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The American Pathology

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Behold in these pages this week an interesting and perhaps uniquely Indian discussion: perspectives on the roots of the American conquest mythology — seeking to understand the origins of the particular American belief that continues to justify the destruction of Native cultures and the taking of Native peoples' assets, particularly lands and political rights to independent cultural and economic self-governance.

This might be heresy to the "true believers" in America, but among Indian thinkers these days, as has been the case for many generations, the question of what drives the voracious American appetite to own the Indian world has always been an honorable one. As Indian cultures have their own creation stories and subsequent cultural and legal histories, so the fundamental culture of the American mainstream requires study and understanding. Every new Indian generation, believe it, will examine these questions in the ongoing search for understanding of the justifications for the theft of their lands, resources, freedoms and even identities, and in their continued quest for actual justice. The perspective of Oglala Chief Red Cloud, who said in the 1890s, "They made us many promises, but they only kept but one: They promised to take our land and they took it," remains a topic of discussion. (Consider, too, David Monongwe, Hopi elder, at the United Nations in 1977: "They say they took our land, but where did they take it?")

The old raiding cultures are somewhat understandable, where what might be called "theft" was conceived as part of honored traditions, depending on what is being taken and from whom. But the complete theft of possession or use of land and resources, the many brutal wars of contact and conquest, the forced abuse of people's labor, the usurpation of Native leadership in long-standing traditional communities — we submit that a piece of present-day America continues to believe and propagate the myth that great crimes committed against American Indians were and are somehow justifiable.

Question: How is it that courts and certain fundamental political opinion can justify the theft inherent in the usurpation of Indian properties?

For Native nations who still hold lands and are working to hold onto their sovereign territories and add new parcels of land to their peoples' destinies, this is always a good discussion. Tribal peoples rarely forget any unjust loss of lands or resources that once were properly owned and managed by their own people. The more unjust the theft or taking of the resource, the more it is remembered and often continually claimed throughout history.

We highly recommend these pages this week as a good historical foundation to ponder. American policy makers, tribal leaders, legal and historical scholars, high school and college students, Indian opinion leaders, indeed, all of our readers, please take it for the weekend and deepen your historical and cultural understanding of the deeply ingrained and presumably religious justifications of the dispossession of American Indian peoples.

Prominent Indian Country Today columnist Steven Newcomb, a primary researcher in this area, leads the way by examining the metaphors that have been prevalent in forming America's perspective of the Indian world. Newcomb cites research by Steven L. Winter that "the mind functions largely by means of metaphors." The question that Newcomb follows through is the extent to which these metaphors have led to thoughts and, this is critically important, behaviors that exhibit dehumanizing and pathological tendencies. Writes Newcomb: "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)." Such behavior was demonstrated in the abuse and killing of Indians while compulsively stealing massive amounts of their lands and resources writes Newcomb. Remarkably, the irrational thinking that enabled such injustices to occur still serves as the foundation of federal law dealing with American Indians.

Preeminent scholar of world cultural history and American Indian philosopher John Mohawk points us to the "peculiarly American version of Christianity," which induced the self-identification of early Americans as new Israelites, "a Chosen people," entitled by virtue of discovery to "all the riches of the world." Mohawk links this belief to the version of American nationalism currently constructed by the neo-conservative wing in America. Mohawk: "Here you find the roots of America's go-it-alone, treaty-breaking, empire building, xenophobic us-against-them psychology." Most Americans don't believe the mythical credo of manifest destiny, says Mohawk, but the much louder true-believer minority is always ready to take the reins of power. These intimidate the media who do not analyze whether things are true or not, as much as whether they reinforce the mythical claim of American "infallibility." Mohawk warns that while the most Americans, who are capable of thinking through such issues, "Rational America" as he describes them, are nonetheless "dangerously tolerant of it."

Other contributors land on the "Doctrine of Discovery," which emerges from the concept of "the chosen people" gaining title to lands and resources by right of claiming it from the "heathen" or non-Christian peoples. This, amazingly, is the doctrine that defines the fundamental American legal policy with American Indians known as American Indian Law. "The entire Western Hemisphere was deemed to be terra nullius — 'vacant land,'" according to contributing columnist Steven McSloy. McSloy writes, "Americans thought themselves, "the 'chosen people,' with a 'Manifest Destiny' to own the continent." Christian sects and religions diversified and warred among each other, confounding everything even more. From a traditional Indian spiritual perspective, one complaint is central: fundamentalist Christians will claim that only through Jesus can a human being be "saved" — i.e., have spiritual life, after death. This denies the direct, Creator or Creation-driven belief systems, prayers and practices of traditional non-Christian ceremonies, which are very seriously prescribed and practiced in Indian country.

This discussion might seem dull to some, but Indian leaders call for it because the fundamentals of the thinking that has historically been arrayed against Native peoples is formidable and remains active. We can only educate ourselves if we aspire to accurately communicate with those who deny our histories, cultures and identities. We hope it is also refreshing to those Americans who in recent years have felt beaten over the head by the loud and nationally prominent Christian political missionary movement. There are a lot of assumptions worth challenging in the Christian-based argumentation aimed at Indian circles. A humble step back from arrogance of Western cultural beliefs in these matters, not to mention the intellectual chasm that renders these beliefs groundless, remains a welcome gesture.