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Indians and Reptiles

Professor Steven L. Winter based the title to his book A Clearing in the Forest on a story told by William James about his experiences in the forest in the mountains of South Carolina. One day, James came across one of those large openings in the forest that the “pioneers” had created by cutting down all the trees to create a clearing. To James the areas looked scarred and quite ugly.

Winter related this story to an often cited analogy whereby “law” is likened to “a forest of constraint.” Given that “the law” restricts one's movement, it has been said to be like the “impenetrable vegetation of the forest.”

In a law review article dedicated to Winter’s amazing book, Professor Gary Minda recalled another forest metaphor that Supreme Court Justice Stevens once used. As Stevens wrote, (in what context I have no idea): “A court must be wary of the claim that the true color of a forest is better revealed by reptiles hidden in the weeds than by the foliage of countless freestanding trees.’”

Minda went on to say that in “observing these clearings,” William James had learned to understand how the meaning of those clearings was dependent upon the perspective of those who had “cut the coves into the forest.” Professor Minda further commented that:

Maybe William James should have reflected more on how the land
that the mountaineer cleared came at the expense of the Native
Americans who were driven from the forest. Their [the Indians’]
cognitive imagination has been wiped clean from the landscape.
Maybe their blood and their lost culture is one of the reptiles hidden
in the forest that Justice Stevens warned us about. The reptile is
always there hiding in the weeds and we are faced with new and
possibly dangerous interpretive accounts.

Metaphorically speaking, the term “reptile” is a strange association to make with the original Indigenous Peoples of the forest. In technical terms, this metaphor works by carrying the characteristics of the source domain “reptiles” over to the target domain “Indians.” In short, Minda’s metaphor was predicated on thinking of what he called “Native Americans” in terms of the features and characteristics of “reptiles.”

In the dictionary under “reptile,” we find: “An animal that crawls or moves (like a snake) on its belly or as a lizard,” or, “one held to resemble a reptile: a person having a low, groveling, mean, repulsive, or despicable character.”

What, then, are we as Indian people to think of Professor Minda’s statement that maybe the “blood and lost culture” of the Indians “is one of the reptiles hidden in the forest that Justice Stevens warned about”? We could interpret Minda’s metaphor as a non sequitur (Latin for “it does not follow.”). In other words, we could easily interpret Minda’s statement as a form of nonsense.

However, to say that Minda’s example is nonsensical from our perspective is not the same as saying that his metaphor is unimportant. To the contrary, it is highly important because it so perfectly illustrates the challenge that non-Indian thinkers face when attempting to deal with Indian issues. Even those who try to say something supportive can easily end up using language that dehumanizes us Indian nations and peoples.

Professor Minda was apparently attempting to make the reader think of the forced removal of Indian people from their lands in that region now called South Carolina. Thus, Minda says: “Maybe James should have reflected more on how the land that the mountaineer cleared came at the expense of the Native Americans who were driven from the forest.” This thought seems unobjectionable, even supportive of historical accuracy.

But, then, why suggest that the “blood and lost culture” of Indian peoples is analogous to “one of the reptiles hidden in the forest.” When we reverse Professor Minda’s thinking we get: “The Indian [reptilian] blood and lost culture is hidden in the forest, and thus “we” (the dominating society) always “face new and possibly dangerous interpretive accounts” from that Indian (reptilian) perspective.

Perhaps Professor Minda’s metaphor was a “Freudian slip” (a “slip of the tongue” that unintentionally reveals what someone truly thinks). I believe this troubling imagery of Indians as “reptiles,” with “dangerous interpretive accounts,” opens a window into the subconscious mind of the dominating society of the United States, and the kind of mentality on the part of U.S. judges that has brought us the such rulings as the 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York, and the recent federal appeals court dismissals of Oneida Nation and Onondaga land rights cases.

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” (2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today.