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A Critique of a Doctrine of Reconciliation

Words have a history. Words from the past have the ability to colonize the present. Words shape and create reality.

Reconciliation has a history; it has the ability to colonize the present for Indigenous nations and peoples; it can be used to maintain a particular kind of reality that benefits states to the continued detriment of Indigenous nations and peoples. It is a term that deserves further investigation and discussion rather than immediate unquestioning adoption.

In my view, it is not possible to “reconcile” ourselves with a dominator (predatory) perspective and behaviors, or with the terribly destructive legacy of that paradigm of domination.

“Reconciliation” was a major theme in the Torquemada Code of the Inquisition. Indian spiritual leaders in Mexico and other areas of Spanish claimed territory were persecuted under the Inquisition, and our Indigenous spiritual leaders more northward on Turtle Island, were persecuted by the Catholic Church and other denominations of Christianity.

In the Kumeyaay Archives where I work, we have an obscure biography of Jesuit Missionary Juan Salvatierra (“salvation of the earth”), the title page of which refers to him as an “Apostolic Conqueror,” which means “Papal Conqueror.”

The boarding “schools” and residential “schools” were part of the mission of Apostolic Conquest in keeping with many Vatican papal documents that declared war against our originally free nations and peoples with the goal of instituting a Reign of Domination under the rubric of church and state. Everything that is being dealt with today in terms of the various forms of trauma that emerged out of the boarding “schools” and residential “schools”, were the result of an avowed global campaign to destroy our languages, cultures, and spiritual traditions, while profiting by dominating our lands, territories, and resources, particularly our rivers and other sources of water.

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The issue is not how to “reconcile” ourselves with an ongoing agenda of domination, but how to heal and revitalize ourselves as distinct, self-determining, and free nations and peoples. Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States would like nothing more than to smooth everything over through a process of political assimilation and “reconciliation.”

The domination paradigm we are dealing with was well explained by Justice Joseph Story in his book Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (1833). In Book I, Chapter I, "Origin of the Title to Territory of the Colonies", Story explained the Christian religious basis of Johnson v. M’Intosh decision as follows:

§ 5 ... The Indians were a savage race, sunk in the depths of ignorance and heathenism. If they might not be extirpated for their want of religion and just morals, they might be reclaimed from their errors. They were bound to yield to the superior genius of Europe, and in exchanging their wild and debasing habits for civilization and Christianity they were deemed to gain more than an equivalent for every sacrifice and suffering. The Papal authority, too, was brought in aid of these great designs; and for the purpose of overthrowing heathenism, and propagating the Catholic religion [footnote], Alexander the Sixth, by a Bull issued in 1493, granted to the crown of Castile the whole of the immense territory then discovered, or to be discovered, between the poles, so far as it was not then possessed by any Christian prince.

The context for these ideas is further revealed in a Latin sentence from the Inter Caetera bull of May 3, 1493, which refers to “lands not under the actual temporal domination of any Christian dominator.”

In a book published in 1824, just one year after the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall pointed to the same framework that was cited in 1833 by Joseph Story. As Marshall explained, on March 5, 1495, King Henry VII of England “granted a commission to John Cabot…in order to discover countries unoccupied by any christian state, and to take possession of them [countries unoccupied by any christian state] in his [King Henry’s] name.” It is senseless to speak in terms of reconciliation with such illegitimate and dominating religious ideologies.

In the spirit of our ceremonial connections to the Waters and the Earth, it is time for Indigenous Models of Liberty and Healing to come forth all the more powerfully as a self-determining voice for All Living Things. The inversion of the domination (the dome) results in a process of rebalancing through the Sacred Feminine (the water filled bowl), the life-renewing connection of Mater Tierra (Mother Earth) and Water.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.