qQ, accessed August 8, 2020. ↩
- And also, apparently, for journalists and newspaper editors, judging from the recent New York Times piece “Living on Free Land” by Alyson Krueger, 12 June 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/12/realestate/homesteading-free-land-programs.html. ↩