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On Historical Narratives and Dehumanization

Historical accounts of the European treatment of American Indians are marked by the little noticed phenomenon of dehumanization. A case in point is the way Europeans have treated the original nations and peoples of the geographical region now called California.

In a remarkable book, Domesticate or Exterminate, published in 1975 by Chad L. Hoopes, the following quote from Helen Hunt Jackson appears:

The history of the Government’s connection with the Indians is a shameful record of broken treaties and unfulfilled promises. The history of the white man’s connection with the Indians is a sickening record of murder, outrage, robbery and wrongs; taught by the Government that they had rights entitled to be respect, when those rights have been assailed by the rapacity of the white man, the arm which should have been raised to protect the Indians has never been ready to sustain the aggressor.

All of Ms. Jackson’s adjectives point to acts of dehumanization and domination. As Hoopes wrote: “The federal and state governments faltered and succumbed to a selfish, popular opinion that refused to accept reservations stipulated in the eighteen treaties, reservations known to contain valuable mineral, timber, and agricultural lands for which the ‘savages’ had little use.”

Use of the term "savages" is an example of categorizing the original human beings of the geographical area known as California in a manner that regards them as less than human, and attempts to justify treating them as less than human. Historical narratives written from a European viewpoint are inherently dehumanizing, and privilege those who referred to themselves as fully human because they were historically “white” and “Christian.”

Such narratives tend to be written in terms of a collective white “we” (or “us”) to the exclusion of the humans categorized as “Indians,” who are conceived of as a collective non-white “them.” Such language is well-illustrated by the following quote found on page one of Hoopes book: “The policy of removal, except under peculiar circumstances, must necessarily be abandoned. And the only alternative left is to civilize or exterminate them. We must adopt one or the other.” (Emphasis added.)

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There is something never noticed with regard to the above mentioned choice: “To civilize them,” means “to dominate them.” This is revealed in the dictionary definition of the word “civilization” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary): “The act of civilizing, esp. the forcing of a particular cultural pattern on a population to whom it is foreign.” (Emphasis added.) Forcing a cultural pattern on another population or people is a form of domination, especially when the cultural pattern forced on them is one of domination and dehumanization.

Instead of recognizing that Indian nations and peoples were perfectly entitled to live their own cultural way of life within their own traditional territories, unhindered and undisturbed, the whites viewed themselves as destined to overtake for their own benefit and enrichment the vast lands and resources of the Indians. In order to accomplish this, the whites were able to use their concepts and their categories to construct a reality to envelop and enclose the original nations and peoples and all that rightfully belonged to them based on their original free existence.

The concepts and categories of the whites became their means of conceptualizing themselves as now being “in rightful possession” of the lands and resources of the Indians. Dehumanizing the Indians was the most effecting means of constructing such a reality. Once the Indians were depicted in a dehumanizing manner, they were also effectively silenced because the views of those who are less than human do not have to be taken into account. As a people, they literally do not count. They are null and void.

Today, in 2012, we can look back at the history with a heightened awareness of the impact of domination and dehumanization on the original nations and peoples of California. Yet being able to recognize these phenomena in the historical record does not explain what we ought to do with this understanding.

We as the descendents of those who were dominated and dehumanized, and continue to be, ought to be able to utilize our new found insight as a means of dealing with the aftermath of the cruel domination and dispossession of our ancestors. Yet it is certain that we will never be able to do so if we obey the non-Indian admonition: “Forget about the past.”

My response to that tired refrain by the dominating society that has benefited so handsomely from the theft and exploitation of our traditional lands and territories is this: “Remember the past because the past is present.” By this I mean that domination and dehumanization have been institutionalized in law and policy in the United States and in the state of California, and continue to form the context that works to the detriment of Indian nations and peoples in the present.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.