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‘The Conquest’: An Idea-System of Domination

Although the United States has forcibly imposed patterns of domination on the original Native nations of this continent, it is typical to see the courts of the United States and most legal scholars use the words “conquest,” “conqueror,” and “conquering” and not the words “domination,” “dominator,” and “dominating.” Professor Robert Miller (Shawnee), for example, titled his book Native America: Discovered and Conquered (2008). Theologian George “Tink” Tinker (Osage) titled his 1993 book “Missionary Conquest” and in my book Pagans in the Promised Land (2008), I refer to “the Conqueror” mental model and the idea of conquest.

In hindsight, I now see that it would have made more sense for me to write about “the Dominator” mental model. Think of the difference it would have made if George Tinker had titled his book Missionary Domination, and if Robert Miller had titled his book Native America: ‘Discovered’ and Dominated.” Referring to our nations as “discovered and conquered” makes it seem as if the fight is over and that the United States were “the winners” against “enemy” Native nations, and we get to live with that outcome forever.

Part of the process of decolonization involves embracing the need to consciously shift away from the colonizers’ terms of reference by no longer using “conquest,” and to begin using the term domination to reference the United States and the U.S. federal Indian law and policy system. This manner of framing suggests that the U.S. domination that is still being imposed on our original nations is invalid and in need of being challenged and ended.

Perhaps an analogy might help make the point. Think for a moment of the Roman Empire overrunning a particular nation or people and imposing a regime of domination. Let’s imagine that the Romans would typically speak and write about their imposed system as “the Conquest,” meaning a “victory” or “triumph.” It would make no sense for the nation or people upon whom the Roman Empire had forcibly imposed its reign to call that foreign imposition “the Conquest,” meaning a Roman “victory,” or “triumph” over an enemy.

Edward Gibbon’s The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire (Edited with Introduction and Notes by J. W. Saunders, George G. Harrap & Co., 1949) provides examples of language being used in this manner. As Gibbon wrote: “We have already had occasion to mention the conquest of Britain, and to fix the boundary of the Roman province in this island” (p. 29). And: “Before the Roman conquest, the country which is now called Lombardy was not considered as a part of Italy” (p. 30).

For those upon whom Roman domination had been imposed, calling the Roman imposition “the conquest” would mean they were using a Roman perspective to categorize themselves. It would mean that they were looking at themselves as nations over whom a Roman victory or triumph (“a conquest”) had been achieved. End of story. In order to avoid this predicament, such a nation or people would be well advised to use the word “domination” to refer to the Roman system being imposed on them. With regard to our nations, we have been brain-trained by U.S. federal Indian law thinking to call the U.S. system of domination a “trust relationship,” which draws attention away from the fact that it is a system of domination.

The above quotes from Gibbon demonstrate how, through their use of “the conquest,” the Romans assumed a triumphant attitude toward those they were dominating. The Romans would use the phrase “after the Conquest” to refer to the timeframe after the Romans imposition had become the “winners” by forcing other nations or peoples under Roman ascendency. If the nation or people being subjected decided that they wanted to call the Roman imposition into question it could effectively do so by using the phrase “after domination” based on the assumption that the domination of one nation by another is invalid and unacceptable.

Let’s switch now to the application of the word “conquest” to our nations. In the 1986 case Chunie v. Ringrose (involving a Chumash claim to two Channel Islands off the coast of Santa Barbara, CA), the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals used “conquest” in the sense of a “victory” or “triumph” by Spain over Indian nations. The court wrote: “Spain acquired the islands by conquest and colonization, and the islands passed to Mexico when it obtained its independence from Spain.” This way of framing history is so taken for granted that the average person reading that sentence, even the judges or clerks who crafted it, are unlikely to interpret the words “conquest” and “colonization” as meaning “domination.”

Had the court acknowledged this understanding, it could have written, “Spain acquired the islands by domination and colonization.” However, such wording would thereby open the possibility of the U.S. domination of Native nations being acknowledged and challenged as invalid and in need of being ended.

The Ninth Circuit court’s decision in the Ringrose ruling goes on to state: “After conquest by European powers, Indians were permitted to occupy territory over which they had previously exercise ‘sovereignty.’” And the court further said: “This right [to occupy territory] is not an ownership right, but is rather a right of occupancy granted by the conquering sovereign.” From a Chumash viewpoint that is willing to challenge patterns of domination “After conquest” would be re-expressed as “After domination.” From such a viewpoint the phrase “conquering sovereign” is accurately re-expressed as “dominating sovereign” that denies Native nations a form of title that will be able to compete with the asserted domination.

Notice the resulting difference in tone when we write: “After domination by European powers, Indians were permitted to occupy territory over which they had previously exercised ‘sovereignty.’ This right is not an ownership right, but it rather a right of occupancy granted by the dominating sovereign.” (emphasis added). In the 1955 case Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States we find the U.S. Supreme Court saying: “After conquest they [the Indians] were permitted to occupy portions of territory over which they had previously exercised ‘sovereignty,’ as we use that term.” Accurately re-expressed from an original nations’ point of view, the above sentence becomes: “After domination they [the Indians] were permitted to occupy portions of territory over which they had previously exercised ‘sovereignty,’ as we use that term.”

Calling a system of domination by the name “domination” is one means of speaking truth to power, but it is also a means of accurately identifying the nature of the linguistic, mental, and behavioral system we are up against. In his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (Yale University Press, 1990), James C. Scott quotes George Orwell as saying “when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys” (p. 11). The NSA surveillance of the U.S. populace, the contraction of civil liberties of the American people as a whole, and the National Security State demonstrates that although the people of the United States thought they were only the beneficiaries of the American empire’s system of domination, in actuality it is their own free existence that is being destroyed by the same imperial system that has worked to destroy the free existence of our nations.

The use by U.S. courts of key phrases such as “after conquest,” “the conquering sovereign,” and “ultimate dominion” are part of the hidden transcripts of domination that the U.S. has used and continues to use against our originally and still rightfully free nations. Part of our present task is to open those hidden transcripts to scrutiny in order to work toward accurately naming and ending patterns of domination, subordination, and dehumanization being used against our nations and peoples.

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 has been studying federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.