On Free and Independent Nations Becoming 'Human' and 'Civilized'

In 1892, Burke Aaron Hinsdale delivered a commemoration address at the University of Michigan, entitled “The Discovery of America.” The occasion was the 400th year since Columbus’s first historic voyage from Spain to the Caribbean. At the end of his essay, Hinsdale said that Columbus “led the way across the Sea of Darkness.” “He opened the portals of the Western Hemisphere, not to Castile and Leon only, but to humanity” (emphasis added) (p. 31). Buried in this phrasing is the view that Columbus was the first one to bring “humanity” to this hemisphere.

Hinsdale’s claim that Columbus “opened” this hemisphere “to humanity” brings into sharp focus the way in which the mentality of European and Euro-American scholars has typically categorized our nations and peoples as originally existing “without humanity.” The word “without” has two meanings, “lacking humanity,” and existing “outside” the boundaries of humanity.

The claim that Christian Europeans “discovered” for “humanity” the lands and territories of our original nations and peoples, carries a powerful and damning implication: Our nations and peoples have been treated as not being part of “humanity” at the time that Columbus and other voyagers created the first “human” awareness of the existence of our part of the planet. From the viewpoint of Christian Europe, our nations and peoples would not be integrated into “human” and “Christian” civilization until our ancestors had been forcibly reduced downward from our free and independent existence, and subjected (thrown under) the Christian empire, or the world of Christendom.

The Universal Dictionary of the English Language (1938), ed., by Henry Cecil Wyld, contains the following entry for “civilize”: “1. To bring from a state of barbarism to one of civilization.” Then, “savages have often been civilized by missionaries.” Another entry at the word “civilized” is “contrasted with savage or barbarous.” A question arises from these dictionary entries: By what means are those who are judged to exist in “a state of barbarism” to be brought to a state of civilization? The answer is provided by the Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: They are to be brought to a state of civilization” by “the forcing of a cultural pattern” on the so-called barbarous population to which that cultural pattern is foreign. In this context, Christian missionaries are among those who work at forcing less-than-human “barbarous” people into a state of human and Christian civilization.

That this “civilizing” vocabulary and thought process has been responsible for dominating and dehumanizing our rightfully free and independent nations is not something generally focused upon in dealing with the issues pertaining to “indigenous” or “Native” peoples. The claim that the Christian world “discovered” our part of the world for the “humanity” of Christendom has been dehumanizing to our ancestors and to our nations and peoples. The Christians refused to categorize our ancestors as fully human because of their claim that we were not equal to their concept of humanity. Why? The straightforward answer is, “because our ancestors and our cultures were not Christian and European.” We could not even become “civilized” until we had undergone or been subjected to a process of reduction downward from our original state of independence (a state of free and independent “barbarism”), to a state of Christian European domination with Christian European political systems existing on top of us. Thus, the term “barbarous” is simply a synonym for a state of existence free and independent of foreign domination.

Our ancestors were considered to be haughty and arrogant because they still had a free and independent spirit and existence, and a free and independent attitude. The Christian Europeans considered our ancestors as not being properly submissive until they had been lowered down beneath their Christian European “superiors.” Our ancestors had to learn to know “their place” of inferiority by being made to experience that place. Accordingly, the colonizers worked to tame us (“civilize” us) by working to break our ancestors “wild” spirit, and lifestyle of independence. One way they did this was by dehumanizing us into submission at a young age in the indoctrination centers called “boarding schools.”

As the California Supreme Court stated in Thompson v. Doaksum (1886), “As long as they remain at peace with the superior race they will be protected in their right of occupancy.” The court ought to have said “will be protected in the right of occupancy we have imposed on them.” In other words, the self-ascribed and self-appointed “superior race” judged our ancestors as having a “less-than- human” right of mere “occupancy,” rather than a right of soil, to the lands where our ancestors had been living free and independent for thousands of years. Our ancestors were defined as “subject to” the claimed Christian European ownership of the soil, and “subject to” the claim of Christian European jurisdiction over our territories by self-elevated political superiors (“sovereign”).

The implications are profound: The colonizers planned for it to be impossible for our nations to still have our free and independent existence as nations when we became part of human and Christian civilization. Our free and independent existence as nations was the price we were expected to pay for entrance into human and Christian civilization. Chief Justice Marshall called this trading “civilization and Christianity in exchange for unlimited independence.” They as colonizers were the ones obtaining, by giving to themselves, unlimited independence as part of the process of forcibly imposing “civilization” and “Christianity” on our nations, while helping themselves to our lands, territories, and resources in the bargain.

Our nations would not be considered to have become part of “the humanity of Christendom” until we had been conditioned to live under the domination of an unjust and unaccountable “sovereign” (dominorum), which is now typically called “the sovereign State.” It was the colonizers’ goal to have us become “human” and “civilized” by becoming so accustomed to living under their domination that we would eventually do so without awareness, question, or challenge. Fortunately, many of us are wide awake and still questioning and challenging the claimed right of Christian European domination.

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).