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Newcomb: Jamestown 2007: Commemorating the colonization of North America

May marks the 400th anniversary of the 1607 founding of the Jamestown colony. From May 11 - 13, President Bush and thousands of others gathered in Virginia to commemorate and celebrate the first permanent English colony in North America.

The U.S. tour of Queen Elizabeth II was timed to coincide with the commemoration. Speaking of changes that have occurred in the United States since she last visited Jamestown 50 years ago, when racial segregation was still the law of the land, the queen said, ''The melting pot metaphor captures one of the great strengths of your country and is an inspiration to others around the world as we face the continuing social changes ahead.''

From an indigenous perspective, however, the melting pot metaphor calls to mind the effort to destroy the traditional indigenous cultures and ways of life in North America, through the violent process of colonization and ''reduction.''

The melting pot is a metaphorical cauldron used to render indigenous nations from their original independence to a state of subjection and domination. Unfortunately, it is this colonizing process that is being commemorated in Virginia in May.

President Bush, in a May 15, 2006, address on immigration reform, invoked this very image when he said that the United States must ''honor the great American tradition of the melting pot, which has made us one nation out of many peoples.'' For each of our respective Indian nations, such a colonizing ''melting'' process is a fundamental threat to our continued existence.

Adm. Samuel Morison explained that colonization is ''a form of conquest in which a nation takes over a distant territory, thrusts in its own people and controls and eliminates the native population.'' And, according to Henry C. Morris, ''the history of colonization ... is also that of war and the exploitation of races and nations by the other.''

So, in terms of history of the English colonization of North America, what values are being celebrated by Queen Elizabeth II, the British Crown and the U.S. government? The First Charter of Virginia of April 10, 1606, is instructive: King James issued a royal charter to a number of prominent English subjects ''to make Habitation, Plantation, and to deduce a colony of sundry People into that part of America commonly called Virginia, and other parts and Territories in America, either appertaining unto us, or not now actually possessed by any Christian Prince or People.''

In the above passage we find expression of the doctrine of Christian discovery. The Crown asserted a right to colonize any indigenous lands in North America within certain boundaries. The language of the charter is phrased to protect the land rights of Christians, but not the land rights of non-Christian indigenous nations.

Eminent international law scholar Sir Henry James Sumner Maine explained the religious context of such thinking: ''In North America, where the discoverers or new colonists were chiefly English, the Indians inhabiting that continent were compared almost universally to the Canaanites of the Old Testament, and their relation to the colonists was regarded as naturally one of war almost by Divine ordinance.''

With regard to the indigenous nations, the First Charter of Virginia states that the colony would work at ''propagating [the] Christian religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God.'' Furthermore, King James thought that the colony ''may in time bring the Infidels and Savages, living in those parts, to human Civility, and to a settled and quiet Government.''

The English king and his colonizing adventurers were of the opinion that our indigenous ancestors were not-yet-human infidels and savages; the noble White Man supposedly had to ''bring'' the Indians ''to human Civility.''

During her recent visit to the United States, Queen Elizabeth II said of the Jamestown colony, ''With the benefit of hindsight, we can see in that event the origins of a singular endeavor - the building of a great nation, founded on the eternal values of democracy and equality based on the rule of law and the promotion of freedom.''

There is, however, a stark contrast between the queen's high-sounding rhetoric and the actual wording of the First Virginia Charter of 1606. From an indigenous perspective, the expropriation and colonization of billions of acres of indigenous lands in North America by the British and American empires, and the resulting immense wealth for the colonizers, is hardly a cause for celebration.

True, Queen Elizabeth II did use the term ''civilizations'' in reference to Native cultures of North America. ''And those early years in Jamestown,'' she said, ''when three great civilizations came together for the first time - Western European, Native American and African - [they] released a train of events which continues to have a profound social impact, not only in the United States but also in the United Kingdom and Europe.''

Such euphemistic language serves as a cloak to avoid focusing on a more accurate version of history. While it is true that the African people who were brought to North America in chains carried with them elements of the genius of their own respective cultures and civilizations, referring to enslaved Africans as a ''civilization'' seems disingenuous and inaccurate.

A couple of questions arise: In what way did African slaves demonstrate ''the eternal values of democracy and equality based on the rule of law and the promotion of freedom,'' invoked by the queen? In what way did the killing of Indian people and the theft of our indigenous territories on the basis of the Old Testament narrative of the ''chosen people'' and the Promised Land demonstrate those values?

To this day, Virginia is traditionally known as ''Old Dominion.'' The concept of ''dominion'' is the true value demonstrated by the English colonization of North America, which formally began with the Jamestown colony. Dominion is a concept rooted in the Roman conceptual system and values of domination. In fact, with regard to the queen's mention of ''a settled and quiet Government,'' the Latin word for government is ''domination.'' From an indigenous perspective, that is what is being commemorated in Virginia.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the Indigenous Law research coordinator at the Sycuan Education Department, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, a fellow with the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative and a columnist for Indian Country Today.