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Newcomb: The sacred birthright of indigenous peoples

Distinct and diverse, indigenous peoples are nations, born of the Earth (the Sacred Life Giver), placed by the Creator in sacred relationship with our homelands and territories throughout time. Our ancestors lived free and independent of western colonialism and subjugation for an untold succession of ages, until the empires of Christendom invaded our region of Earth, which is commonly known in the foreigners tongue as the "Western Hemisphere."

Our ancestors gave us the gift of a sacred birthright - which is our very being as naturally existing nations of people. This sacred birthright is comprised of our languages, cultures, lands, deserts, mountains, forests, and our relatives such as the buffalo, caribou, salmon, cedar, sage, sweet grass, and corn pollen, as well as all other forms of animal, plant, and bird life, even the trees, flowers and tiny insects. Our sacred birthright includes our spiritual and ceremonial traditions, our songs and sacred ceremonial places, our oral histories and the burial places of our ancestors.

Our sacred birthright includes our philosophies and sciences, our economic systems and agricultural practices, our petroglyphs and artifacts. And our sacred birthright also includes the rivers, streams, springs, lakes, aquifers, seas, bays, inlets, oceans, and all bodies of water, the precious and sacred liquid that flows through the veins of Mother Earth, that sustains all life, and without which life itself cannot continue.

In totality, our sacred birthright is an inherent right to live in peace, free of domination, subjugation, colonization, hate and war. In short, it is our sacred birthright to live the spiritual way of life bequeathed to us by our ancestors.

Yet for more than five centuries, dominating political systems from Western European Christendom have worked to maliciously and thoughtlessly destroy our sacred birthright, while heedlessly disrupting the balance, harmony, and beauty of life in the process.

Despite the onslaught they suffered from the invaders of Christendom, our indigenous ancestors handed us, to the best of their ability, the knowledge and wisdom accumulated by the experiences of our nations and peoples since the beginning of time, (or, in western terms, for thousands and thousands of years). The myriad aspects of our sacred birthright have been passed down, generation-by-generation, through the children and young adults of our nations.

However, under the twisted guidance and leadership of the Vatican in the 15th century, the empires of Christendom declared war upon our respective nations on the basis of religious racism. For example, in 1452, the Vatican issued the papal bull dum diversas, which instructed the Portuguese monarchy "to invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue, all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property." This was a declaration of holy war and crusade against non-Christian peoples throughout the globe, based on passages from the Old Testament of the Bible, such as Psalms 2:8: "Ask of me and I will give to you the heathen [nations] for an inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession."

The above biblical passage is the belief that one nation or people has the divine right to possess many other nations and peoples as property. This strange viewpoint - when combined with Genesis 1:28 mandate "to subdue the earth and exercise dominion over all living things" - is premised upon the idea that one people has been hand-picked by "God," to take over and possess all the parts of the earth, even those parts already in the possession of other peoples. This kind of thinking gave birth to such Vatican documents as the dum diversas, and to Christendom's so-called "Right of Discovery."

We see the above way of thinking also reflected in the Inter Cetera papal bull issued by the infamous Borgia pope, Alexander VI, on May 4, 1493. This bull called upon the Catholic monarchs of Aragon and Castile (Isabella and Ferdinand), to subjugate the barbarous (non-Christian indigenous) nations, and colonize them for the Catholic faith and Christian religion, for the economic benefit of the "Christian Empire" ("christianii emperii").

Three years later, in 1496, King Henry VII of England, imitated the Inter Cetera bull of 1493, by granting a royal charter to John Cabot and his sons, authorizing them "to seek out, discover, and find, whatsoever isles, countries, and regions of the heathen and infidel that before this time have been unknown to all Christian people." This same principle is found in various charters of England, such as the charters issued to Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh, the Virginia charters, the Mayflower Compact, and many other such documents.

When the 13 British colonies along the east coast of North America successfully broke away from Great Britain, by declaring and winning recognition of their independence, those colonies became 13 free and independent states. However, the colonial charters of England remained the organic law of the original 13 states of the United States.

In 1823, the United States Supreme Court, in the great case Johnson & Graham's Lessee v. M'Intosh, handed down a ruling that defined the nature of Indian nationhood and land title. Looking back to English charters and the "Right of Discovery," the Court said that although the Indians had a title of "occupancy," nevertheless, the first "Christian people" to discover lands occupied by "natives, who were heathens" had the right to assert "ultimate dominion" over heathen lands. Based on this bizarre theory, our very existence as Indians is now assumed to be subordinate to, ruled by, and possessed as property by, the political and legal successor of the first Christian "discoverers," namely, the United States.

Today our respective Indian nations and peoples are regarded as subject to Christendom's linguistic categories and system of classification, which remain at the deep structure of present day U.S. Indian law and policy. Accordingly, U.S. law and policy presumes that we Indians have no right to directly challenge and overturn the linguistic basis of our subjection to the colonial system of the United States.

Our sacred birthright, which we shall never freely forfeit, includes the right to heal from the trauma of colonization, and to one day be free and independent of all forms of colonial domination. We have a solemn responsibility to use ever fiber and breath of our being to uphold and protect the sacred birthright of our own children and young people, for the benefit of our future generations, and for the benefit of all Life.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is Director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous Research Coordinator at D-Q University at Sycuan, on the Reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation and is a columnist for Indian Country Today.