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Metaphors Matter: Toward the Liberation of Our Nations

In his book Metaphors We Live By (1980), philosopher Mark Johnson makes the point that we live our lives on the basis of metaphors and metaphorical patterns that we seldom notice. This is, in large part, because we are not taught to pay particular attention to metaphors or their patterns. We are not taught to understand the extent to which metaphors, and other mental processes, constitute the reality that we live and experience in our everyday lives.

It is a seldom noticed point that metaphor has been one of the United States’ primary means of making an entire world for our originally, and, I contend, still rightfully free nations. The words and ideas typically called “U.S. federal Indian law and policy” constitute an entire world of power relations that the United States has been able to build. Within that power structure, the United States has very thoughtfully built for us a “lower order” place of subordination where it desires to keep our nations and peoples in perpetuity. The United States has the aim of keeping us living on a permanent basis in conformity with its metaphorical patterning of domination and subordination, “Forever and ever Amen,” as the Christians say.

The world of semantic captivity that intellectuals working for the United States have worked so hard to construct for our nations and peoples is a metaphorical place of containment that has a corresponding physical reality. The world that we have managed to construct for ourselves is one that we have built within the confines of the world of captivity that the United States has built for us.

The United States government has justified its rapacious, deadly, and kleptomaniacal behavior toward our nations on the basis of dominating and dehumanizing metaphors that it lives by. The United States is an empire established on the basis of a founding metaphor of paternity (think “founding fathers”), a Great White Fatherhood that gave birth to its offspring of empire and domination. George Washington called it “our infant empire.” E Pluribus Unum—From Many One: One empire and domination under a concept of “God.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has been an extremely small but powerful group of humans engaged in an effort to build and maintain for our nations a metaphorical world of captivity. Our nations have been held within that semantic world for more than two hundred years now. Consequently, what Chief Justice John Marshall called “this, our wide-spreading empire” has used its carefully constructed idea-system to help itself to many trillions of dollars derived from our lands, territories, and resources. It has thereby made itself the wealthiest and most powerful empire on the planet, though it now seems to be showing signs of succumbing to the law of entropy and the second law of thermodynamics.

As a result of the United States’ cognitive use of metaphor and its rapacious idea-system, the world in which our nations and peoples now exist has epidemic levels of suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, jail and prison incarceration rates, poverty, diabetes and other deadly diseases, as well as the lasting effects of genocidal efforts to eliminate our nations by destroying our languages, culture, ceremonies, and traditional child rearing practices, and by stealing our children and socializing them to the “American” norms of the dominating society.

Those and other indicators—such as the destruction of our sacred sites and significant and ceremonial places—are a direct result of the U.S. Supreme Court and other sectors of the U.S. government using destructive metaphors against on our nations, on an intergenerational basis. The result has been a world-destroying process for our nations, and a world-building and enriching process for the United States. Clearly, metaphors matter.

When deadly and destructive patterns of domination are euphemistically called “law” in order to give them the appearance of legitimacy, we have a responsibility to challenge, reject and correct that misuse of language. This raises the issue of another type of captivity that we need to take into account. It is the extent to which our minds have been taken over by metaphorical patterns of Christian supremacy as found in the idea-system euphemistically called “U.S. federal Indian law.”

The dominating society of the United States has manipulated our minds to such an extent, that more of our people than not now consider it perfectly normal to be “practicing” rather than challenging, the metaphorical system of white Christian dominium that is typically termed “U.S. federal Indian law.” We have professionals who are said to be “practicing” a form of “law” made up of metaphorical patterns that were designed by brilliant white men in the past, designed as a specific way to controlling, diminish, and—under the label of “termination” —to eliminate our originally and still rightfully free nations.

Those of our people who are “practicing” the dominating idea-patterns of the white man’s “law” simply ignore the twisted and religiously bigoted premise of that idea-system. They either don’t know it’s there, or else pretend it isn’t. For some reason, they never seem to question and challenge the basis upon which the United States holds our nations captive.

It is time to move beyond the usual platitudes about and become more precise about a doctrine of discovery and domination-premised “trust” relationship. Why is “trust” being used to label the domination-subordination premise of U.S. “federal Indian law,” which is the idea that the first white Christian power to locate non-Christian dark-skinned nations has the right to assume an “ascendancy” and “ultimate dominion” (domination) over those nations? (For evidence of this, see, for example, the 1954 U.S. legal brief in Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States).

We need to begin a deeper conversation about the correct basis for relations between our rightfully free nations and the United States. What does a right relationship between two nations look like, especially when one of the two has succeeded in maintaining for generations a metaphorical system of domination over the other that it refuses to let go of?

This raises the question: Is there such thing as a right of domination? Before answering, remember that domination results in dehumanization, which results in the trauma of what theologian Dr. Luis Rivera-Pagan has called “the absolute devaluation of one’s being.” This, then, leads to a further question: Is there such a thing as a right of dehumanization? Is there a right to engage in an absolute devaluation of someone’s or some nation’s very being? If so, then why is there no Universal Declaration on the Rights of Domination and Dehumanization?

And if there is no right of domination and dehumanization, then what is the international standard or convention which provides the basis for ending such patterns that are afflicting not just our nations and peoples but the planet? Not only is there no end in sight, the destructive patterns of domination seem more blatant than ever, especially on the eve of the United States’ goal of achieving Full Spectrum Dominance by the year 2020.

Having said all this, think of the extent to which the world’s political, social, and economic systems are presently predicated on metaphors and behavioral patterns of domination and dehumanization. Clearly, our struggle to liberate our original nations is planetary in scope. It is not merely for our own sakes that we must work to end the domination system, but for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and our future generations. We need to develop the metaphors and behavioral patterns by which to liberate ourselves.

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 co-producer of the soon-to-be-released documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Saint-Marie (Cree).