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Newcomb: Northern 'Discovery' in action

The Newfoundland Labrador government has threatened more than 100 Innu families with eviction from their aboriginal lands, which the provincial government calls ''Crown land.'' According to a release by the Indian Law Resource Center, the removal notices appear to be related to the Innu people's request to be compensated for lands that have been taken in the past for resource development and hydroelectric projects.

The resulting conflict helps us focus on the question of how title to sovereignty and title to land get constructed or created. How was the category ''Crown land'' created, by whom was it created, and by what ''right'' was that category assigned to Innu or other indigenous lands?

Innu attorney and activist Armand MacKenzie implied such questions by stating: ''No one has the right to evict us. We were here long before Newfoundland Labrador was ever formed.''

English political and legal philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748 - 1832) said that ''the relation that constitutes property ... is not material, it is metaphysical; it is a mere conception of the mind.'' The concept of ''Crown land'' is a product of the European mind and, therefore, of the European imagination. Who created this concept in the place known today as Canada or Newfoundland Labrador? Clearly, it was those who claimed to have ''discovered'' North America in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and who were authorized by the English monarchy in royal charters to represent the Crown on their voyages.

Thus, the contest between the Innu people and those who represent the political or governmental entity called ''Newfoundland Labrador,'' such as Newfoundland Premier Danny Williams, is a struggle between opposing worldviews. On one side are those indigenous peoples who were originally living free in connection with their lands long before Europeans from England (or France) ever arrived to North America. On the other are those latecomers who used the power of the human mind, the power of categorization, to project their ideas onto indigenous lands by calling them ''Crown land.'' Behind the projection of those mental categories lies the historical presumption that those lands belonged to the English or French monarchy, by right of Christian discovery, sovereignty and dominion.

MacKenzie summed up this struggle between opposing worldviews when he said, ''It is a total disgrace in the international community for the provincial government to attempt to bully us into giving up our land so they can construct hydroelectric dams and make money off our resources.''

He continued: ''The threat of eviction puts a lot of stress on our elders, our children and our families. Where will they go? This is our homeland. We have sacred sites here, places where we pray and gather traditional medicines, places where we hunt, have ceremonies, bury our relatives. We're closely connected to our land, and it's important that we are able to live without fear of government agents harassing us.''

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As human beings, we typically use ideas whereby a part of something will stand for the whole thing. A ''crown'' is a symbol of the bestowal of royal authority, and therefore the part that stands for the whole monarchy or, for example, the constitutional system inclusive of the ''Monarchy of Canada.''

In the 1823 Johnson v. M'Intosh ruling, issued by a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Marshall applied the concept of the British crown when he declared: ''So far as respected the authority of the crown, no distinction was made between vacant lands and lands occupied by Indians.''

What was the British crown's rationale for treating Indian-occupied lands as if they were vacant lands? Harvard-educated political science professor Benjamin Munn Ziegler decoded the above passage from the Johnson ruling as follows: ''The term 'unoccupied lands' refers of course to the lands in America which when discovered were 'occupied by Indians' but 'unoccupied by Christians.''' This has never ceased to be the basis for European claims of ''sovereignty and dominion'' in Canada or the provinces.

Thus, the Newfoundland Labrador government's claim of the authority to evict the Innu from their lands is rooted in the religiously premised claim that the lands where the Innu are living were ''unoccupied by Christians'' (or, in Marshall's words, ''occupied by natives, who were heathens'') when those representing the British crown first ''discovered'' North America. Given that the term ''Christian'' is only meaningful within the context of the Bible and the Christian religion, the ideological source of ''the Crown's'' claim to sovereignty and dominion, and the concept of ''aboriginal occupancy'' is the Old Testament theme of the ''chosen people'' and the Promised Land, and the notion of the divine right of kings.

Given this historical background, the strange and covert basis of the move to evict the Innu from their lands in the 21st century is the concept of Christian European superiority and the theory of divine right.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the indigenous research coordinator for the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, a columnist for Indian Country Today, and author of the book ''Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery'' (Fulcrum, 2008).