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Johnson v. M’Intosh: A Paper Monument of White Christian Supremacy

A New York Times editorial recently addressed the issue of white supremacy monuments erected around the country, but forgot to mention any paper monument.

A May 9, 2017 editorial in The New York Times, Monuments of White Supremacy, took note of voices in the American South that want to preserve monuments erected in honor of the Southern Confederacy. Such monuments, said the NY Times, represent the “Confederate ideology” of white racial supremacy and racial terrorism. Typically, such monuments are made of bronze, such as a statue of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy during the Civil War, a statue which was recently taken down from its pedestals in New Orleans.

The editorial did not mention other monuments to white supremacy that are being ignored and left standing, such as Mount Rushmore, which was carved into the Sacred Lakota Black Hills by Gutzon Borglum, who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, and the statue erected in honor of the Indian killer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, at the Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma, California.


Monuments in the form of statues are obvious. Other monuments to white supremacy, however, are made of words on paper and are found in books of court rulings published by the United States government, and in the institutions these rulings support. The rulings and institutions are “paper monuments,” made of concepts, institutional practices, and policies based on notions and doctrines of white Christian supremacy. This was the subject of my 1993 law review article, The Evidence of Christion Nationalism in Federal Indian Law, published in the Review of Law & Social Change at New York University School of Law.

Today, 24 years later, the religiously racist concepts and practices of United States federal Indian law used against Native nations have not changed at all. The present-day descendants of white Christian colonizers are perfectly happy to uphold the ideas of domination and dehumanization used by their ancestors and bequeathed to those who would be living in the future, which is today.

I have to assume the NY Times editorial board has no interest in efforts to dismantle and deconstruct the paper monuments dedicated to white Christian supremacy, such as Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States (1955), and City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of New York (2005). It’s easy to decry the racism of a Southern Confederacy that no longer exists. What’s more challenging is to expose the unjust and dehumanizing concepts and ideas of present-day U.S. federal Indian law and policy that result in travesties such as what is happening at Standing Rock, Oak Flat, and other locations where the U.S. asserts "ownership" of Native lands, based on the federal Indian law doctrine of "Christian Discovery."

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Perhaps the NY Times editorial board is oblivious to such paper monuments. Then, again, perhaps that board would choose to avoid calling attention to the religious racism in U.S. federal Indian law for fear of calling into question a cornerstone of the political and legal system of the United States.

The NY Times editors mentioned in their editorial “a time when black citizens were not fully human in the eyes of the state.” The pre-Fourteenth Amendment era of slavery was a time when Black slaves were deemed to be property, a form of property taxed by the state. They were regarded as neither citizens nor fully human. But that was also a time when the U.S. was working to genocidally destroy Native nations and to dominate and dehumanize Native people.

In its editorial, the NY Times editors drew attention to “the extent to which many citizens are hesitant” to let go of “even the most abhorrent artifacts of history.” The same can be said about the paper monuments of the U.S. Supreme Court based on the Chosen People and the Promised Land narrative from the Old Testament. The United States government is not willing to part with the religiously-premised doctrines of white Christian supremacy, which, to this day, are still regarded as “the Supreme Law of the Land,” and still used on a daily basis against our Native nations.

Suppose the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that descendants of slaves, even if free, have “no right to hold property.” Suppose that decision was still being actively used by the Supreme Court as precedent today. The significance of that hypothetical slave-era legal precedent would be this: What the U.S. courts decided back then about the descendants of slaves is still the case today. Why? Because legal precedent requires that whatever was considered true back then, no matter how wrongful, racist, or unjust, must, as a legal matter, be treated true today.

The point being this: The United States to this day continues to rely upon paper monuments in which the U.S. courts openly avow that when white Christian nations located (“discovered”) lands inhabited by non-Christian nations made up of brown-skinned “heathens, pagans, and infidels,” then white Christian nationalism must forever reign supreme.

U.S. legal precedent still holds that because Christians long ago located non-Christian lands here in “the Americas,” Native nations have no right of property ownership in their traditional territories. According to religiously racist U.S. law, Native Peoples only have an "aboriginal occupancy" interest in their territories, “not a property right.” (White v. University of California, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, 2014). It would be amazing to see the NY Times condemn the fact that the U.S. Courts are still using those religiously racist “abhorrent artifacts of history” against Native Nations and Peoples.

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