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Life Is a State of Mind

In Hal Ashby’s movie Being There, starring Peter Sellers, at the end of the film there is a pyramid with an “all seeing eye,” and the slogan “Life is A State of Mind.” In The Universe and Dr. Einstein, Lincoln Barnett says that as a result of findings in quantum Physics, philosophers and scientists gradually arrived at a startling conclusion. “[S]ince every object is simply the sum of its qualities, and since qualities exist only in the mind,” “the whole objective universe of matter and energy, atoms and stars does not exist except as a construction of consciousness.” In other words, life is a state of mind.

The idea of our existence as “Indians” and “tribes” and so forth, also exists as a mental construction of consciousness. To mentally conceive of and experience ourselves as “tribes” or “nations” or “Indians” or “indigenous” or “original,” or as anything else, for that matter, is the result of the way our minds and our consciousness work. Those ideas are not features of some “objective” physical reality that exists independent of the human mind. Those ideas are mental constructs based on the way our minds work in interaction with the physical and social world.

Here’s a critical point: The conceptualization of our existence as “tribes” is a result of a mental act of consciousness. It necessarily follows that if we change that mental imagery of ourselves, to, say, “nations” that are rightfully free and independent of domination, then a different set of inferences and different types of behavior will automatically follow. To think of ourselves as, and to self-designate as “tribes,” or “domestic dependent nations,” or “wards of the government,” etc., involves making a decision, consciously or unconsciously, to identify with those qualities and those mental images, and to communicate with others in terms of those qualities and images.

Whenever the U.S. Supreme Court has created an opinion about the qualities and characteristics that it attributes to our nations (e.g., “heathens,” “uncivilized savages,” “tribes” “domestic dependent nations,” “subjected” etc.), the Court is expressing qualities and characteristics that are a product of the minds of the judges. And the minds of the judges are the product of the Western European tradition of thought (ideas) traced to the Greek and Roman systems of domination, and to certain elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition of thought (such as the chosen people/promised land narrative).

The Western European colonizers carried by ship to our part of the planet a tradition of thought that had embedded within it the idea of a divine right of domination. That theme is constitutive of and runs throughout the entire framework of ideas that we call U.S. federal Indian law and policy. But in order to challenge that idea of a right of domination it is first necessary to acknowledge that the idea of a right of domination exists in U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

So, here’s a question: Why have we, as original nations and peoples, begun to passively assume that we are obligated to accept rather than challenge the ideas of domination created and applied to our nations by the U.S. Supreme Court? Domination, or being made to live under the arbitrary will of another, is never valid, except to the dominator. We ought to be saying so loud and clear in order to put ourselves in that state of mind.

Our nations began with a view from the shore, looking out from a free and independent existence at those colonizing ships sailing toward them. This means that at the point of first Christian invasion, our nations were living entirely independent of the workings (ideas) of the Christian European mind. Given that starting point, why does it seem as if at some point along the way we began to simply accept the assumption that we are obligated to accept the domination ideas of the dominating society?

After all, that American “civilization” is, by its own admission, a system of unjust domination. (For that admission, see Johnson v. M’Intosh, and the Supreme Court’s “pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest”). So, what is the basis for the idea that our nations have ever been rightfully under or subject to the mind and dominating mental processes of the white man, or the United States, or Canada?

We are under no obligation to accept the dominating ideas of a society that has framed itself as divinely entitled to a right of domination over our very existence. If life is a state of mind, and if life is a result of the behaviors that go with a particular state of mind, then we had better make certain that we are thinking and behaving in a self-liberating rather than a self-diminishing manner.

If you treat someone as an “aristocrat” or as a “peasant,” the inferences and behavior that go with each of those ideas (categories) will necessarily follow. In other words, when we change the metaphors with which we self-identify, or by which we identify others, we influence or change our lives, or the lives of others, because metaphors are our way of having a reality. Unquestioningly identifying ourselves with the metaphorical system called U.S. federal Indian law and policy means passively accepting the view that we are “tribes” subject to and therefore rightfully under the domination language of U.S. federal Indian law and policy.

That idea system of domination (e.g., “ascendancy,” “ultimate dominion,” “sovereignty” and “conquest,” and “subjection” in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court) is a result of ideas that judges, U.S. legislators, and presidential administrations have mentally constructed about us in previous generations, and which are carefully maintained at the present time by the U.S. government. It is up to us to develop the counter-arguments based on the insight that Life is a state of mind. We need to set the record straight by accurately expressing our perspective about our originally and still rightfully free nations, and our right to live free from imposed ideas of domination and colonization.

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 has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.