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Is There a 'Just' Form of Domination?

It dawned on me recently that the title of Lewis Hanke’s classic book, The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Conquest of America (1949), makes no sense. As is customary with scholars of the era of “discovery,” Hanke used the phrase, “the Conquest,” which is commonly found in the records of the Archives of the Indies in Seville, Spain. In part, this phrase was based on the view of the Christian World (“Christendom”) that a successful “conquest” resulted in “the conqueror” obtaining a title-deed of dominion or dominium to the “conquered” country.

Given that dominion, dominium, conquer, conqueror, and conquest are other names for “domination,” the meaning embedded in Hanke’s title is clarified when it is accurately reexpressed as “The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the Domination of America.”

Hanke’s book would have us believe that during the so-called Age of Discovery, the society of Spain was facing a moral dilemma; she was struggling for “justice” in the midst of her military and missionary efforts to conquer American Indian nations and societies, and the lands belonging to those nations and societies. Because of his chosen terminology of conquest, Hanke made it impossible for the reader to ever grasp the issue of domination to be found in the history he was writing about.

Based on our reexpression of Hanke’s book title, a question arises: What constitutes a “just” domination of distant non-Christian lands, and distant non-Christian peoples? Given that domination is unjust, is it possible to dominate in a “just” manner? Our reexpression of Hanke’s title enables us to see a little noticed and tacit claim: The Spaniards were “struggling” to dominate America in a “just” manner.

This article and my other writings assume a model of judgment. It is a model which presupposes that all peoples, by virtue of their sacred life force and existence, are rightfully free to live free of and from domination. My writings are premised on an unwavering judgment against domination.

Concisely stated, “Domination is wrong!” It is wrong for many reasons, chief among which is the fact that domination results in its correlative, dehumanization. Based on that standard of judgment it is wrong for one people to dominate another people by stripping them of their ability to live free, and by holding them under a system of domination. Based on that judgment, in my view we ought to be working to end both domination and dehumanization wherever they exist on the planet.

Hanke’s book is written on the basis of a different model or standard of judgment: It is possible to dominate others based on “justice.” From his book we get the impression that a principle against domination of other peoples never existed among the Spaniards. This is made evident by his repeated use of “the conquest,” instead of “the domination.” For some reason, conquest is not typically associated with and understood as “domination.”

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From the perspective of those on the receiving end of an effort to dominate them, or to continue to dominate them, there is no such thing as a “just” form of domination. This judgment is based on the view that the domination of one nation or people by another is always unjust and unjustified, at least from the perspective of those being dominated. Perhaps this is why it is necessary for the dominators to give domination a name that has a neutral or slightly positive connotation, such as “conquest,” “conquered,” or “victory.” The tried and true technique has been to disguise domination by renaming it.

So taken for granted has the language of “conquest” become in Western European and Euro-American thinking, that even to this day there is a tendency to view conquest as legitimate, acceptable, and unquestionable. However, by correctly identifying “conquest” as “domination” we are able to demonstrate that what has been termed conquest has always been an illegitimate, unacceptable, and challengeable form of domination.

Our ancestors have been characterized in narratives of conquest as being permanently “conquered,” or, in other words, “permanently dominated.” We, as our ancestors’ descendents, are perfectly entitled to accurately reframe and re-identify those tales of old for what they are: narratives of domination.

We have the responsibility of developing narratives of liberation that begin by acknowledging our nations’ and peoples’ original existence, perfectly free and independent of Christian European domination and dehumanization. Our original free existence shall forever remain our spiritual status quo ante, or spiritual identity. This is a central teaching to be found in our ancestral origin stories.

There is the old saying, “History is written by the victors.” This needs to be reexpressed as, “History has been written by the dominators.”

Our liberation begins to occur when we learn how to tell stories that fundamentally contradict the narrative of domination, and the unspoken assumption that, over time, domination somehow becomes legitimate or “just” simply because people have been conditioned to call it “conquest.”

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 with Indian Country Today Media Network.