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Newcomb: California, Florida linked by organic laws

In 1877, the U.S. government printing office published the book ''The Federal and State Constitutions, Colonial Charters, and other Organic Laws of the United States.'' Ben Poole, who was then clerk of printing records, compiled the documentation under an order of the U.S. Senate.

Organic laws or fundamental laws form the foundation of a government. Thus, documents such as early colonial charters, the state constitutions and the U.S. Constitution are considered the organic law for the respective states and the United States. The 1787 Northwest Ordinance, for example, is the fundamental organic law for the territories of the United States and lays down the procedures for making the transition from a territory to statehood, details not provided by the federal Constitution. Each territorial act and organic act passed by Congress constitutes part of the fundamental organic laws of the United States.

Organic laws provide the framework, patterns of ideas and guidelines necessary for the regularized functioning of a particular governmental system. Fundamental organic laws also rest upon and embody the values of a system of government, such as the United States and the individual states.

The 1877 book is highly illuminating. It provides an unusual look at the basis for the territories and states of the United States, as well as a significant part of the basis for the relationship between the United States and Indian nations and peoples.

Oddly enough, the organic law of the state of Florida begins with the Royal Prerogatives given to Columbus by the king and queen of Spain. The prerogatives read in part: ''For as much as you Christopher Columbus, are going by our command, with some of our vessels and men, to discover and subdue some Islands and Continent in the ocean, and it is hoped that by God's assistance, some of the said Islands and Continent in the ocean will be discovered and conquered by your means and conduct, therefore it is but just and reasonable, that since you expose yourself to such danger to serves us, you should be rewarded for it'' (emphasis added).

Such language tells us that the fundamental law of Florida is grounded in the European desire to invade, conquer and subdue indigenous peoples and to take their lands. A deeper look reveals that this desire was also cloaked in religious terms. Thus, an editor's note linked to the heading ''Florida'' reads: ''Spain claimed and exercised the right of ultimate dominion over her possessions in America on the rights given by the discovery under this commission, and the grant of Pope Alexander [VI].'' The concept of ''dominion'' is rooted in conceptions and behaviors of domination.

In keeping with the editor's note, the next document listed as part of the organic law of Florida is the ''Bull of Pope Alexander [VI] Conceding America to Spain.'' The Vatican document of May 4, 1493, the bull Inter Caetera, is reprinted in its original Latin text, including that part of the document by which the pope called for ''barbarous nations'' to be ''subjugated,'' and ''reduced'' to the ''Catholic faith and Christian religion.'' Listed next are two other documents, a 1795 treaty between Spain and the United States, and an 1819 U.S. treaty with Spain ceding Florida to the United States.

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The organic law of California is also quite fascinating. It is partly explained by a note accompanying the heading ''California.'' The note reads: ''California was first discovered by the Spaniards in 1542, and they began to establish missions there in 1769. After the Mexican revolution, in 1924, it [California] formed a province of that republic until 1846, when the inhabitants and emigrants from the United States established an independent government. The treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo brought it [California] within the limits of the United States ...''

Thus, in the 1877 book published under order of the U.S. Senate, the states of Florida and California are linked by the fact that both states are historically traced to the Royal Prerogatives issued to Columbus (Cristobal Colon) and to the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493. This connection between the state of California, the Royal Prerogatives of Columbus and the Vatican papal bull is found in the editor's comment that ''California was first discovered by Spaniards in 1542.'' However, the connection seems slightly less obvious in the case of California only because of Mexico's successful revolution against Spain. As a result of Mexico's victory, the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was made between the United States and Mexico rather than between the United States and Spain.

Based on the information found in the 1877 book, other states that are also historically linked to the Royal Prerogatives of Columbus and the papal bull of 1493 include Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and a significant portion of Colorado.

The abovementioned organic law documents are made sense of in the context of the Europeans' desire to subjugate, subdue and conquer the original indigenous peoples of the hemisphere, and the desire to monetarily benefit from their lands and resources. The Spanish Catholic missions established in Baja and Alta California were also designed to carry out this intention to conquer and subdue indigenous peoples and their lands.

To acknowledge that certain fundamental laws form the foundation of a given society is to acknowledge the kinds of ideas, cultural values, knowledge and social practices that form the permanent basis upon which a social order has been built. The concepts of empire, domination, subjugation and conquest found in the Royal Prerogatives issued to Columbus and in the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493 tell us something about the kinds of ideas that have become a hidden part of the fabric of the United States, and why our respective Indian nations and peoples have suffered the trauma of genocide and severe losses at the hands of the society of the United States. This legacy also constitutes an integral part of the fundamental and organic laws of the United States.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the indigenous law research coordinator at Kumeyaay Community College and the Sycuan 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.