On July 7, Bush signed into law H.R. 884, "The Western Shoshone Claims
Distribution Act." By doing so, he clearly demonstrated the "freedom of
imperial power," despite the fact that the Western Shoshone National
Council and a majority of Western Shoshone IRA governments (six out of
nine) opposed the bill.
Bush used his pen as a "scepter of imperial freedom" to violate the
fundamental, ancestral, and treaty rights of the Western Shoshone Nation.
"Imperial freedom" refers to the American empire's claim of "freedom" to do
whatever it wants, whenever it wants, to whomever it wants, even against
the will of those damaged by the action done.
President Bush recently made the remark, "Let freedom reign," to which New
York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd responded with the rhetorical question:
"Couldn't Karl Rove and his minions at least get that "adlib" right about
Although the idea of freedom "ringing" matches the iconic image of the
Liberty Bell, Bush's comment about freedom reigning contains a deeper and
little known truth about the word "freedom" in the context of feudalism
that helps explain the situation in which the Western Shoshones now find
According to the 19th century political philosopher Francis Lieber, the
word "Freithum (literally freedom) means, in some portions of Germany, an
estate of a Freiherr (baron)." In other words, according to this meaning,
"a freedom" is, "a baron's estate." Just as the king reigned as lord and
dread sovereign of the entire kingdom, the baron reigned as lord and
sovereign of a free domain.
Although a baron is a "lord," he is also a feudal vassal who holds his
lands under a direct grant from the king. As a noble, the baron is "free"
on his estate, beneath the monarch. For example, Lord Thomas Fairfax - a
friend of George Washington and Chief Justice John Marshall - was a baron
with an estate of more than 5 million acres of (Indian) lands in Virginia.
Importantly, in the feudal system the landless poor people were not "free"
in the same sense as the noble landed class. As feudal tenants, the
landless people were obligated to pay rents and homage (obedience and a
percentage of their crops as taxes) to the landholding baron class. If they
were to live at all, the landless serfs had to eek out a living by working
for the aristocratic land-owning class.
The aristocratic English lords who came to North America were offended by
the Indians' "haughty" and independent attitude. According to historian
James Axtell, the English nobles that came to North America were also
deeply offended by the vast amount of land the Indians possessed. It
greatly offended the English nobles to see obviously "inferior" and
"uncivilized heathen" Indians possessed of sufficient lands to live a
privileged life of leisure that only those of noble birth were supposed to
live, and engaged in such pleasurable experiences as hunting and fishing.
From the viewpoint of the English nobles, it was only "natural" and
destined by "God" that the Indians should be reduced to a position of
"civilized" humility in keeping with their "inferiority," and that Indian
lands ought to end up in English hands.
A rare publication titled, "Documents and Proceedings Relating to the
Formation of a Board in the City of New York, for the Emigration,
Preservation, and Improvement of the Aborigines of America, July 22, 1829"
provides further insight. In an anonymous "Address" a commentator said that
certain obstacles stood in the way of the Indians being reduced to
"civilization" along European lines.
What were these obstacles? For one thing, the Indians had remained
"uncivilized" because they possessed too much land. They held "an almost
boundless extent of the forest" that "furnished the Indians with an easy
means of subsistence, such as the plentiful game that abounded there."
Another problem was that they understood their own power and independence,
said the commentator. Plus, their vast land holdings gave them the wealth
and the power to remain free in the manner of their ancestors before them.
So long as the Indians remained free and independent they could not be
successfully reduced to European "civilization and Christianity."
The unnamed commentator celebrated the process of these "obstacles" to
Indian "civilization" gradually being removed: "The forests ... and their
game are gone. The Indian can no longer bury himself in the one, nor
subsist on the other." [Like feudal serfs], the Indian "has now become a
creature of necessity - he must labour, or starve. But not only are the
forests and the game gone, but with these has disappeared also, that
feeling of independence which made the native as uncontrollable, as he was
invincible. Long and nobly did he struggle to maintain this."
True, as a charismatic leader, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh (1768 - 1813)
tried to maintain the spirit of independence by uniting Indian nations
against the invading United States. Of Tecumseh's death the commentator
said: "His life paid the forfeit of the gallant enterprise [to unify the Indian nations]; and with it vanished all hope of all allied to him, of
ever again becoming lords of their domain." Tecumseh's death near the River
Thames was characterized by the commentator as part of the process of
Of the forefathers of his own race the commentator remarked: "They
doubtless said ... when this empire shall have become established, and the
scepter of freedom be swayed over its teeming population, then surely, will
that which is now literally a wilderness to the Indian, be made to blossom
as the rose ... No longer able to bury himself in his forests, or subsist
on their game, or measure strength with the white man, he [the Indian] will
yield to necessity, resort to the [cultivation of the] earth for his
support, and practice gladly, those lessons which are at present lost upon
President Bush's remark, "Let freedom reign," relates perfectly to the
commentator's phrase, "scepter of freedom." A scepter is a rod or wand
symbolic of "a royal or imperial power or authority, sovereignty." Hence,
Bush using his pen as a "scepter of imperial freedom" to sign H.R. 884 is
an example of him "letting freedom reign."
Like the colonizing and aristocratic English nobles of the past, Senator
Harry Reid and Congressman Jim Gibbons of Nevada are no doubt offended by
and jealous of the amount of Western Shoshone land pursuant to the Treaty
of Ruby Valley. The traditional Western Shoshone in particular have a deep
and spiritual understanding of their own power and rightful independence,
which undoubtedly further offends Rep. Gibbons and Sen. Reid.
It is ironic in the extreme that at the same time Congress unanimously
passed H.R. 884 (between June 21 - 24) the Senate is considering for
passage a resolution sponsored by Senator Sam Brownback, R-Kan., to
"apologize" to American Indians. Sen. Brownback's resolution ought to
include an apology for the United States' reprehensible, dishonorable and
disrespectful treatment of the Western Shoshones.
In remarks to support his "apology resolution," Senator Brownback quoted
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as once having said, "The end is reconciliation,
the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community."
Very moving words I'm sure, but as Tecumseh once said, "they come to us
with lips smoother than oil, and words sweeter than honey, but beware of
them! The venomous wasp is in their heart!"
Congress's passage of and President Bush's signature on H.R. 884, simply
underscores Tecumseh's insightful words of defiance.
Steven Newcomb is Indigenous Law research coordinator at Kumeyaay Community
College located on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay
Nation, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a
columnist for Indian Country Today.