;Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,' by Steven Newcomb
FRIDAY HARBOR. Wash. - In the taking of lands belonging to the First Peoples of the American continent, words were as much a weapon as the arms used to enforce colonization and the subjugation of indigenous peoples.
European colonizers used words such as ''barbarous,'' ''heathen,'' ''savage'' and ''uncivilized'' to describe the indigenous peoples they encountered. They used words such as ''chosen people'' to describe themselves, and ''promised land'' to describe America.
Steven T. Newcomb's new book, ''Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,'' explores the sense of superiority by which Spain, Portugal, England and, later, the U.S. viewed themselves, and how they used that dominating mentality to justify the taking of lands regardless of the claims and rights of the existing inhabitants.
''Pagans in the Promised Land'' (186 pages, Fulcrum Publishing) is a powerful book. Read it and you'll understand how this dominating mentality influences U.S. domestic and foreign policy today.
The colonizers were very aware of the power of words as a tool of subjugation. Newcomb quotes 15th century Spanish grammarian and rhetorician Antonio de Nebrija, addressing Queen Isabella: ''Your Majesty, language is the perfect instrument of empire.''
The colonizers viewed the Hebrews' Old Testament conquest of Canaan as precedence: God led the Hebrews into Canaan and instructed them to uproot the non-Hebrew Canaanites and repopulate the land with the offspring of Abraham. The Hebrews were God's chosen people; Canaan was the promised land which was to become Israel.
Likewise, the colonizers of America considered themselves a people chosen by God to colonize America. Armed with a right of possession of ''non-Christian'' lands they ''discovered'' - issued by the pope, viewed by the colonizers as God's representative on Earth - the Spanish, Portuguese and English saw themselves as a new chosen people going forth to seize a new promised land from its Canaanite inhabitants.
But as professor Robert J. Miller pointed out so clearly in his ''Native America, Discovered and Conquered'' (Praeger, 2006), the latter-day colonizers were more interested in expanding their territories and accumulating wealth than they were in saving souls; the so-called Doctrine of Discovery was merely a tool to justify the taking of land.
The doctrine ''was justified by religious and ethnocentric ideas of European and Christian superiority over the other cultures, religions and races of the world,'' Miller wrote. ''The Doctrine provided that newly-arrived Europeans automatically acquired property rights in the lands of Native people and gained political and commercial rights over the inhabitants.''
Newcomb shows in his book how the doctrine and its religious/ethnocentric ideas are still used today to exercise legal rights to Native lands and control its original inhabitants.
Tribal courts cannot prosecute someone who is not American Indian, although non-Native courts enjoy broader jurisdiction. American Indians and their governments can't sell or lease land without the permission of Congress. Today, the U.S. holds title - ultimate control of the land - to 78 million acres owned by American Indians and their governments. We know it as holding land ''in trust.''
Early Supreme Court decisions related to land ownership refer to Indian nations as ''tribes,'' a lesser political unit than ''nation''; to Indians as ''heathens'' and the colonizers as ''Christian people''; to America as a ''discovered'' land and to its original inhabitants as having ''diminished'' rights because of that discovery.
Newcomb reveals that not much has changed in America's religious/ethnocentric view of indigenous peoples. In one example, he cites a 1987 report by the U.S. State Department titled ''History of the Doctrine of Tribal Sovereignty,'' submitted to the United Nations Social and Economic Council.
In the report, ''Indian'' is repeatedly spelled ''indian,'' with a lowercase ''i,'' although ''Federal Government'' is capitalized. The implication is clear, Newcomb writes: The United States ''exists up, or on a higher plane in relation to Indian nations, and that Indian nations are down in relation to the United States.''
In the same way, Newcomb views the word ''tribe'' as a ''very problematic term,'' a demeaning term used by governments as a technique of political subjugation. A ''tribe'' ranks below a ''nation,'' significant considering the U.S. government continues to exercise plenary, or absolute, authority over indigenous people and their own governments, he said.
Newcomb also shows how America's religious and ethnocentric ideas of superiority over other cultures, religions and races of the world influence its foreign policy. He cites President George W. Bush's invasion and occupation of Iraq in an explanation of ''Conqueror Moral Reasoning.''
''Because the conqueror deems himself to be divine, or else to be imbued by 'God' with divine authority, this means that even those peoples he has not yet subdued nevertheless have, from the conqueror's viewpoint, a duty and obligation to obey him,'' Newcomb writes.
Further, he explains: ''Those who do not immediately recognize this obligation ... must be 'justly' dealt with in the harshest and most coercive terms. This is because the conqueror's so-called divine authority includes the responsibility to teach those whom he is destined to conquer and subdue the moral lessons that, from the conqueror's viewpoint, they are required to learn.''
This book is not a criticism of Christianity; rather, it distinguishes between Christ and Christianity, and Christianity and Christendom, the latter being an alliance of princes and priestly authorities that culminates in the doctrine of divine right of kings and popes.
''When we make these important distinctions, we can begin to understand the possibility of differences between the teaching of Jesus and the political and legal doctrines of a church-state complex operating in his name,'' professor Peter D'Errico, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, writes in the foreword.
This book is recommended for those who want a deeper understanding of the Doctrine of Discovery - namely, how language has been used as a ''perfect instrument'' in the doctrine's deployment. ''Words,'' the author Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote. ''How potent for good and evil they become in the hands of one who knows how to combine them.''
Newcomb, 53, is Shawnee/Lenape and the indigenous law research coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, Calif. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, a fellow with the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at Buffalo State College, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.
Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at email@example.com.