Newcomb: A new book for 2008: 'Pagans in the Promised Land'

In February 2008, my book, ''Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,'' will be released by Fulcrum Publishing in Golden, Colo. The book uses major findings in the theory of the human mind (cognitive theory) as a framework for challenging the presumption that the United States has any legitimate claim to ''plenary power'' over originally free and independent Native nations.

From a Native viewpoint, it is obvious that indigenous nations in North America were originally free and independent prior to the Christian European invasion of our lands. Given that this is the case, by what means do U.S. government officials now presume that at some point in the past our nations suddenly became subject to the governmental authority of the United States? The answer is that U.S. government officials make this presumption by means of the human imagination.

For generations, U.S. government officials have used and continue to use the human imagination to create and reinforce the presumption that the United States has a legitimate right to exert an ultimate controlling authority (dominion) over Indian nations and their lands, while mostly disregarding Indian-U.S. treaties by conceptualizing Indian nations as being merely ''quasi-sovereign.'' Seldom noticed is the extent to which federal Indian law and policy rest on the unchallenged presumption that Indian nations and peoples are subject to the workings of the non-Indian imagination (mental processes).

One of the most profound observations made by professor Steven L. Winter in his book, ''A Clearing in the Forest'' (2001, University of Chicago Press), is that ''all thought is irreducibly imaginative.'' Despite our tendency to view law as something external that imposes constraints on us (or imposes its will on us) from the outside, every field of law, including federal Indian law, is comprised in large part of abstract ideas that are the result of the workings of the human imagination. The legal ideas found in federal Indian law are but one result of the way that the human imagination operates (by means of concepts and categories) in interaction with the social and physical world.

Cognitive scientists have found that the vast majority of human mental activity operates on the level of the ''cognitive unconscious'' (below the level of conscious awareness). Cognitive theory is a scholarly attempt, on the basis of scientific studies in the areas of such fields as linguistics, psychology, cultural anthropology, neuroscience and so forth, to delve deeply into the cognitive unconscious and examine cognitive (mental) infrastructures.

Both consciously and unconsciously, U.S. government officials have used the human imagination to mentally construct, act upon and institutionalize a destructive colonizing ''presumption of authority'' over Indian nations. Those officials have then presumed to deem these concepts and categories (ideas) ''of the United States'' to be ''law'' relative to Indian nations.

As first set forth in the 1823 Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. M'Intosh, it is on the basis of the doctrine of Christian discovery and dominion that U.S. government officials have created the presumption that originally free and independent indigenous nations are legitimately subject to the non-Indian imagination of U.S. government officials.

The scientific study of the human mind reveals that in addition to conceptual metaphors and other mental operations, humans also reason by means of idealized cognitive models, otherwise known as ICMs. Two main ICMs used by the United States in the formation and elaboration of federal Indian law and policy are the Conqueror model and the Chosen People-Promised Land model. ''Pagans in the Promised Land'' identifies and unpacks these two models and explains the extent to which they enable us to make sense of federal Indian law and policy.

According to Steven Winter, cognitive models are ''folk theories or cultural understandings that organize knowledge of events, people, objects and their characteristic relationships in a single gestalt structure that is experientially meaningful as a whole.'' For example, he says that the words ''buy,'' ''sell,'' ''cost,'' ''goods,'' ''advertise'' and ''credit'' are ''made meaningful in terms of an idealized model of commercial transaction that relates them together as a structured activity.''

Thus, for example, in the Johnson ruling, words such as ''conqueror,'' ''conquer,'' conquest'' and ''conquered'' used by Chief Justice John Marshall are made meaningful in terms of an idealized model of the Conqueror or Dominator that puts them together as a holistic or gestalt structure.

Other words in the Johnson ruling, such as ''Christian people,'' ''Christian prince,'' ''ultimate dominion'' and ''natives, who were heathens,'' are meaningful in terms of an idealized model of the Chosen People and the Promised Land, the narrative source of which is the Old Testament of the Bible.

Such cognitive models are part of the comprehensive cognitive background that provides the deeper hidden (unconscious) context within which the Johnson ruling is made meaningful from an indigenous perspective. The Conqueror and Chosen People-Promised Land ICMs, both of which are integral to the dominating mentality of Christendom, enable us to understand and make explicit the Old Testament religious basis of the Johnson ruling, and doctrine of Christian discovery and dominion, which stands in violation of the separation of church and state.

By revealing the Old Testament cognitive background of the Johnson ruling, ''Pagans in the Promised Land'' provides us, from a Native perspective, with an effective means of challenging the religiously based presumption that the United States has any legitimate unilateral authority over originally independent indigenous nations and peoples.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the indigenous law research coordinator for the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.