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On America's pathological mentality and behavior toward Native peoples

According to Steven L. Winter, in his book "A Clearing in the Forest: Law,
Life, and Mind" (2001), recent findings in cognitive science (study of the
human mind) reveal that the mind functions largely by means of metaphors
and other cognitive operations. Metaphor is thinking of one thing in terms
of something else. As Winter explains, cognitive science has revealed that
all thought is innately imaginative, and metaphor is one of the ways that
human beings use the imaginative power of human thought.

But the question arises, are some metaphors and other mental processes more
likely to lead to thoughts and behavior that are dehumanizing and
pathological? For example, if one group of people thinks of and dehumanizes
another group of people as "beasts," or subhuman, isn't this likely to lead
to negative, perhaps even heinous behavior towards the people being
labeled? Is it correct to consider such negative thoughts and behavior to
be pathological?

Take the example of George Washington thinking of and referring to Indians
as "savages" and "beasts." In 1783, Washington wrote that, "the gradual
extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage, as the
wolf, to retire." By retire he meant, move away or be killed. Both "the
savage" and "the wolf" were described by Washington as, "beasts of prey,
tho' they differ in shape." This is an example of Washington using the
imaginative power of thought in a dehumanizing, and, arguably, pathological

Cognitive theory posits that how we conceive (think) of something
predetermines how we will behave toward that thing. Thus, the imaginative
American conception of Indians as "beasts of prey" led to very specific
kinds of pathological behavior consistent with that mental image (thought,
or idea).

For example, American troops - at Washington's instruction - carried out a
scorched earth policy against the Seneca Nation by destroying entire towns
and vast food supplies. In some cases, American troops skinned the bodies
of the Seneca people who had been killed. The troops would skin the bodies
"from the hips downward to make boot tops or leggings." Since the Seneca
killed were imagined or conceived of as "beasts," they could, without any
twinge of American conscience, be skinned like wild beasts.

Greed was a powerful motive for this kind of thought and behavior towards
the Seneca and other Native nations: Millions of acres of land and all the
material wealth those lands represented. Genocide can be good for business.

That Hitler exhibited a pathological mentality and behavior toward Jews,
which was reflected in their mass annihilation at the hands of the Nazis,
is taken for granted by most people. Fewer people would be of the opinion
that the United States, over the course of its history, has exhibited a
pathological mentality and behavior toward American Indian nations and
peoples. Yet who could deny that skinning human beings such as Washington's
soldiers did to the Seneca people reflects some kind of pathology?

If a child kills cats and blows up frogs with firecrackers, is this the
sign of a balanced and well-adjusted human being? Or is such behavior
indicative of deep emotional and perhaps mental pathology? Serial killers
often start out with these "small killings" and eventually begin killing
other human beings. The pathology that the future serial killer exhibits in
childhood becomes fully manifested in heinous acts of murder in adulthood.

By way of analogy, during its "infancy" and "youth" the United States
started out killing off Indians, while compulsively stealing massive
amounts of lands and resources from Native nations. Over the course of its
entire lifespan the United States has continued to exhibit compulsive
pathological behavior toward Native peoples.

Because the people of the United States understandably desire to view their
country in a positive light, they tend to conveniently overlook or deny the
U.S.'s reprehensible thought and behavior towards Native nations. The
subject of U.S. genocide against American Indians is conveniently swept
under the rug, so to speak, and in mainstream media we never see a
discussion of the possibility of an American pathology towards Native
nations and peoples. Being able to avoid this uncomfortable subject makes
it a lot easier on those wishing to extol the virtues of the United States
without contradiction.

When one thinks about it, it would seem that the American empire's mental
and behavioral pathology toward Native nations has passed through different

One phase was the outright killing of Indians from the Ohio Valley to the
gold fields of California, and everywhere in between. Another phase was the
U.S.'s never-ending kleptomaniacal compulsion to steal Indian lands and
resources. (Recent passage of the Western Shoshone bill is evidence that
this phase is still ongoing). Yet another phase was the U.S.'s efforts to
destroy the economic and political independence of Native nations, to
destroy Native languages, cultures, and to destroy our ability to live our
respective spiritual traditions in our sacred places. Is this compulsively
destructive mentality and behavior toward Native peoples evidence that the
U.S. society has a deep and underlying illness (pathology)? Or is it just
"the American way," along with apple pie and the American flag?

America's pathological mentality and behavior toward Native nations has old
cognitive roots that can be traced back many centuries. Take for example
one of Cristobal Colon's favorite passages from the Bible: "O clap your
hands, all ye nations: shout unto God with the voice of joy, for the Lord
is high, terrible: a great king over all the earth. He hath subdued the
people under us: and the nations under our feet & God shall reign over the

From a Native perspective, one could say that applying the above way of
thinking to indigenous peoples is pathological because it led to a brutal
and hierarchical structuring of the physical and social world. Core
metaphorical concepts in the above passage include the concept of "the
Lord" being "high and terrible." Those who subscribed to this viewpoint,
felt justified in conducting themselves as European "lords" who were "high
and terrible." This attitude is exemplified by the Spaniards' use of
vicious dogs to hunt down Indians and tear them apart, or conquistadors
cutting off an Indian's hand for not "handing" the Spaniards an imposed
quota of gold.

