Newcomb: What is meant when we say Promised Land


The background perspective of ''Pagans in the Promised Land'' is the original free existence of American Indian peoples in this hemisphere, an existence spanning many thousands of years, an existence that is grounded in the linguistic, cognitive, cultural, moral and spiritual traditions of our indigenous ancestors. The book's main objective is to focus on and decode the hidden biblical or, more specifically, Old Testament background of the Johnson v. M'Intosh ruling.

The Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Dominion is premised on the idea that when a ''Christian prince or people'' locate (''discover'') a land inhabited by non-Christians, the Christians immediately, as if by magic, gain sovereignty, dominion and title to those lands. You can dress this doctrine up all you want with terms like ''civilization,'' but at its root it is predicated on the religious doctrines of the Old Testament.

''Pagans in the Promised Land'' is an effort to use the study of the human mind (cognitive theory) to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery. It asks: Given the presumption of a separation of church and state in the United States, and given that Christianity is not to be preferred over other religions in U.S. law, how can the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Dominion be justified as the supreme law of the land in the United States?

The central contention of my book is that our respective American Indian nations located within the geopolitical boundaries claimed by the U.S. have always been rightfully entitled to retain their original free and independent existence.

Excerpt: The Chosen People-Promised Land model

There is ample evidence to show that prominent leaders of the United States have applied the Chosen People-Promised Land cognitive model as a way of thinking about and experiencing the identity of the United States, both in relation to the lands of the North American continent, and, by means of words like pagan, heathen, and infidel, in relation to the American Indians. Once one begins looking for evidence of the Chosen People-Promised Land model in the historical record, it seems ubiquitous. ''In 1776,'' for example, ''Benjamin Franklin proposed to the Continental Congress that the image of Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea should appear on the Great Seal of the United States.'' Thomas Jefferson proposed that the Great Seal of the United States depict the Israelites moving into the promised land, guided by clouds and fire, thereby drawing an analogy between the chosen people of the Old Testament and the people of the United States. Jefferson's and Franklin's suggested imagery for the Great Seal matches a remark from Abiel Abbott's Thanksgiving sermon of 1799: ''It has been often remarked that the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe. Hence Our American Israel is a term frequently used; and common consent allows it apt and proper.''

Some years ago, when I visited the Whitman Mission Museum in Walla Walla, Washington, I found another example of the metaphorical connection between the Old Testament and the United States. The museum is located where the physician and Presbyterian minister Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, founded a Christian mission settlement in the territory of the Cayuse Indians. When numerous deaths among their people caused the Cayuse to suspect Whitman of poisoning them and their children, a number of Cayuse took matters into their own hands by killing the minister and his wife. Today the museum reminds visitors of the Whitmans' story with paintings, old photographs, beadwork, frontier tools, life-size mannequins dressed as Cayuse Indians, and two mannequins modeled after the Whitmans.

During a ten-minute National Park Service video shown to museum visitors, the narrator said that Whitman had helped ''carve a nation from a wild and beautiful land.'' The film narrator went on to explain how Whitman had traveled from the Oregon Territory to the east coast and then returned to the Oregon Territory by accompanying a large wagon train with 140 wagons and a thousand settlers. Then, applying the Chosen People - Promised Land model to the story, the narrator declared, ''In a very strong symbolic sense, this first wagon train was leading a whole populace into the Promised Land.'' Here, then, is an example of the National Park Service - an official agency of the U.S. government - using the metaphorical framework of the Old Testament as a means of portraying the colonization of the Indian lands of North America to the American public. This association is so much a part of the cultural and cognitive makeup of the United States that the biblical analogy seems unremarkable to both the U.S. employees showing the film and to the audience viewing it.

The film conceptualized the wagon train moving across the continent on the Oregon Trail in terms of the Old Testament model of the chosen people moving into the promised land of Canaan. In keeping with all the features and inferences of the Chosen People-Promised Land model, the Cayuse Indians - and all other Native nations - are, unconsciously conceptualized in terms of the Canaanites, or other non-Hebrew ''pagan'' peoples. In other words, the Chosen People-Promised Land model results in the American Indian nations and peoples of North America being metaphorically conceptualized in the cognitive unconscious as pagans in the promised land of North America. A number of inferences follow from the Chosen People-Promised Land model (e.g., Deuteronomy 20:10 - 18) such as that indigenous peoples are to be removed (e.g., Indian Removal Act), put into a condition of servitude (e.g., enslavement of the Indians of California in the Spanish-Catholic missions), exterminated to make room for the chosen people of the United States (e.g., massacres at Sand Creek and Wounded Knee), and assimilated into the ''body politic'' of the larger society (for example, the assimilationist U.S. policies of termination and relocation in the 1950s and '60s).

