Imposing Metaphors on Original Nations: Part 1


Much of what we take to be physically true is metaphorically true. Here’s a simple illustration: Suppose I’m having a conversation with someone and I point to a tree and ask, “You see that big rock in front of that tree over there?” And the person responds, “Yeah, what about it?” The anecdote has nothing to do with the rock. It is a way of illustrating a little noticed point.

A tree has no front or back without us using the front or back imagery of our physical bodies to talk about the tree. In the context of a conversation, we treat the tree as if it has a physical front and back in the same way our bodies do. So, which part is metaphor and which part is reality? As legal philosopher Steven L. Winter says, metaphor is our way of "having a reality." The front and back are not natural, physical features of the tree independent of the human mind. In other words, much of what we experience as reality is a result of metaphor.

Now let’s apply our example to Christopher Columbus (Cristobal Colón). After Columbus sailed to the first Taíno island where he invasively arrived, he used a Christian metaphor to name it: “San Salvador” (“Holy Savior”). The name did not become a physical part of the island. For Columbus and his men, that religious name became part of the way in which they experienced the island, mentally and metaphorically, as a result of their interaction with it.

Columbus took a Catholic religious name and mentally projected it onto the island, as part of a ceremonial (metaphorical) act of “baptism” (a christening) and “possession.” The ceremonial act was a use of metaphors and symbols to make it seem “as if” Columbus and his men had physically taken possession of the Taíno Island. Once that sense of “possession” began to be acted upon by being backed with sufficient force and violence, a constructed Christian reality began to “take hold,” figuratively speaking.

As a result of their mental and metaphorical projections, and their actions backing those projections, Columbus and his men began to experience a Taíno island that was “new” to them in terms of a religion that was already familiar to them. This was also part of the mental process by which they began to metaphorically and linguistically incorporate the island into the language system of Christendom. Columbus and his men did not ask the original Taíno nation or people for permission to mentally carry their metaphors “over to” the traditional Taíno territory, and invasively impose on the island a foreign name derived from the Catholic faith and Christian religion. The Christians simply began to mentally and verbally experience the island in terms of words and metaphors from Christendom that they already knew. Pretty soon, the Christians began to regard and experience Guanahani as a baptized “Christian” island called “San Salvador.” This sort of process what repeated wherever the Spanish colonizers invaded.

Here’s an important point: In addition to the physical objects that Columbus and his men carried with them on their ships, they also carried with them the words and metaphors that they mentally and linguistically projected onto the various islands they arrived at, and onto the original nations and peoples already living there. The words and ideas that the Christians mentally projected onto the Taíno people were no more a natural part of the Taíno of their territory than the front or the back mentally projected onto a tree in our opening example.

Now let us turn our discussion now to the context of the 1823 Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court, which was the first time the Supreme Court metaphorically projected onto our nations the ideas of “a title of occupancy,” and a “diminishment” of the original independence of our nations. The Supreme Court mentally projected these and other metaphors onto our nations and our territories in the same way that someone in a conversation can mentally project a “front” or “back” onto a tree. These ideas of “occupancy” and “diminishment,” to use just two examples of many that could be provided, are inventive creations of the human mind rather than naturally or physically occurring features of nature. However, the Supreme Court never cops to its role in metaphoricallycreating the very reality about which it is making a decision or judgment of some sort.

The idea of “Indian occupancy” is no more a natural physical feature of our nations than a front or a back is a natural feature of a tree. Ideas such as “Indians,” “occupancy,” “diminishment,” “ultimate dominion,” “civilized nations,” “uncivilized,” “savages,” “Christian people” and “heathens,” in the Johnson ruling, are examples of metaphors being used by the white men who were seated on the U.S. Supreme Court at that time. The concept of a “diminishment” of the original independence of our nations, for example, is a result of the white man’s metaphorical act, by which he mentally conceives of the independence of our nations as having been “diminished” or reduced. If anything, it is an act of “reduction” simply created by the minds of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court used various royal charters of England as the basis for its mental projection onto our nations of an Indian “title of occupancy” and a “diminishment” of our original independence. Those charters authorized “Christian people” to “discover” and “subjugate” (dominate) the islands, countries, region, and provinces of “heathens” and “infidels.” But there was also another powerful idea behind the U.S. Supreme Court mentally creating the idea that the independence of our nations had been “diminished” by “discovery.” This “something else” was what Chief Justice John Marshall called “ultimate dominion,” which he traced to the idea of an ultimate Christian right of “an ascendency.” Webster’s defines “ascendency” as “controlling or governing power : domination.”

The background idea of a claimed Christian right of domination is what tacitly frames the idea of an Indian title of “occupancy.” Every time we see the United States ascribe an “Indian title of occupancy” to some Native nation or people, the idea of a claimed right of “Christian peoples” to the domination of non-Christian nations and their lands is always there in the background.

An Indian title of “mere occupancy” and a metaphorical “diminishment” of the independence of Native nations (based on a claim that “Christian people” had “discovered” the lands of non-Christians) are not physical features of the existence of any original nation or people. They are metaphoric features of a world, or reality, of domination that the U.S. Supreme Court and the rest of the U.S. government meticulously invented and constructed through its mental activities. The U.S. Supreme Court constructed a dominating reality system for the control and containment of the original nations and peoples of the continent.

The purpose of that U.S. reality system has always been the appropriation of untold riches and wealth to be gained by the American Empire taking over the lands and resources of our original nations by overrunning our territories. In part two of this essay, we will examine how the United States has used the metaphorical projection of an “Indian title of occupancy” against our original nations and peoples by means of the Indian Claims Commission which the United States launched seventy years ago in 1946.

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).