The theory of “aboriginal title” is of a set of ideas produced by the Euro-American mind through the development of metaphors and other mental constructs, which, by means of a wave of genocidal acts, was forcibly imposed on our original nations and peoples, along with many other alien ideas. The “Theory of Aboriginal Title” is focused on in the book Indian Pueblo Water Rights, co-authored by Charles T. DuMars, Marilyn O’Leary, and Albert E. Utton. The first heading of Chapter 3, “The Pueblo Water Right as Aboriginal,” discusses the historical development of the “Theory of Aboriginal Title.”
“At the time of European exploration and colonization of North America,” the authors say, “the only inhabitants were Indians.” Before Christian Europeans invasively brought the words “Indian” and “Indians” to the land mass now typically called “North America” or “the Americas,” there were no people or peoples living here who were identified by those names. Not one original nation of this part of the planet self-identified as “Indian” or “Indians” prior to Christian European colonization. Stated differently, before Christo-European colonizers invaded our part of the planet, no peoples existed here who called themselves “Indian” or “Indians.”
Such terms are metaphors mentally and linguistically invented by Europeans and, backed by various forms and means of force, projected by Europeans onto the original nations and peoples living in a vast geographical place that Europeans of long ago knew as “the Indies.” Our nations and peoples, comprised of our free and independent ancestors, were not “Indian” or “Indians” except in Christian European language and mental activity. Our ancestors became “known” by such names as a direct result of Europeans imposing their language and ideas onourancestors. The Christian Europeans mentally projected words and ideas such as “Indians” and “Indian occupancy” out “into” the world and then claimed to “see” what were in actuality their own mental and linguistic projections.
The book Indian Pueblo Water Rights discusses “Indian occupancy” without ever mentioning that “Indian occupancy” is an idea invented by Europeans and then mentally projected onto and imposed on our original nations and our territories. The authors say: “The original Indian occupancy is termed aboriginal possession and carries with it aboriginal title to the land occupied.” Their use of the word “original” raises the question, “original to what?” The phrase “original Indian occupancy” suggests that theconcept or idea of “Indian occupancy” has a starting point, or a place of origin. On reflection, that “place” of origin is found in the imaginative operations of the invasive European mind.
To further emphasize their view, the authors added a footnote, in which point they write: “There is no doubt that the Pueblo Indians were the aboriginal occupants.” This mention of “no doubt” makes it appear to be beyond question that the imposed terminology “aboriginal occupants” is factual, true, and correct, based on objective “observation.” Additionally, by using the word “were,” the authors are commenting on the Pueblo Indians’ state of being, thereby suggesting, as if it were a physical fact, that the Pueblo “Indians” were “aboriginal occupants,” independent of the Christian European mind, rather than as a result of the subjective and politically motivated ideas of the Christian European mind.
It is important to focus on the point that the ideas of “Indian occupancy” and “aboriginal occupants” are a direct result of the European's thinking in a colonizing manner about the nations and peoples existing on the continent when they as colonizers first invaded. Given this focus, we are then able to realize that ideas which were deemed by Christian Europeans to be “true,” were only “true” in the context of Europeans’ dominating assumptions about our nations and peoples that were already existing here on the continent when Christian European colonization began.
In short, the concept of "Indian/aboriginal occupancy" has nothing to do with—and says nothing about—how the original peoples viewed and understood themselves and their relations to the lands where they lived. The European concepts derived from European minds, not from the minds of the original peoples.
Instead of focusing on the “historical” development of "aboriginal title," the authors of Pueblo Indian Water Rights would have done us a real service if they had focused on the colonizers’ mental development of the ideas of “aboriginal title” and “aboriginal occupancy.” Much needed insight would have been provided by pointing out that key words and ideas such as “Indians,” “occupancy,” “aboriginal occupants,” “aboriginal possession,” and “aboriginal title,” are Christian European imposed words and mental constructs, imposed on us without the free consent of our original nations. This point holds true with regard to the entire repertoire of the English language (or of Spanish in those regions first colonized by Spain).
It also would have been helpful if the authors of Pueblo Indian Water Rights had mentioned that those European words and ideas were not and are not physical features of the natural world. None of those words or ideas came about independently of the thinking of the European mind, or independently of some European language system. To be precise, the co-authors of Pueblo Indian Water Rights ought to have written, “There is no doubt that the Spaniards, and other Christian Europeans, mentally conceptualized and unilaterally named the Pueblo Indians as ‘aborigines’ and ‘aboriginal occupants’, with ‘aboriginal possession’.”
This line of analysis leads to the following: Our original nations and peoples did not mentally and linguistically develop or invent the words and ideas that are now being used by various states of domination to oppress our lives and our territories. So how did the assumption come about that we are rightfully subject to the colonizers’ words and ideas without our free consent? In part that assumption came about and is now successfully maintained because we don’t spend enough time questioning and challenging the colonizers’ words and ideas such as “aboriginal title” and an “Indian title of occupancy” based on the Christian sighting (“discovery”) of non-Christian lands.
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.