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Newcomb: Mapping Indian nations

It is beyond dispute that American Indian nations were originally free and independent of the thoughts and ideas of Europeans. For thousands of years, Christian Europeans obviously had at that time no influence over the lives and existence of American Indian peoples.

When the European adventurers first arrived to North America, some took extensive notes about the aboriginal peoples and described the flora and fauna. Some created maps. The maps were imaginative artistic representations of Indian lands. The European map makers used their artistry as a means of depicting Indian lands as rightfully belonging to various European monarchies.

As the European map makers began to draw lines on paper in the process of making maps, they either ignored the existence of Indians altogether, or else portrayed the originally free and independent Indian nations as existing “inside” or “within” the boundaries of the artistically created European areas variously called “territories,” “colonies,” or “states.”

In 1776, 13 British colonies, situated along the North American Atlantic seaboard, declared themselves to be 13 free and independent states. Map making was part of the process of creating a new political identity for the declared states, and their fledgling confederacy. After the 1783 Treaty of Paris between Great Britain and the United States, all lands north and west of the Ohio River, up to the Canadian border, were considered to be the Northwest Territory of the United States.

As the territorial claims of the United States were constantly shifting, new maps depicted the United States as “moving” or “expanding” westward and new states as being formed. By means of those maps, non-Indian map makers began to artistically depict Indian nations and their traditional territories as existing “within” a particular non-Indian “territory,” or “within” the boundary of a specific state, as well as “within” the United States.

In many instances, the Indian nations had not moved away from their own traditional lands or outside their own traditional territory, but non-Indian maps had begun to depict them as existing “within” and therefore, in some sense, as “part of” the territory of the United States. The maps were treated as tangible evidence that Indian nations now existed “inside” the United States, despite the fact that the Indian nation had been existing there, free and independent within their own territories, prior to the existence of any political entity called the United States.

New arguments were developed as a result of the mapping and the apparent envelopment of Indian nations “within” non-Indian political and legal constructs.

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Take the argument by the “State of Georgia,” as a case in point: “Because the Cherokee Nation is within our state borders, the Cherokees are subject to the legislative actions of the state legislature.”

So, by a number of steps, the domination of the Cherokee and other Indian nations seems to have been a forgone conclusion. Here’s the process: First, survey the land, and create maps and other documents that depict on paper “the state” as existing. Second, depict the Cherokee Nation, for example, as existing “inside” the borders of that political entity called “the State of Georgia.” Third, develop the argument that the Cherokee Nation was subject to the legal and political activities of the state, despite the fact that the Cherokee people had existed on those lands completely free and independent for thousands of years prior to the arrival of Europeans to the continent.

Shift that same framework to the federal government and the pattern still applies. Survey the lands; artistically map Indian lands as belonging to the United States; pass legislation (such as the Indian Removal Act or the General Allotment Act) that presumes originally free Indian nations to be subject to the legislative authority of the United States; operate on the presumption that Indian nations are subject to the legislative authority of the United States.

Question: How did American Indian nations get “inside” non-Indian maps? Answer: Through the creative activities of the non-Indian imagination. An artistically depicted reality can easily become a lived reality through the long-term conditioning of the human mind and the requisite human behaviors, backed by coercive and deadly force.

The point is that Indian nations were on this continent first. The Europeans and Euro-Americans drew imaginary borders on paper, thereby artistically “surrounding” our indigenous ancestors and our traditional territories. The colonizers claimed that Indian nations existed on non-Indian lands and within non-Indian spaces. They then used their imaginary positioning of Indian nations as a means of limiting, containing and removing our nations and peoples altogether.

This framework was ultimately used to construct the argument that Indian nations had been “incorporated” into the United States. As the U.S. Supreme Court said in the 1978 Oliphant decision: “Upon incorporation into the territory of the United States, the Indian tribes thereby come under the territorial sovereignty of the United States and their exercise of separate power is constrained so as not to conflict with the interests of this overriding sovereignty.”

This false claim of incorporation and accompanying patterns of reasoning is but one effect of the imaginary mapping of Indian nations. Citing Johnson v. M’Intosh, Chief Justice Rehnquist refuted the original independence of Indian nations by stating: “[T]heir rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, [are] necessarily diminished.” By changing the court’s original word “were” to “are,” the Rehnquist Court asserted, on the basis of the doctrine of Christian discovery, the supposed diminishment of Indian independence in perpetuity.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery” (2008), and a columnist with Indian Country Today.