While listening to National Public Radio the other day, I heard a story about a strange proposal being made in Pakistan. It would legally allow husbands to chastise disobedient wives. Understandably a great deal of outrage was registered in response to a proposal which would take from the past very antiquated ideas about man having a rightful dominion over woman, and apply those antiquate ideas in the present day context of the modern world.
I found myself wondering if National Public Radio will ever run a story about the fact that the United States government is still using antiquated Old Testament ideas and images against our Native nations. The United States is using those ideas as a way of claiming that the U.S. has a rightful dominion over non-Christian nations. After all, the United States is still using those Old Testament ideas about Manifest Destiny against our nations in the context of the modern world, all in the name of maintaining U.S. federal Indian law and policy.
In his book Culture on the Moving Frontier (1955), Louis B. Wright points out: ”The political doctrine of Manifest Destiny which played such an important part in westward expansion was a natural outgrowth of the Puritan belief that they were God’s chosen people.” The Puritan’s got that belief from the Old Testament, and we can find the roots of that manner of thinking in accounts dating all the way back to the Roman Emperor Constantine.
Edward Gibbon, in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, explained how Constantine “by circular letters, exhorted all his subjects to imitate, without delay, the example of their sovereign, and to embrace the divine truth of Christianity.” Gibbon wrote of the “enthusiasm which inspired” Constantine’s troops based on imagery lifted from the Old Testament. He notes, for example, that the Roman troops “marched to battle with the full assurance that the same God, who had formerly opened a passage to the Israelites through the waters of Jordan, and had thrown down the walls of Jericho at the sound of the trumpets of Joshua, would display his visible majesty and power in the victory of Constantine.”
Centuries later, the political minds that conceived the American Empire, also followed the imagery of the Old Testament by conceiving of the American people as being a “chosen people” with a divine covenant to take over “the Promised Land” (the lands of our Original Free Nations) in North America. As Edwin Scott Gaustad states in A Religious History of America (1974), “Like ancient Israelites following the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, America’s explorers, colonists, and citizens were steadied in their journey by the vision ahead.” He continues: “And for them, as for their predecessors approaching Canaan [in the Old Testament], the hand that led them was the hand of God. Providence knew and Providence directed” (p. 154).
The nations that together comprised what was at one time called the Christian Family of Nations used these kinds of Old Testament ideas in their efforts to colonize the planet. Those same Old Testament ideas and images form the backdrop and foundation of present day U.S. federal Indian law and policy, with its claim of a right of domination (e.g., “plenary power”) over our non-Christian nations.
During the time of the “family of nations,” the Christian states of Western Europe, were otherwise known as the Commonwealth of Christendom. Henry Wheaton, an eminent nineteenth century international law scholar, pointed out in his Elements of International Law that what were typically called “states” were, in actuality, groups of individuals who were recognized (and recognized themselves) as possessing perfect independence. That recognition as having perfect independence gave those Christian groups of individuals the prerogatives they needed to operate as “a state.”
When it came to interacting with non-Christian societies, those being recognized as “a state” steadfastly refused to recognize non-Christians as possessing perfect independence. As an example, Professor Antony Anghie points to the religiously premised method of argumentation that theologian Francisco de Victoria used to contend “the Indians are not sovereign.” Vitoria based his argument “on the simple assertion that they are pagans.” In other words, he based his argument on the simple assertion that because the Indians were not Christians they could not possess the prerogatives belonging to independently sovereign nations (p. 29).
By Christians mentally projecting their names for non-Christians onto our Original Free Nations, (e.g., “heathens,” “pagans,” “infidels,” and “savages”), they also placed our ancestors outside the category which included Christian prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign, and independent nations. The Christian thinkers were able to develop an ironclad argument: Christians had the right to mentally disallow non-Christians from being recognized as possessing perfect independence and the powerful prerogatives of states.
The Christian standpoint “disallowed” non-Christian nations from being seen as possessing the prerogatives of sovereignty (i.e., a right of domination) and dominion which would enable them to shut the colonizers out of their own non-Christian lands and territories. This, of course, presumed that the Christians invasively arrived with the mental faculties to allow and disallow non-Christians from having the most powerful political identity that could match or surpass the political identity of Christian nations. Influential thinkers and writers working on behalf of the United States adopted this Old Testament derived a form of reasoning against our Original Nations. They wove that biblically-premised form of reasoning into the writings that are still treated as U.S. legal precedent.
We as the descendents of our non-Christian ancestors now find ourselves in a predicament: We are being continually controlled by narratives that Christian narrators developed long ago. For us, “the past” is mediated, so to speak, through the accounts that Christians narrators, chroniclers, and jurists developed as the controllers of the written word.
Today, we typically experience that past by means of Euro-centric storytelling inherited from previous generations of their storytellers. As a result, in 2016 the United States government is still using U.S. federal Indian law and policy against our nations, as well as narratives (stories) and arguments that were developed long ago based on ideas and imagery derived from the Old Testament. How is this even possible in the twenty-first century? And why are none of the articles or provisions of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples designed to address and rectify this specific problem?
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery(Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree).The movie can be ordered from38Plus2Productions.com.