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Newcomb: The semantic gamesmanship of the United States

In 1987, the United States delivered to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights a response to allegations made by traditional Hopi against United States. The traditional Hopi Kikmongwis alleged that the U.S. had "denied them the fundamental human rights of self-determination" and had "violated their right to own property, the right to equal protection of the law, and the right to be free from racial discrimination." Needless to say, the United States denied these allegations.

In its response to the UN, the United States government claimed that it was "necessary to outline the historical origin and development of the American law doctrines of tribal sovereignty and the original indian [sic] title or aboriginal title." At this point, I want to focus the reader's attention on the lower case letter -i- in the word "indian" in the preceding sentence of the government's statement. This is how the United States wrote the word Indian throughout the document (which is marked "CONFIDENTIAL").

When the federal writers quoted Felix Cohen's "Handbook of Federal Indian Law" in the document they drafted for the UN, they altered Cohen's text. Because the word "Indian" is a proper noun, it is always written with a capital -I-. The federal writers violated this standard rule of English grammar by consistently changing the word "Indian" from an upper case -I-, as it actually appears in Cohen's Handbook, to a lower case -i-.

Thus, we find this sentence in the federal document: "From the earliest years of the republic, the indian tribes have been recognized as 'distinct, independent, political communities', and as such, qualified to exercise powers of self-government, not by virtue of any delegation of powers from the Federal Government, but rather by reason of their original tribal sovereignty."

What are we to make of this strange federal spelling of the word Indian? The answer is found in the book "Philosophy in the Flesh," (1999) by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, a book that details the profound link between metaphors and the way our minds work. Derived from the Greek meta pherein ("carry over"), metaphors take terms from one frame of reference and carry them over to another frame of reference.

Here's an example of the way metaphors are created. The metaphorical expression "long arm of the law" is created by taking a term from the framework of the human body, "arm," and conceptually transferring it over to the framework of "law." This particular metaphor personifies the concept of law so that "law" is pictured as having an "arm." Behind this expression is the inference that "law" has "a body." Thus, the metaphorical phrase, "a body of law." Lakoff and Johnson point out that we are largely unconscious of most of these deep structure metaphors.

The federal government's use of the term "Indian" with a lower case -i- is reflective of the hidden and therefore unnoticed metaphor in English: "Control is up." Allow me to explain. Something or someone considered to be "in control" of something or someone else, is metaphorically pictured in English as existing "higher up," than the person or thing "under control." That which is "under control" is pictured as existing on a "lower level," or "down" in relation to that which is considered to be "in control."

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When one political entity - such as the United States - is said to be "in control" of another political entity - such as an Indian nation - the one said to be "in control" will be depicted metaphorically as existing Up High in comparison to the political entity deemed "under control." The one said to be in control is pictured metaphorically as existing "over" the one "under control." Thus, the phrase "federal plenary power over Indians." We as Indian people commonly and mistakenly consider this phrase to be an "objectively real" literal statement when in fact it is a metaphorical political expression.

Based on the above understanding of how metaphors shape our mental processes, we now have an explanation as to why the United States government placed a lower case "i" on the word Indian in a confidential document delivered to the United Nations. This was the federal government's way of using metaphor to put forth its political claim to be "in control" of Indian nations.

The lower case -i- was also an expression of the political claim that Indian nations exist "beneath, below, and under" the plenary power of the United States. The federal writers contrasted "indian" with "Federal Government," using the upper case -F- and -G- as an honorific device to metaphorically portray the U.S. as having a "higher standing" politically as compared to "indian tribes."

The federal document also goes on to further quote from Cohen's Handbook: "?treaties and statutes of Congress have been looked to by the courts as limitations upon original tribal powers, or, at most, evidence of such powers, rather than as the direct source of tribal powers." And then this line: "This is but an application of the general principle that 'it is only by positive enactments, even in the case of conquered and subdued nations, that their laws are changed by the conqueror."

The words "conquered, subdued, and conqueror" provide the conceptual context for the federal government's use of a lower case -i- on the word Indian. Native nations, it is admitted, possessed "original powers" of what Cohen termed "tribal sovereignty," but because of the political claim that Indian nations are "conquered and subdued nations," this leads to the further claim that the United States as "the conqueror" has the prerogative of using "positive enactments" to change their [the Indians'] laws.

This point is further emphasized in two other sentences in the federal document that were taken from Cohen's Handbook: "(1) An indian tribe possesses, in the first instance, all the powers of a sovereign state. (2) Conquest renders the tribe subject to the legislative power of the United States and in substance?"

A question we ought to be asking the United States is this: What was the basis of this claim made by the United States to the UN in 1987, that Indian nations are "conquered and subdued nations," and is that still the position of the United States at this time?

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee and Lenape, is director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and Indigenous Law 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.