We can think back to a time when our Native ancestors did not speak, read, or write the colonizers’ language. Today, when we read the royal charters of England, or the Vatican decrees of domination, or study the arguments that the colonizers of long ago developed, in an effort to justify their unjustifiable actions, we are reading information that our ancestors were not able to access.
Fortunately, the colonizing ancestors of the dominating society created a written record of their ideas and arguments that we are able to examine. The Christian European intellectuals of that time developed clever arguments by writing back and forth, and having discussions amongst themselves. They worked to explain to one another why their ancestors had been, in their view, justified to colonize and dominate the lands and territories of the original nations of this continent and this hemisphere. At that time, most of our ancestors could not read and write, and could not speak the invaders’ language.
Today, we are able to examine the record of that happened to our ancestors and to our nations. We are able to critique the arguments that the colonizers used to justify their patterns of domination. We are able to read, analyze, and respond to the ideas and arguments developed by the Christian European intellectuals of long ago. But to do this, we need to put the time, effort, and energy necessary to deconstruct the arguments that the colonizers developed long ago, and to develop our own powerful counter-arguments.
In 1823, for example, Chief Justice John Marshall and the rest of the U.S. Supreme Court said in the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling that when “Christian people” located lands “inhabited by natives, who were heathens,” the Christians asserted for themselves a title of “ultimate dominion” to the non-Christian lands of our ancestors. In response, we ought to say (among other things): “It’s impossible to ‘discover’ another nation’s home and rightfully impose a capitol dome of domination.”
Christian European monarchs and their explorers assumed that when the representatives of a Christian monarchy located non-Christian lands, that Christian monarchy had “the right” to mentally conceptualize for itself a title of domination to and over the soil of those non-Christian lands. By the colonizers assuming over and over that they had such a “right,” and by telling themselves over and over that this is what had happened, the colonizers were able to construct a form of reality that mentally “contained” their “right” to dominate non-Christian lands. The Christian colonizers were able to agree upon that story as a shared system of “reality” with their own built-in “right” of domination.
This claimed right of domination is generally termed a “right of conquest.” But is there such a thing as a right of domination? Who shall decide whether such a right exists, and who is entitled to exert a right of domination over other nations and peoples?
The colonizers developed a metaphorical system by means of which they mentally depicted themselves as having “acquired” a title or right of domination (otherwise known as “a right of conquest”) to whatever non-Christian lands they were able to locate by ship, or were able to locate by walking overland to the territories of the original nations of the continent.
How did they supposedly “acquire” a right of domination? By mentally assuming that they had such a right. However, U.S. government officials have never explicitly stated, “We ‘acquired’ a ‘right of domination’ over Native nations by the first colonizing monarchies mentally visualizing themselves as possessing such a ‘right.’ In the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling, Chief Justice John Marshall said that the colonizers “asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves; and claimed and exercised, as a consequence of this ultimate dominion, a power to grant the soil, while yet in possession of the natives.”
An astute reader will notice that while Marshall initially said the colonizers “asserted” and “claimed” “the ultimate dominion” (domination) to be “in themselves,” he immediately transitioned to characterizing the “ultimate dominion” as being a fact that resulted in the “exercise” of a particular kind of power. He said that they claimed and exercised “as a consequence of this ultimate dominion” a “power to grant the soil” (emphasis added) while the soil was yet in possession of the natives. This was Marshall’s way of expressing a claimed right of domination in relation to the lands, territories, and waters of our original nations. At the time that the U.S. Supreme Court wrote the Johnson ruling during the second decade of the 19th century, there was no way for our non-English speaking ancestors to understand that the United States was claiming a right of domination over the territories of our nations, and over each and every one of our nations.
At this point, in 2017, we as Native people became sufficiently fluent in English to be able to comprehend that an entire system of domination has been embedded and encoded in the Johnson ruling and in the U.S. federal Indian law conceptual system as a whole. The question arises: Are we going to passively accept the U.S. claim of a right of domination over our nations and peoples, or are we going to directly challenge that claimed right on the part of the United States government? One thing is clear. Learning and regurgitating the dominating ideas of “the white man” in the name of “law” is not liberation.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.