The metaphors in the above passage resulted in thinking of indigenous
peoples as destined to be "subdued" because "the Lord ... hath subdued"
them. Once they were viewed as destined to be "subdued," the indigenous
peoples were then also viewed as destined to exist forever "under" the
representatives of "the Lord." The Christian Europeans then viewed the
indigenous peoples as existing "under" their "feet," meaning, subject to
Christian European authority. Many similar conceptual patterns form the
basis of America's present day pathological mentality and behavior towards
Native nations and peoples. A "reality" constructed on the basis of such
cognitive patterns is a "reality" of domination.

America's mental and behavioral patterns of pathology toward Native nations
generally remain at an unconscious level of awareness in society. This
means that although these patterns do exist, the average person is usually
oblivious to this fact. It is up to us to identify these cognitive and
behavioral patterns of domination, and suggest what ought to be done about

If we accept that there is such a thing as an American pathology toward
Native nations and peoples, it stands to reason that we ought to search for
ways to heal this pathology. Such a task is extremely difficult because of
the extent to which America's cognitive and behavioral patterns of
domination toward Native nations and peoples seem to be inextricably woven
into the social, legal, political, and economic fabric and institutions of
the United States. The pathology then becomes manifested through largely
taken for granted and seemingly "normal" everyday activities, such as
federal legislation and policy decisions, Supreme Court and other court
rulings, state legislation and policy decisions, National Labor Relations
Board decisions and so forth.

Ironically, history suggests that for centuries the cultures and cognitive
systems of indigenous peoples contain transformative and healing
alternatives to the American pathology. Although we must be cautious to
refrain from romanticizing Native cultures, it is fair to say that the
traditional worldviews and conceptual systems of indigenous nations and
peoples contain healing metaphors and values that stand in stark contrast
to the Euro-American system of thought and behavior.

One clear example of how indigenous societies have influenced the world in
the political realm is the extent to which the model of the Iroquois
Confederacy influenced many of the founders of the United States such as
Benjamin Franklin. "From America have emerged the cornerstones of the
political philosophy that has transformed the world," wrote German
Arciniegas in his book "America in Europe" (1980). The indigenous worlds -
concepts, technologies, medicines, foodstuffs, etc., - of the Americas had
a transforming effect on the dank and oppressive medieval culture of
Christendom. Seeing examples of indigenous democracies of North America,
eventually led European intellectuals to envision the possibility of a
different kind of political order based on "liberty," without monarchy.

The French thinker La Boetie related the following: "If by chance different
people are born today, who are not accustomed to servitude nor fear
liberty, and they are bidden to choose between being slaves or living in
freedom ... there is not doubt that they will be more inclined to obey
reason than to serve other men." Such ideas flew in the face of the rigid
hierarchical structuring of European society; and such ideas became a
catalyst that transformed the world by giving voice to a concept unknown in
medieval Christendom: "to be free."

Indigenous representatives have consistently provided insightful commentary
on the taken for granted norms of European societies. Early on, such
commentaries influenced European political philosophers and other
Enlightenment intellectuals. What was normative for the Christo-European
world was generally seen as pathological from an indigenous perspective.
That this is so is reflected in a story related by the French essayist
Montaigne about a time when King Charles of France thought that the
splendor of his court might have greatly impressed some visiting Indians.
When the king asked them for their opinion, the Indians made two key

As German Arciniegas tells the story: "... they found it strange that so
many older men, bearded and well armed, like the ones who make up his
Majesty's entourage, rendered obedience to the monarch, who is a child, and
that they should not choose instead the eldest among them to command them.
Secondly, that among the people there should be a privileged half that
enjoyed every luxury and comfort, while the other half were beggars who
implored at the doors, wasting away from hunger and poverty. It seemed
strange to them that this half that suffered such great injustice should
not fly at the rich one's throats and set fire to their houses." Was this
prescient of the French Revolution?

The American empire's pathological mentality and behavior toward Native
nations is predicated upon very old deep-seated metaphorical concepts
transplanted from Europe, such as lordship, monarchy, dominion, domination,
subjugation, subduing, exploiting, and the desire to profit as much as
possible from all aspects of life. Native commentators have long noted that
greed and lust for power lie at the heart of American pathology. Chief
Joseph of the Nez Perce remarked: "My father was the first to see through
the schemes of the white man, and he warned his tribe to be careful about
trading with them. He had suspicion of men whom seemed anxious to make

Indigenous knowledge systems contain thousands of years of accumulated
ecological wisdom, and the political heritage of a free and independent
existence. Perhaps these indigenous conceptual and behavioral systems are
able to provide a healing alternative to American and Western pathology. If
given a chance, perhaps indigenous knowledge and wisdom will be able to
teach human beings how essential it is for us to harmonize our thoughts and
our behaviors with the natural rhythms and ecological systems of Mother
Earth, for the benefit of our future generations and all living things.

Steven Newcomb is the Indigenous Law research coordinator at Kumeyaay
Community College (located on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the
Kumeyaay Nation), co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law
Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.