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Newcomb: Anti-Indian rhetoric in the 21st century

Every area of Indian country seems to have its own version of the anti-Indian movement. It is a movement that crafts messages by using some of the deepest political concepts and core values of the dominant American society. It is a movement that tries to appeal to an unconscious fear of the ''disintegrating'' influence of ''the other.'' This approach may be particularly effective these days when an ''us vs. them'' mentality and the use of terms like ''terror'' and ''national security'' are so prevalent in public discourse.

The categories and metaphors used in anti-Indian rhetoric are wrapped in language that reflects a number of values shared by millions of Americans. Terms and phrases such as ''One Nation,'' ''equal rights,'' ''liberty,'' ''justice,'' ''equal justice under law'' and so forth seem quite normal to the average person in the United States.

To a non-Indian audience, arguments that are put together through the use of such terms and phrases may seem to merely reflect common sense. Thus, one challenge we face as Indian people is how to formulate meaningful responses to anti-Indian messages without seeming to defy mainstream ''common sense'' and deeply held American values. In times such as these, we are in need of nuance of language and subtlety of insight.

This need for insightful nuance is connected to a more general challenge we face. When we as Indian people use the English language, we often find ourselves in the paradoxical predicament of attempting to express indigenous cultural and political understandings by means of concepts and categories that carry the baggage of a European cultural mentality, cultural context and values. A dominant-society audience will automatically interpret our messages within their own mental framework using their own cognitive and cultural background.

Another key challenge is the way that the anti-Indian movement is able to exploit the fact that the American public is uninformed when it comes to the subject of American Indians nations. An example of how the anti-Indian crowd exploits such ignorance is the way it frames its arguments in terms of what it claims is appropriate in the ''American democracy'' while not acknowledging the role that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy played in the formation of the model of democracy eventually adopted by the United States.

The anti-Indian movement avoids discussing the argument that our original free Indian nations and peoples have the right to continue to exist because the existence of our nations far predates that of the United States. Anti-Indian activists unconsciously use what we might call container-structured arguments to sidestep the original free and independent existence of our Native nations.

The cognitive background of a ''container'' argument views the country of the United States as a type of container or box, the boundaries of which correspond to the borders of the United States. The United States is also viewed as an ''object.'' Container and object ways of thinking and speaking are reflected in the ridiculous, fear-based argument that the existence of sovereign Indian nations is threatening to dismantle the United States. One aspect of the mental model of a nation is that of a container or bounded region of space. This image is an essential structural feature of the ''One Nation'' slogan used by anti-Indian organizations.

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The anti-Indian thought process assumes that everyone and everything inside the container-country called ''the United States of America'' (including Indian nations) is subject to the laws and political authority of the U.S. governmental system, which is, of course, made up of the federal, state, and local governments. This way of thinking places Indian nations and Indian governments in an ''anomalous'' or unusual situation in relation to the political structuring of the United States. It leads to the question of where and how Indian nations fit ''within'' the U.S. political framework.

Those who created the United States as a political entity used surveyors and mapmakers to conceptualize and build national and state boundaries that were thought of as encircling and engulfing Indian nation lands.

Once U.S. boundary lines were established on maps and institutionalized in social and political practice, this created the ridiculous perception that the United States is politically and legally first on the continent, despite the obvious fact that with regard to Indian nations this is completely and chronologically false. The anti-Indian movement attempts to exploit this sense that the United States is more fundamentally rooted in the continent than Indian nations.

The anti-Indian movement also employs a deep-level political/legal metaphor: ''inside of is under the jurisdiction of.'' This metaphor reflects and reinforces a popular assumption: ''Indian nations that exist 'inside' or 'within' the boundaries of the United States are subject to the political and legal authority of the United States'' (otherwise known as ''plenary power'').

Some anti-Indian activists argue that the way to ''free'' Indians from federal claims of plenary power is to get rid of Indian nations in the name of civil rights and ''equal justice for all.'' In any case, the presumption of plenary power does not take into account that Indian nations were here on the continent first and possess a sacred birthright of original independence. Nor does it account for the fact that Indian nations have made hundreds of treaties with the United States that, from a Native perspective, are supposed to safeguard the political existence and lands of Indian nations as ''supreme law'' in the United States.

As first indigenous nations, one collective challenge we share is to find the most effective means of responding to the anti-Indian movement in the 21st century. As a start, it bears repeating that we were placed on this continent by the Creator, with our own respective lands, languages, cultures, spiritual traditions and values. We are still here. The United States was constituted on our indigenous lands ''in'' and ''within'' a pre-existing ''Turtle Island'' (North America). Our respective sovereign nations have the right to continue to exist for the simple reason that we do exist, thanks to our ancestors.

Steven Newcomb is the Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at the Sycuan Education Department on the Sycuan Indian Reservation, in San Diego County, California. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.