We, as indigenous peoples, have a sacred and solemn responsibility to
continually challenge the dominant society. One of the most meaningful and
powerful ways of doing so is by challenging wrongful ideas that are used as
weapons against us.
Let me be clear on this point. Ideas shape and create reality. This is a
truism that bears repeating. All human realities are constructed on the
basis of ideas combined with human behavior.
A short story will help illustrate the point I'm trying to make. In his
wonderful book "Native Roots: How the Indians Enriched America" (1991),
Jack Weatherford tells the story of Garcilaso de la Vega, who was born to a
Spanish conquistador father and the Incan mother Chimpa Ocllo.
As a young man, Garcilosa traveled to Spain where he became educated and
mastered many European languages. He eventually became an incredible
scholar who wrote a 1,500-page history of North America largely based on
first-person accounts from Spaniards who returned to Spain from Florida, as
the North American continent was then known to the Spanish.
According to Weatherford: "When El Inca Garcilosa wrote, many people still
saw the Indians as animals, little more than the monkeys and chimpanzees
from Africa. When he started his work on Florida, the Spanish [royal] court
was still considering the question 'What is an Indian?'... the issue was
far more than an intellectual debate, for its answer would determine how
the Indians must be treated."
Notice that Weatherford is making the subtle point that the ideas formed by
the Spaniards "would determine how the Indians must be treated."
Weatherford further said that if the idea of Indians as "natural slaves"
prevailed, "then the subhuman Indians could be enslaved at will by the
Spanish without regard for their souls." In other words, the Spaniards'
ideas about the "Indians" predetermined how the Spaniards would behave
toward them. This story illustrates the way "reality" is constructed
through the combination of ideas and human behavior.
The question arises: Why are we, as indigenous nations and peoples,
continually allowing ourselves to be controlled and governed by the ideas
of the dominant society? Shouldn't we be saying, and saying loudly, that
the dominant society has no right to force its ideas upon us and then call
those ideas "the law?" To the extent that we as indigenous peoples
passively accept the ideas that the dominant society uses against us, we
have, to that degree, thereby relinquished vitally important mental powers
of sovereignty and self-determination.
The 15th century Spanish rhetorician and grammarian Nebrija observed that
"Language is the perfect instrument of empire." Language conveys ideas.
Thus, ideas are the perfect instrument of empire. Every empire, such as the
American empire, is a system of domination that constantly strives to
expand in extent and power through ideas and human behavior.
Take, for example, the Western Shoshone case. It is seldom observed that
the United States is the source of the ideas that control and frame the
predicament the Western Shoshones now find themselves in. What the United
States has done to the traditional Western Shoshones is based on the
presumption that an originally free and independent nation is obligated,
without its free consent, to obey and abide by the ideas (decisions) of the
United States government. These ideas are then referred to as "the law" in
an effort to give them legitimacy.
Isn't it more correct to say that the United States is the one claiming
Western Shoshone lands, rather than the other way around? Given that the
Western Shoshones have been in this hemisphere thousands of years longer
than the United States, it makes no sense at all to say that the Western
Shoshones are "claiming" their lands from the United States. This way of
framing the matter then places the U.S. in the power position of "deciding"
the Western Shoshone "claim." It works the same for every Indian nation.
When Cristobal Colon arrived at Guanahani Island in 1492, he had no "right"
to the land because the entire island was the home of the Arawak people.
The most he had was a "claim" to Arawak lands. When the English arrived at
the eastern seaboard of North America, the most they had was a "claim" to
indigenous lands. Yet, through the power of wrongful ideas, this sensible
point is flipped around by the dominating society, and Indian nations are
the ones being mis-characterized as "claiming" their own lands from the
Now people are writing about Western Shoshone "land claims" supposedly
being extinguished by a piece of federal legislation that will force an
average payment of 15 cents an acre on the Western Shoshones, allegedly for
some 24 million acres of Western Shoshone lands. However, based on the
Treaty of Ruby Valley, we should be arguing that the Western Shoshones do
not have a mere "claim" to their ancestral lands. It is their land, pure
and simple. As far as this column is concerned, inherent Western Shoshone
land rights will not be diminished by the massive land fraud being
perpetrated by the U.S. government through passage of "The Western Shoshone
Claims Distribution Act," H.R. 884.
Unfortunately, we as Indian people tend not to challenge ill-conceived
ideas that work to our detriment, ideas such as "Indian land claims," and
"domestic dependent nationhood." It's long past time to specifically
identify and challenge such erroneous thinking.
Clear and original thinking is hard work. It is much easier to think along
conceptual lines pre-designed by others; it is much more difficult, on the
other hand, to develop and use our own powers of imagination and
conceptualization to think for ourselves.
True liberation will not come easily. Building a free, independent and
healthy reality for the benefit of our future generations will require
working together on the basis of rightful ideas and behavior to constitute
such a beneficial reality.
Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is co-founder and co-director of the
Indigenous Law Institute, the Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at
Kumeyaay Community College on the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the
Kumeyaay Nation, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.