A speech delivered by President Reagan at Independence Hall in Philadelphia provides yet another example of the United States being metaphorically framed in terms of the Old Testament of the Bible. The occasion was the two-hundredth anniversary of the U.S. Constitution. In his address, Reagan employed the Chosen People-Promised Land model to reason about the U.S. Constitution. Reagan said that the Constitution is no ordinary document, but ''a covenant with the Supreme Being to whom our founding fathers did constantly appeal for assistance.'' Use of the word covenant is meant to evoke the Old Testament covenant that Yahweh formed with his chosen people. In this instance, the U.S. Constitution is the target domain that is being thought of in terms of the source domain of Yaweh's covenant or treaty with his chosen people. When President Reagan applied this source domain to the United States, he drew a correlation between the American people and the chosen people of the Old Testament, and another correlation between the Old Testament promised land and the North American continent.

A book published the same year as Reagan's speech helped explain the Old Testament religious and conceptual context for Reagan's claim of a connection between the U.S. Constitution and ''the Supreme Being.'' A Covenanted People: The Religious Origins of American Constitutionalism claims that ever since the pilgrims first established the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1620, ''Americans have believed they are a chosen people, singled out by God for a special commission'' to take over and colonize the ''promised lands'' of North America. This is yet another example of how the American people have traditionally thought of themselves in terms of, and associated themselves with, the metaphorical image of the chosen people of the Old Testament.

In his speech at Independence Hall, Reagan also used the Chosen People-Promised Land cognitive model in reference to a quote by George Washington about an ''invisible hand'' that conducts the affairs of men. Reagan mentioned how Washington had once said that every step the American people have taken toward their status as an independent nation seems to have been guided ''by some providential agency.'' Providence is, of course, understood to refer to a deity and 'divine guidance or care.' According to Reagan, when Washington made this statement, he was no doubt ''thinking of the great and good fortune of this young land: the abundant and fertile continent given us.'' By referring to the continent as having been ''given'' to the American people, Reagan was invoking the commonplace belief that is also part of the Chosen People-Promised Land model that some ''providential [divine] agency'' had gifted or given the Indian lands of the North American continent to the United States.

According to theologian Walter Brueggemann, an essential part of the covenant tradition of the Old Testament is this very concept of the chosen people ''in quest of the land Yahweh promised to them.'' Another quote from theologian Geoffrey R. Lilburne helps us see more specifically how Reagan's belief that this continent was given to the United States correlates with the Old Testament view that the Hebrew's deity Yahweh had given the lands of the Canaanites to Abraham and the Hebrew people ''for an everlasting possession.'' The promised land, said Lilburne, was ''a 'gift' given by God to His Chosen People to be their 'inheritance for ever' or at least until the next upheaval.''

Reagan could have cited two other quotes from George Washington to draw a metaphorical parallel between the United States and the Old Testament promised land. One is found in a letter that Washington wrote to David Humphreys regarding Indian lands north and west of the Ohio River, the Old Northwest Territory. ''Rather than quarrel about territory,'' wrote Washington, ''let the poor, the needy, and the oppressed of the earth, and those who want land, resort to the fertile plains of our western country (the Ohio Valley), the second land of promise, and there dwell in peace, fulfilling the first and great commandment'' of the Bible. The other quote is found in a letter Washington wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette in 1785:

I wish to see the sons and daughters of the world in Peace and busily employed in the more agreeable amusement of fulfilling the first and great commandment - Increase and Multiply: as an encouragement to which we have opened the fertile plains of the Ohio to the poor, the needy and the opressed [sic] of the Earth; any one therefore who is heavy laden or who wants land to cultivate, may repair thither & abound, as in the Land of promise, with milk and honey.

Washington's comment about ''the first and great commandment'' was made in reference to the biblical passage Genesis 1:28, ''Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over living things that moveth upon the earth.'' Two key words in the passage are subdue and dominion. A Hebrew term for subdue (kabas), ''to tread down upon'' or ''to bring into bondage,'' conveys the image of a conqueror placing his foot on the neck of the conquered, and ''to rape.'' The Hebrew word for dominion is rdh (sometimes spelled radah), ''to rule,'' ''to trample,'' or ''to press.''

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is Indigenous Law Research coordinator for the Sycuan Education Department, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today. ''Pagans in the Promised Land'' was released by Fulcrum Publishing in February.