Skip to main content

May I Suggest ... 'Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny,' by Robert J. Miller

PORTLAND, Ore. - Professor Robert J. Miller's ''Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny,'' is a powerful book that clearly illustrates how Thomas Jefferson used a European legal tradition to justify the United States' expansion and its acquisition of indigenous land.

The legal tradition - known today as the ''doctrine of discovery'' - established rules for the acquisition and occupation of ''discovered'' land. Miller traces the development of this legal tradition, how it became international law and how it was used on this continent.

The doctrine of discovery also established rules affecting how indigenous people were viewed and treated. Miller clearly shows how the doctrine of discovery influences the daily lives of America's first peoples today.

Miller's book is arguably the most thorough book on the subject today. He takes a complicated topic and makes it comprehendible and easy to read.

The doctrine of discovery is rooted in papal decrees in the 1400s that were written to settle discovery disputes that were arising during the peak of the age of sail. The decrees required that the discovering country possess the land, if at least symbolically, such as by planting a flag. It authorized the discovering country to take possession and control of inhabited land for the purpose of converting the inhabitants to Christianity, as long as the land was not claimed by another Christian country.

To the countries that were loyal to the Church in Rome, the decrees amounted to land title awarded by God's representative on Earth.

As Miller points out, however, the discovering countries were more interested in expanding their territories and accumulating wealth than they were in saving souls; the doctrine of discovery was merely a tool to justify the taking of land.

Through the ensuing centuries, countries - including the new United States of America - looked to the papal decrees for precedent.

Jefferson had the doctrine of discovery in mind when he dispatched Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Coast and it was why he saw John Jacob Astor's trading post in Astoria as critical; they bolstered the U.S. claim on the Pacific Northwest, for which the British were competing. And possession of the Pacific Northwest was critical to establishing trade with Asia as well as expanding the United States from coast to coast.

Jefferson knew what America had to do under the doctrine of discovery to establish ownership of the Pacific Northwest. The United States even practiced ritual acts of possession established by the papal decrees: planting flags, turning a spade of soil and marking notches on trees.

This same ritual was practiced as late as August this year. Miller wrote in an Aug. 6 opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times about how a Russian submarine planted a titanium capsule containing the Russian flag on the Arctic Ocean seabed - a prelude to a ''we were here first'' claim on riches that could lie below the melting Arctic ice.

How is the doctrine of discovery felt today in daily American Indian life? ''It's still absolutely the law,'' Miller said, noting that the U.S. government has plenary, or absolute, authority over American Indians and their governments. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled (in Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe) that a tribal court cannot prosecute someone who is not American Indian, although non-Native courts enjoy broader jurisdiction. By law (U.S. Code 25177), American Indians and tribal governments can't sell or lease land without the permission of Congress. Today, the United States holds title - ultimate control of the land - to 67 million acres owned by tribes and 11 million acres owned by individual American Indians. We know it as holding land in trust.

Miller's book also shows Jefferson in a new light. The same man who wrote to the Marquis de Chastellux ''I believe the Indian then to be in body and mind equal to the white man,'' methodically plotted an aggressive policy toward American Indians.

Jefferson told his agents never to coerce tribal nations to sell their lands; the lands were theirs as long as they wished. But in a letter to Indiana Territory Gov. William Henry Harrison, Jefferson suggested that if the various nations could be encouraged to purchase goods on credit, they would likely fall into debt, which they could relieve by selling their lands to the government. Trading posts were established on the frontier to further that aim.

When some tribal nations resisted efforts by the United States to acquire their land, Jefferson asked in a confidential letter to Congress for money to establish more trading posts ''undefinedn order peaceably to counteract this policy of theirs.'' Ultimately, 28 government trading posts operated on the frontier. Jefferson was also the earliest architect of a plan to remove all American Indians east of the Mississippi.

Miller's book shows that Jefferson was disingenuous. ''Jefferson was the most aggressive, expansionist president we ever had,'' Miller wrote. ''He had ulterior motives: to get [American Indians] out of the way as fast as possible and acquire their land.''

Miller, 56, is Eastern Shawnee and grew up in Oklahoma. He received his law degree at age 40 from Lewis & Clark College in Portland and started teaching there in 1993. He has written numerous law review articles; the most significant, in his view, was one on the Makah whaling issue in 2000.

Miller's book evolved from a paper he wrote for the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Conference in 2002; he also served on the Circle of Tribal Advisors, an advisory board to the National Council of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial. He worked on the book during a sabbatical in 2005 - '06. The book was published in September 2006.

Miller is working with co-authors in Australia, Canada and New Zealand on an expanded version of his book, which will look at how the doctrine of discovery was applied in those countries. He thinks it's no coincidence that those countries and the United States were the only four countries to vote against the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People.

The declaration constituted a formal recognition in international law that indigenous nations and peoples have fully protected and collective fundamental human rights. Such a declaration would, in the words of Indian Country Today columnist Steven Newcomb, ''make it more difficult for their respective governments - and the corporations with which they work hand-in-glove - to exploit indigenous lands and resources.''

As history repeats - or attempts to repeat - itself, Miller's book is an essential and empowering read.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at