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Learning to See How American Indians Are Dominated

A column by Steven Newcomb that argues that the civilization of American Indians is akin to domination.

For generations, we,, the original nations and peoples of North America, have been conditioned to think and behave in a dominated manner. This has been part of the process of becoming “civilized,” which is a polite word for “dominated.”

“Civilization,” according to the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, is defined as “the act of civilizing” especially “the forcing of a particular cultural pattern on a population to whom it is foreign.” The act of forcing is an act of domination, and thus “civilizing” involves forcing a cultural pattern of domination on nations or peoples that had previously remained undominated, meaning free of domination.

Nations and peoples living free of domination are made “civilized” by being rendered unfree, by being forced under a foreign and invading system of “government” (the Latin word for which is “domination”).

Based on the above, we are able to decode the belief that “civilizing” Indians was the process of making sub-human Indians human; to learn to be “human” in this sense and in this context involves free peoples “learning” to quietly live a dominated (“governed”) existence. Here quietly means “without protest or disturbance,” and “without talking back to or acting against the dominating authority.”

In his classic book The Savages of America: A Study of the Indian and the Idea of Civilization, Roy Harvey Pearce wrote: “America had to be planted so that sub-humans could be made human.” Pearce continues:

The practical problem of bringing savages to civilization was to be solved by bringing them to the Christianity which was at its heart. Success in empire-building and trade was to be measured by success in civilizing and Christianizing; success in civilizing and Christianizing would assure success in empire-building and trade.

What is empire building? It is a process by which the dominance of one group or people is extended over an increasingly large geographical area, and over original peoples already living there, free and independent of the invading empire’s domination. Now that we are able to see the unmistakable pattern of domination, we are also able to realize that in this context “civilization” “civilizing” “empire-building” and “Christianity” are other words for domination. Thus, we can decode Pearce’s above explanation in the following and highly redundant and circular manner:

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The practical problem of bringing the savages to domination was to be solved by bringing them under the domination which was at its heart. Success in domination-building and trade was to be measured by success in dominating; success in dominating would assure success in domination-building and trade.

Pearce quoted from Letters Patent issued in 1606 for the colonization of Virginia to illustrate his point. In that document, said Pearce, the King of England wrote of the furtherance of a work

which may, by the Providence of the Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of His Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such people, as yet live in darkness and miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worship of God, and may in time bring the Infidels and Savages living in those parts to human civility and to a settled and quiet Government…

The King of England characterized the undominated and free existence of our original nations as a life lived “in darkness and miserable ignorance.” Second, the planned domination of our free nations was characterized as ‘bringing’ our free peoples “to human civility” and “to settled and quiet Government.” (notice the capital ‘G’) This is more documented evidence that the terms “human,” “civil order” (“civility”) and “Government” are euphemisms for domination. Living free of Christian European domination is categorized as less-than-human.

I find it remarkable that U.S. federal Indian law is seldom acknowledged to be an anti-Indian conceptual framework of domination and dehumanization, carefully constructed and maintained by U.S. government officials. Those Indian people who have made a conscious decision to embrace that system seem incapable of seeing the domination and dehumanization that are at the root of federal Indian law. We certainly do not hear of Indian leaders calling federal Indian law into question because it is premised on domination.

Is it not startling that we have been deceived into believing that a relationship of domination and subordination is one of “trust?” What a lie! A relationship of trust presumes a second party that is demonstrably, or at least presumably, trustworthy, and the federal domination (government) has never met that criterion.

The most critical question we are facing has nothing at all to do with “seceding” from a political structure and system we never acceded (agreed) to join, but, rather, “How are we to liberate ourselves from illegitimate and dehumanizing patterns that have been imposed on us under the false name of ‘law’.” How do we get those addicted to the domination of our existence, both dominated and dominators, to stop? Have we developed the habit of meekly submitting to being dominated?

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee,Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and is the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.