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Newcomb: Anti-Indian sentiment persists

In October 2007, a letter appeared in The Wall Street Journal titled, ''Tribal 'Nations' Within U.S. Aren't Justified.'' The letter exemplifies an anti-Indian nationhood sentiment still prevalent in the United States.

The letter was written in response to a Wall Street Journal article about non-Indians attempting to sue Indian nations: ''Plaintiffs Suing U.S. Tribes Can't Get Their Day in Court.'' In response, Andreas Danckers of Libertyville, Ill., said the story told in the article ''provides yet another reason to reconsider the privileged legal status of so-called Native Americans.'' In one sense of the term, a privilege is ''a right or immunity granted as a peculiar benefit, advantage or favor: special enjoyment of a good or exemption from an evil or burden.''

Danckers did not choose to focus on the original independence of Indian nations. Such a view would make it clear that the independent existence of Indian nations was never ''granted'' to them as a ''special privilege,'' but was an attribute of the free life that all Indian nations lived in North America prior to the Christian European invasion. Nor did he focus on the recognition of Indian nations by the United States in hundreds of treaties, treaties classified by the U.S. Constitution as the ''supreme law of the land.''

Instead, the author chose to employ certain key metaphors that have always been used by anti-Indian writers. One of the most effective of these metaphors is ''inside is under the jurisdiction of,'' or, ''inside is under the control of.'' This method of argumentation employs a container image to make the argument that Indians exist ''within'' a socially constructed political container made by the United States, and are therefore subject to the authority and jurisdiction of the United States. Danckers employed a container image-based argument to contend that ''the costs to U.S. society of the aberration of a sovereign 'nation' within our borders are neither justified nor sustainable.'' (emphasis added)

Another metaphor used by Danckers to build his case against Indian nationhood is COLONIZATION IS WAR, which is related to the metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. On the basis of these two conceptualizations, he wrote: ''The sad fact is that American Indians were displaced by the successive pressures of the colonization, settlement and economic exploitation of North America.''

Danckers attempts to turn this ''sad fact'' to the disadvantage of Indian nations. He states that the Indians ''lost a series of battles against soldiers and disease, and ultimately against the onslaught of a more advanced civilization.'' In addition to repeating the lie that Indian civilizations were less advanced than European ones, Danckers employs a framework of war to argue that Indian nations should not exist ''within'' the United States today because they lost a war with the United States. Thus, he writes, ''It is absurd to act as if the Indians didn't lose those battles and that war.''

In other words, Indian nations and peoples that existed free and independent for thousands of years before the United States ever came into existence should not exist today. Why? Because they supposedly lost a war that the United States waged against them.

Danckers also argues that it is absurd ''to carve out an imaginary sovereign state belonging to them [the Indians], the borders of which are continually shifting to the detriment of U.S. citizens.'' Of course, ever since the 13 colonies declared themselves to be 13 states, and then began advancing westward and adding new states as the ''American empire,'' the ''continually shifting borders'' of the United States have been extremely detrimental to Indian nations.

Every ''state'' or nation is the product of human beings, in community with others, collectively conjuring an imaginative identity; that is, they make ''reality'' by means of their ongoing mental, social and cultural interactions. Thus, Danckers is accusing American Indians of culturally and socially constructing a collective identity that will provide for their security, their property and the well-being of present and future generations. How did the United States ever come into existence, if not by this same means of human imagination and behavior?

It is time ''to repeal,'' Dankers said, ''the recognition of Indians and their Tribal Governments as a land within our land.'' The preposition ''within'' once again reflects his use of the container image as a way of imaginatively placing ''Indians'' in a subject or downward position in relation to the United States. His rhetoric is therefore reflective of the metaphors ''lack of control is down,'' and ''within is under the control of.'' Underlying the phrase ''land within our land'' is an unstated presumption: All Indian land rightfully belongs to the United States.

Danckers' sentence, ''The harsh treatment of indigenous Americans by their conquerors, though typical of the time, was in hindsight incorrect and regrettable,'' deflects attention away from the fact that the society of the United States has attempted to be ''the conqueror'' of indigenous nations. It is on this basis that Danckers contends that the recognition of American Indians as sovereign nations is ''incorrect and regrettable.''

What is truly incorrect and regrettable, however, is that such anti-Indian rhetoric continues to persist in 2008.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation in San Diego County, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of ''Pagans in the Promise Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery'' (Fulcrum Publishing, 2008).