Language Games by the United States

The purposeful domination of Indians by the United States is readily apparent in the government’s careful choice of words.

Words create the meanings by which we interact with one another. The meanings by which we interact with each other create the reality we experience individually and collectively. Skilled writers who work for the United States government use this knowledge about words, meanings, and reality as a tool for maintaining the perception and experience that the U.S. has a mastery or right of domination over our original nations.

In 1987, the United States government provided an example of its use of skillful reality-construction against our nations. The example is found in a document that the U.S. Department of State’s Legal Affairs Office submitted to the 44th session of the United Nation’s Commission on Human Rights. The U.S. was responding to a complaint made at the United Nations against the United States by the Hopi Kikmongwis, or most traditional Hopi.


“The United States is being charged with violating two basic rights,” says the U.S. document, “the right to self-determination and the right to own property.” The State Department’s Office of Legal Affairs then wrote that “it is necessary to outline the historical origin and development of the American law doctrines of tribal sovereignty and the original Indian title or aboriginal title.” Under the heading “History of Doctrine of Tribal Sovereignty,” the U.S. State Department document says that the concept of “tribal sovereignty” was first set forth in the Supreme Court ruling Worcester v. Georgia, 31 U.S. (6 Pet.) 1832.

The State Department document then says that the concept of “tribal sovereignty” was “most succinctly” explained by the attorney Felix Cohen in his Handbook of Federal Indian Law. It is at this point that a skilled eye is necessary to notice how the State Department attorneys subtly modified Cohen’s text in order to shape the perception and experience of reality. The word “Indian” is a proper noun and therefore requires a capital “I” according to the standard rules of English. Cohen did indeed follow that customary manner of writing the word “Indian.” The State Department attorneys, however, changed that to a lower case “i” without including brackets to let the reader know they modified Cohen’s text. This lower case “i” is contrasted with a capital “F” on the word “Federal” and capital “G” on the word “Government” to create a metaphorical perception of reality in which the “tribal” existence or form of “sovereignty” is existing on a “sub-order” level, beneath and below the dominating power of the “Federal Government.” The following is the U.S. State Department’s modified version of the excerpt from Cohen’s Handbook:

From the earliest years of the republic [of the United States], the indian [sic] tribes have been recognized as ‘distinct, independent, political communities’, and as such, qualified to exercise powers of self-government, not by virtue of any delegation of powers from the Federal Government, but rather by reason of their original tribal sovereignty.

The State Department attorneys continued by saying that the U.S. courts have looked to Indian treaties and various statutes of Congress “as limitations upon original tribal powers.” Those attorneys then used a quote from Cohen’s Handbook to explain the basis for this way of thinking about “tribal sovereignty”: “it is only by positive enactments, even in the case of conquered and subdued nations, that their laws are charged by the conqueror.”

The inference is unavoidable: the category “tribal sovereignty” is a consequence of the United States mentally categorizing Native nations as “conquered and subdued,” meaning, “dominated.” This is the basis for the U.S. claim that it is permissible for Congress to use its statutes to place “limitations upon original tribal powers.” The State Department document clarifies this by continuing to quote from Cohen’s Handbook, still carefully changing the upper case “I” on “Indian” to a lower-case “i.” The State Department document reads (quote Cohen):

“The whole course of judicial decision on the nature of indian [sic] tribal powers is marked by adherence to three fundamental principles: (1) An indian [sic] tribe possesses, in the first instance, all the powers of a sovereign state. (2) Conquest renders the tribe subject to the legislative power of the United States and in substance, terminates the external powers of sovereignty of the tribe. . . (3) Their powers are subject to qualification by treaties and by express legislation of Congress. . .”

The State Department attorneys would have been more precise if they had stated: “An Indian Tribe [Nation] possesses, in the first instance, all the powers of a sovereign state,” for they would have thereby used the capital letters, “I” and “T” to indicate the starting point of an original free and independent stature of the original Native nations of the continent. From there they could have then used a lower case “i” and “t” to indicate a “conquered and subdued” lower-level status whereby “Conquest [domination],” from the viewpoint of the United States, “renders the tribe subject to” the power of the U.S.

This doctrine that a form of Domination the U.S. government calls “conquest,” so it is claimed, “renders” our nations “subject to the legislative power of the United States” is the challenge faced by all our Nations and Peoples. That one sentence contains the words and meanings used to construct a reality-system by means of which the United States maintains an overall system of domination used against our Nations on an ongoing basis. This is the precise point I am talking about when I write about the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination used by the U.S. court system.

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