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Newcomb: Dominorum Christianorum at play again

On June 1, the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect. It creates new security measures for international travel to and from the United States, even to and from Canada or Mexico. The new identification requirements of the initiative were the impetus for a new partnership between the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Canada’s Ministry of Public Safety.

The U.S.-Canadian border runs through Akwesasne, a community that is part of the traditional territory of the Mohawk Nation, and part of the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee, or Six Nations Confederacy.

As an online Indian Country Today article stated regarding the WHTI, “Leaders of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne, the elected community government for the northern portion of the territory, have vigorously protested a plan by the Canadian Border Service Agency to arm its border guards on the island of Akwesasne on June 1.”

The initiative and armed border guards are symbolic of a much deeper issue – namely, the historic and modern dominating imposition of government dictates on the originally free Indian nations of North America by Canada and the United States.

For more than 500 years, being subjected to such dominating impositions has been the pattern for Native nations and peoples. For millennia, hundreds of distinct nations lived on their own lands completely free and independent of Christian European authority. But, according to a version of history embraced by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823, Christian European potentates issued papal bulls and royal charters of colonization, and sent their representatives forth “to seek out discover and find,” any lands “of the heathen and infidel, which before this time have been unknown to all Christian people.”

It is important to keep foremost in mind that none of the documents of domination referred to lands previously unknown to ‘European people.’




When they issued such documents “donating” non-Christian lands, those monarchs considered themselves to have a right of “dominorum Christianorum” (Christian tyranny) relative to the original non-Christian nations. (By the way, “to seek out,” is an old form of English meaning “to locate in order to attack.” This indicates that we’re talking about an invading Christian tyrant or tyranny).

It is important to keep foremost in mind that none of the documents of domination referred to lands previously unknown to “European people.” The documents all used the terminology of that time, specifically, lands not in the possession of a “Christian people,” a “Christian prince or people,” or lands not in the possession of “any Christian owner.”

This is the language referenced by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling. Coincidentally, the U.S. and Canada trace their organic laws back to the colonizing documents of Western Christendom, and the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling.

This point is illustrated by a book titled “Aboriginal Law: Cases, Materials and Commentary.” It was published by Thomas Isaac in 1995 to explain legal cases in the Canadian context. Isaac begins with the “Royal Proclamation of 1763,” issued by Britain’s King George III. He immediately proceeds to a second document, which is the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling “Johnston [sic] and Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh.”

In other words, the exact same framework proclaiming Christian discovery of and claimed dominion over heathen and infidel lands is being used against Indian nations by the Canadian governments. Unfortunately, Isaac’s book excised all the Christian terminology from the Johnson ruling. This ensures that anyone reading his book is unable to gain any understanding of the Christian religious dimension of the Canadian law system.

There is another element that helps illustrate the historical and conceptual roots of the impositions that Indian nations are dealing with today. The Inter Caetera papal bull of May 4, 1493, which the Johnson v. M’Intosh traces back to, contains a critically important line: “We trust in Him from whom empires, and governments, and all good things proceed.” The word “Him” references the Catholic or Christian deity. In the Latin version of this papal decree, the word for “governments” is “dominationes,” or dominations.

This means the Latin word for government is “domination,” which matches “dominorum Christianorum,” meaning, a medieval Christian tyrant or Christian tyranny. This damning language illustrates the conceptual root of the U.S. plenary power doctrine and the Canadian government equivalent of that doctrine on the basis of Christian religion and the Old Testament idea of the Chosen People and the Promised Land.

In the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Worcester v. Georgia, Chief Justice John Marshall made an about face. He said the doctrine of discovery he identified in Johnson “could not annul the previous rights of those [Indians] who had not agreed to it.” Furthermore, the doctrine of discovery [by “any Christian prince or people”] “could not affect [change] the rights of those [Indian nations] already in possession” of the land.

This means that in no way could the false claim of Christian discovery and dominion change or diminish the rightful and original free existence of Indian nations. The baseline for our nations, therefore, is a time when, as Marshall put the matter, “America, separated from Europe by a wide ocean, was inhabited by a distinct people, divided into separate nations, independent of each other and of the rest of the world, having institutions of their own, and governing themselves by their own laws.”

What has been institutionalized in laws and policies of the United States and Canada, however, is not the views found in Worcester, but, rather the dehumanizing medieval concept of government as “domination.” This then is the root of the idea of plenary power over originally free Indian nations.

Steve Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, 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).