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Mental Exercise for Our Original Nations: Who Gets to Decide Who Gets to Decide?

Here’s a mental exercise. Reflect back on the first invaders to sail to this hemisphere. Now ask yourself: “Did those Christians from Europe, such as Cristobal Colón (Columbus), who made invasive landfall at the shores of this hemisphere have a valid right to claim territorial domination in relation to our part of the planet, and to the homelands of our different nations?

The dominating society of the United States automatically assumes that only a Euro-American perspective can result in a correct and authoritative answer to any question about the colonization of our original nations and our territories.

The society of the United States automatically assumes no correct and authoritative answer to such a question may come from the perspective of our Native nations. Instead, it is automatically assumed that the correct and authoritative answer to any such question must come from the ideas and arguments that Christian European thinkers in the past came up with, men such as Francisco de Vitoria, or Chief Justice John Marshall of the U.S. Supreme Court.

This brings us to another important point about the system of the United States: Every U.S. Supreme Court ruling about Native nations has an English language perspective built into it. Consequently, every U.S. Supreme Court ruling begins with a key assumption: Only the dominating perspective of the United States may be referenced when asking about the rights of the Christian European monarchies in the past, and about the rights of the United States in the present in relation to the original nations of the continent.

Here’s the next mental exercise: Think of the troubling implications for the United States if our Native nations were able to determine, judge, and argue that the Christian European colonization was nothing but a wrongful invasion, and therefore invalid. This would place our present day Native perspective in control of defining the rights of the society of the United States in relation to our original nations and our territories.

The United States has put in place a system of ideas that precludes the ideas and arguments of our Native nations from ever being able to define the relationship between the United States and our nations. The United States has done this by using the phrase “the law” to label the Christian European ideas and arguments of the past and the present. The United States has made it seem normal for the ideas and arguments of the colonizers to be the sole basis for making the determination that the invasion of our nations and our territories was rightful and justified.

We need to go back through the written record of the ideas and arguments of the colonizers, and identify the main arguments they made so we can oppose those arguments. According to Antony Anghie in his book Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law (20004), one argument the colonizers made is quite simple: They argued that they were sovereign, and that our original Native nation were not sovereign.

Did we, the original nations of this hemisphere, decide that we were not sovereign? No. The Christian colonizers did. And who decided that they would decide? They did. Having recognized this, the question becomes: On what basis did the colonizers claim that they would be the ones to decide whether our nations were sovereign or not? According to Professor Anghie, the colonizers said that our ancestors were “pagan” and therefore not sovereign, and they then decided that they, as Christians, were the only ones with the right to be sovereign.

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An underlying argument from the past that is still being used today by the United States against our Native nations is this: Our Native ancestors were deemed “pagan,” and Christians get to decide that Christians must always be in control of the power of defining reality when it comes to their interactions and relations with non-Christians.

On the basis of the Christian religion, in other words, the colonizers claimed that only the Christian world was qualified to determine who is sovereign and who is not, and that only the Christian world was qualified to decide what constitutes reality. Why? Because, according to the argument developed by Spanish jurist Francisco de Vitoria, only Christian sovereigns can wage “a just war.”

In Vitoria’s view, based on the concept of jus gentium, or “the law of nations,” non-Christians were inherently incapable of waging a just war. By Vitoria mentally positing that non-Christian “Saracens” and “pagan Indians” were incapable of waging just war, Vitoria was able to characterize our original nations as disqualified from being regarded as sovereign. The United States now uses that and other such ludicrous arguments against our original nations.

The Christian Europeans have also argued that the colonization of our nations and our territories was rightful and valid because Christians claimed a right of domination in relation to non-Christian (unbaptized) lands anywhere that a Christian prince or people did not have control. Why was this judged as being acceptable? Because the Christian European colonizers also decided to metaphorically define our ancestors as “infidels, heathens, and savages.”

Because the Christian religious premise of the main argument typically goes unstated and unnoticed, this results in the dominating U.S. perspective, based on Christianity, remaining unquestioned and unchallenged. Ideas and arguments premised on Christian discovery, and a claimed right of Christian domination, have been used to control our Native nations, our lands, and our lives for more than five hundred years.

Our original nations face a momentus challenge: It is time for us to develop ideas and arguments on behalf of our nations which make the point that the Christian Europeans who invaded our territories in a bid to dominate our nations never had a valid right to define our ancestors. Nor did they have the right to impose their metaphors of domination on our nations.

The final step of this mental exercise is to begin questioning and challenging the primary and controlling assumption of the United States, which comes down to this: The society of the United States claims the right to continue using against our nations the ideas, arguments, and definitions developed by Christian Europeans in the past, developed by such intellects as Francisco de Vitoria and U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. Now that we know this, it is up to all Native nations to challenge the very conceptual foundation of the system of Christian domination and dehumanization.

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 the co-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).