The Domination Translator

Some people may consider my many columns about domination to be an exercise in hyperbole. However, my views on the subject are a direct consequence of having long ago noticed an underlying pattern of domination in the Latin and English language versions of a number of papal documents from the 15th century, and in many other source materials.

In the late 1980s, after having spent nearly a decade investigating the history of the development of U.S. federal Indian law and policy, it suddenly occurred to me that I had never seen or read the Vatican papal documents. I wondered where I might find them. Catholic University in Washington, D.C. seemed to be a logical place to inquire about those documents, and so I called there and was transferred to their theological library.

The librarian I spoke with, David Gilson, asked me to call back in a couple of hours. When I did, he referred me to the book European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and Its Dependencies to 1648, published by the Carnegie Institution in 1917. The book, edited by Frances Davenport Gardiner, is fortunately now available online at Googlebooks.

Not long after I began studying the many papal bulls found in European Treaties, I came across William Brandon’s book, America in Europe, in which he says of the word dominion: “Political power grown from property—dominium—was, in effect, domination.” Then I found the word “domo” in a Latin English dictionary. It is a Latin word defined in terms of what I eventually realized are different expressions of domination: to “break,” “subjugate,” “subdue,” “subservience,” “tame,” “domesticate,” “cultivate,” and “till.” Brandon also reveals that dominion is derived from a Sanskrit term damayati, meaning “he who subdues,” or “he who dominates.”

I found more evidence of the same kind of patterning in the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling from 1823. Chief Justice Marshall wrote that “the character and religion” of the continent’s native inhabitants provided an excuse “for considering them [the Indians] as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy.” When I looked up the word “ascendancy” in Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary, I found that it means “governmental power: domination.” There was that same idea again, like a repeated design that runs continuously.

I later spent a number of years intensively studying the theory of the human mind (cognitive theory) and particularly Steven L. Winter’s highly important book A Clearing in the Forest: Law, Life, and Mind. Cognitive theory gave me a deeper understanding of how mental categories operate. Take, for example, the category “mother.” Cognitive theory teaches us that there is an idealized mental model of “mother.” This ideal image or understanding of mother operates as “the central example” which supports a much larger radial category of mother. It is called “radial” because various examples of the category “radiate out” from the central case or example. In reference to and in variance of the ideal example we get “stepmother,” “surrogate mother,” “birth mother,” “foster mother,” “godmother,” and so forth.

Cognitive theory has enabled me to posit the existence of a radial category that operates on the basis of a central and ideal mental model of domination (think of Mordor in J.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy). That central model supports a much larger radial category. Various forms and manifestations of the category domination radiate outward, in reference to and in variance of that Ideal example. The result is various expressions of domination that are found in documents such as the Vatican papal edicts of the 15th century, the royal charters of England, in U.S. federal Indian case law, and in the English language generally. This insight serves as the basis for what I call the domination translator, by which euphemistic sounding terminology gets accurately re-expressed in terms of domination.

Using the translator, “conquest” and “the conquest” become re-expressed as or transferred into the idea of domination. With this simple metaphorical technique of re-expression, we are able to identify and illustrate the underlying pattern of domination in the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling. Chief Justice Marshall said for the Court in Johnson, for example, that the Court would pretend “to convert the discovery of an inhabited country into conquest.” The word “conquest” is accurately re-expressed as “a claimed right of domination,” and Marshall’s language in Johnson is accurately translated as follows into the language code of domination: “However extravagant the pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited country into a claimed right of domination may appear, if it has been asserted in the first instance, and afterwards sustained, if a country has been acquired and held under it, if the economy of the great mass of the community depends on it, the claimed right of domination becomes the law of the land and cannot be questioned.”

Here’s the point: Deep in the psyche of the dominating society is an archetype of domination that results in an unnoticed “operating system” of domination in the English language that is used against our nations and peoples. One of the manifestations or expressions of that “operating system” of domination is called “U.S. federal Indian law and policy.” There are innumerable examples of domination that we can point to, such as “property,” which has been defined as “the first establishment of socially approved domination over some part of the natural world.” Another is “civilization,” “the forcing of a cultural pattern on a population to whom it is foreign.”

The language system of U.S. law generally, and of U.S. federal Indian law more narrowly, tells us that the kind of “title” which the United States accords to “Indian” nations “is not a property right.” In other words, the United States defines “aboriginal title” in a manner that makes it seem impossible for our nations to ever contradict the “title of domination” posited as rightfully belonging to the U.S. system of “civilization” (domination).

The United States has accorded an Ideal title of domination to itself in relation to our original “Indian” nations. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary defines the noun “ideal” as “a conception of something in its highest perfection,” and, “one regarded as exemplifying an ideal and often taken as a model for imitation.” Johnson v. M’Intosh from 1823 expresses this Ideal, title for the United States, which Chief Justice Marshall called “ascendency,” “ultimate title,” ultimate dominion,” and “absolute title,” and which Associate Justice Story called “perfect title.” By contrast, Reverend Jedidiah Morse, in his 1822 Report to the Secretary of War regarding Indian nations, said Indian title and jurisdiction are “both imperfect in their kind.” They also conceived of the U.S. title as “permanent” and the Indian title “temporary.”

The title of domination is the ideal model for the United States. By contrast, the United States defines “Indian title,” “original title,” or “aboriginal title” as indicating a mere space and right of temporary “occupancy,” which is all that is conceptually remaining after the colonizing powers claim, seize, or arrogate a right of domination to themselves. Or, as Marshall put it “they asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves.” As a result of the United States’ successful construction of a world of domination, our nations are deemed in that world to exist in subjection to “U.S. sovereignty and independence.”

That system of domination began as a state of mind. Even the mere possibility of non-Christians possessing a form of domination that could successfully block and counteract Christian domination had to be effectively cut off and destroyed. Christian thinkers presumed a non-Christian right of domination to be “nullus,” i.e., lacking any real existence. Once Christendom invasively arrived, Christian thinkers made certain they deemed any possibility of our free and independent ancestors possessing a counter “right of domination” to be “null and void.” Now we have to figure out what to do about that.

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.