Newcomb: The sinister roots of ‘territory’

Alpheus Snow, in his book “The Administration of Dependencies,” examined “the Evolution of the Federal Empire” of the United States, “with Special Reference to Colonial Problems.” How to get Indian land has always been a central colonial issue for the United States. This is otherwise known as “the Indian problem,” or, how to get the land away from the Indian nations that first possessed it.

Territory is of critical importance to the colonial problem of the United States. Snow said that from the “earliest time” the meaning of the word “territory” had been disputed. Based on a number of Latin writers dating back to the Roman Empire, Snow traced the concept of “territory” to the Latin word “terreo,” “to hold a place in subjection through terror, or excessive fear.”

From this perspective, the more accurate spelling of “territory” would be “terror-tory,” meaning, “a region or place held under subjection or control through the use of terroristic force against the people.” A successful war of terror results in an expanded “terror-tory” (territory).

Snow said the double suffix “torium” resulted in the whole word “toritorim,�� the literal meaning in Latin being, “a place pertaining to a person who holds in subjection through terror or excessive fear.” A toritorim is a place that is held “through awe, or dread.” The more benign and euphemistic sounding meaning would be, “a place subject to the exclusive control of a person (such as a Lord), or a political community.”

All this leads to a troubling but quite logical conclusion. Behind the “Doctrine of Discovery” and the claim of a unilateral U.S. “plenary power” over Indian nations is the claimed “right” of Christian terror-torial sovereignty. This can be characterized as the presumed right by a “Christian prince or people” to invasively use terroristic force against non-Christians (heathens and infidels).

The above framework is what comes to mind when thinking of Justice Scalia having reportedly said the United States’ right to rule – and, thus, all federal Indian law and policy – rests on conquest. For, after all, what is a claim of conquest but a claim by one people of having succeeded in using deadly terroristic force against another, so as to overwhelm them and control their very existence?

Thus, the threat of terroristic force is the background dimension of federal Indian law and policy that remains out of focus when discussing “Indian title,” “aboriginal title,” title of “use and occupancy” and so forth. Every time we as Indian people use that terminology, we are unwittingly invoking the hidden idea that the United States has a rightful terror-torial sovereignty traced back to the era of Christendom and tyrannical Christian European rulers during the so-called Age of Discovery.

What were some of the terroristic means that Christian Europeans used for centuries to expand their terror-torial boundaries? The use of gallows with 13 nooses to hang Indians in the number 13 to correspond to Jesus and the 12 Apostles; cutting off the hands of Indians who did not bring the required amount of gold to the Spaniards; testing the sharpness of swords by decapitating Indians; beating, raping, and otherwise abusing Indian women; slaughtering the inhabitants of Indian villages including women, children, and the elderly; the establishment of a vicious reign of terror over the Indians in order to institute forced labor laws to make them work in the mines for the Spanish.

Further, massacres at such places as Gnadenhutten, Sand Creek, Bear Creek, Wounded Knee, and in the gold fields of California, ad naseum; forcing Indians into the stocks, burning ceremonial objects, whipping and ridiculing medicine people and attempting to prevent Indian people from carrying on their ceremonial practices so that the people had to go “underground” with those practices for fear of being found out; the long term abuse of Indian children in the boarding “schools” for the slightest “infraction” such as speaking their own language,” the use of vicious dogs dressed in armor to disembowel and tear Indians apart.

The use of Indian skin and body parts as trophies for the whites; disrespect for the dead by digging up the graves of the ancestors; the spraying of sewage water on a sacred mountain with which indigenous nations have maintained ceremonial relations for thousands of years; the illegal occupation and desecration of the Black Hills; the terroristic theft by armed federal agents of cattle and horses belonging to Western Shoshone elders Carry and Mary Dann, and Raymond Yowell, in an effort to ruin them financially and thereby break their traditional resistance to the United States trespassing on the lands of the Western Shoshone Nation.

It is said that you can know a man’s character not be listening to his words, but by watching his actions. From this comes the maxim, “actions speak louder than words.” We can know the character of the Christian Europeans and the United States as a political society by looking back at the history of its actions toward the original free and independent Indian nations of the continent. Behind the claim of U.S. plenary power over Indian nations is the covert claim of terror-torial sovereignty, or a right to reign over Indian nations as a result of a successful use of terroristic force.

This, however, means that the values professed by the United States are false when it comes to its treatment, past and present, of Indian nations. And it also means that U.S. law and policy when it comes to Indian nations is not premised on the Constitution of the United States, but on the claim of a right to continually use terroristic force against Indian nations and peoples, in violation of their fundamental human rights, and call it “conquest.”

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.