In his book System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange (1977), Andrew Wilden wrote, “The Symbolic order of language awaits every child at birth.” That sentence made me realize something: the domination language system called “U.S. federal Indian law” awaits every Native child at birth. This means that every Native child is raised in and mentally conditioned to a context and structure of domination patterning.
Felix Cohen alluded to that patterning when he wrote the phrase, “The Sovereign’s Title: Johnson v. M’Intosh.” He thereby provided a clue for grasping the existence of a secret code, at least for those who have the eyes to see and the ears to hear. Part of that code was revealed by Jonathon Havercroft in his book Captives of Sovereignty (2011). Hovercroft notes that “sovereignty” is “an unjust form of domination that limits human freedom.”
Based on the idea that “The Sovereign” is the one who achieves and wields that unjust form of domination, Cohen’s phrase “The Sovereign’s Title” is accurately rewritten as, “The Dominator’s Title of Domination: Johnson v. M’Intosh.” That sums up the framework that Chief Justice John Marshall and the other white men seated on the U.S. Supreme Court in 1823 were able to create by means of the Johnson ruling.
In the nearly two centuries since the Johnson v. M’Intosh decision was written, every Native child has been born into a domination reality-system premised on the idea that Christian Europeans have the right to mentally and physically dominate our nations and peoples. Chief Justice John Marshall on behalf of the U.S. Supreme Court called that claim of a right to dominate, “ultimate dominion.” Every Native child born in the last century or so has been raised in the context of “America’s” idea-system of domination, and has been socialized to mentally accept without question certain key assumptions and ideas.
Having done a comprehensive review of the historical record, I’m fairly certain that Vine Deloria Jr. (Dakota/Nakota) was the first Native scholar who wrote about what I prefer to call the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination. In his book God is Red, Deloria cited Wilcomb Washburn’s book Red Man’s Land White Man’s Law. Deloria quoted a couple of sentences from Washburn’s book about the Inter Caetera papal bull of 1493. I read those sentences in God is Red probably 1975. That was the year of my 20th birthday. Six years later, when I was a student majoring in rhetoric and communication at the University of Oregon, I received special permission to take a federal Indian law course from Professor Charles Wilkinson at the University of Oregon School of Law.
While completing an assignment to read the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling, I noticed that Chief Justice John Marshall had placed italics on the words “Christian people” and referred to “natives, who were heathens.” This Christian religious language made me remember what Deloria had written in God is Red about the Inter Caetera papal bull, and I recall thinking that there must be some connection between that papal decree and the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling.
Because I had been taught there is a separation of church and state in the United States, I could not understand the U.S. Supreme Court using a contrast between “Christian people” and “heathens” as a key part of its reasoning process in a Supreme Court ruling that the U.S. government has used ever since to limit and oppress Native nations. Eventually I realized that the United States government has been using a pattern of Christian domination as expressed in a U.S. Supreme Court ruling to oppress our Native nations and peoples.
Not long after taking that federal Indian law course I discontinued my university education and began what became a decade of my own independent research into the connection between the Vatican papal bulls and U.S. federal Indian law and policy. At one point, in the late 1980s, it dawned on me that I had never read the actual Vatican documents of the 15th century. I began to wonder how I might find those documents. It occurred to me that since they are Catholic documents it would make sense to call the library at Catholic University, which I did.
I spoke to a librarian named Dave Gilson (I still have the piece of paper with his name and number on it) and told him what I was looking for. He asked me to call back in a couple of hours and he would see what he could find. When I called back he told me he had located what I was looking for. The Vatican papal documents had been published in 1917 in a book entitled European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and Its Dependencies to 1648, Vol. I.
At that time I was living in Tucson, Arizona, and I immediately went to the University of Arizona library and looked for the book. I still remember my sense of excitement when I found the book European Treaties there in the stacks. And ever since that day in 1988 I’ve been studying the Latin and English versions of the papal bulls. As of this year, it’s been one century since the Carnegie Institution published the Vatican papal bulls. Next year will mark 30 years since Mr. Gilson located that book for me. It’s difficult to believe that much time has gone by.
That’s also when I began what has become my nearly 30-year conversation with my dear friend Peter d’Errico. It has been such an honor to be able to have a three decades long conversation with someone who has such a brilliant mind, in our effort to work through these complex issues regarding Native nations and peoples.
Here’s the point. I realize now that the Vatican documents of the 15th century have served as a blueprint for a global order of domination. That system of domination awaits the birth of every human being. Every child born to a Native nation is born into the global order of domination. It’s called U.S. federal Indian law and policy, starting with the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling.
Many times I’ve written about the linguistic evidence to back up what I am saying. For example, in the papal bull of May 3, 1493, we find “sub actuali temporali aliquorum dominorum Christianorum constitute non essent…,” or, in other words, lands “not under the actual temporal domination of any Christian dominators.” When the monarchs of Christendom were able to locate non-Christian lands that had not been forced under Christian domination, then those monarchs were authorized by the papacy to subject those lands to Christian domination and subject and reduce the “barbarous” non-Christian nations under the Christian Empire (Christiani imperii). In the Spanish language, the missions established by missionaries were called “reducciones” (“reductions”).
The mission of the Spanish Catholic mission system is expressed in the papal bull documents. A key symbol of the mission system is the mission bell which is rung throughout the day to bring “order” and the “regularity” of linear time to the “barbarous” and “primitive” Native peoples accustomed to living according to the natural cycles. The bell has the same shape as a capitol dome. The bell is located under or beneath the yoke which sits above the bell.
The Latin word for “under” or below is “sub.” The Latin word jugare means “to yoke.” Combine “jugare” “to yoke” with “under” (sub) with “sub-jugare” (to yoke under), or, to subjugate. Wild savages were so-called because they were still running around free of the yoke, the bell, and the Dome of Domination. This is some of the decoding process that can be used to decolonize our minds. It is the kind of process that is critically important for the liberation of our nations and peoples from the domination system. A first step is to recognize it. A second step is to begin to dismantle and disestablish it by directly challenging the stories and the arguments that were used to build it to begin with.
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 from 38Plus2Productions.com