In 1734, a Creek chief named Tomochichi accompanied James Oglethorpe to
England to meet King George II. Nearly a century later, a person writing
under the pseudonym "William Penn" explained that when Tomochichi was
introduced to the king, the Creek leader "made a flourishing speech, in
which, however, he does not admit that the king of England is his liege
lord and sovereign."
Tomochichi gave the king some eagle feathers "as a token of everlasting
peace;" and is said to have concluded his talk by telling the king,
"Whatever words you shall say unto me, I will faithfully tell them to all
the kings of the Creek nation." This, we are told, "is the only allegiance"
that Tomochichi "promised the king" of England.
The writer who recounted the story said that the king "expressed his kind
regards, gave thanks for the eagles' feathers, and concluded by saying, 'I
shall always be ready to cultivate a good correspondence between the Creeks
and my subjects, and shall be glad on any occasion to show you marks of my
particular friendship.'" (Emphasis in the original)
The writer then explained, "Here is no arrogant claim of sovereignty, on
the ground of the divine right of kings, or any other factitious
[fictitious] title. Indeed, the king of England implicitly says that the
Creeks are not his subjects." (Emphasis in the original)
The writer further tells us that when Tomochichi died in 1739, he reminded
his people "to remember the kindness of the king of England, and hoped they
would always be friendly to" the king's subjects. By saying this,
Tomochichi made the very same distinction that the king had made between
the Creeks and British subjects.
In the same year that Tomochichi died, James Oglethorpe made a treaty with
the Spanish governor of St. Augustine, "in which the second article reads
as follows: 'In respect to the nations of free Indians, called Creeks, I
will use my utmost amicable endeavors, upon any reasonable satisfaction
given them, to prevail with them to abstain from any hostilities
whatsoever, with the subjects of his Catholic majesty.'" (Emphasis added)
Based on this language from the treaty, the abovementioned writer
concluded, "Here it is evident that Oglethorpe saw, as no man in his
circumstances could help seeing, that the Creeks were an independent
people; and that they must decide for themselves, whether they would go to
war with the king of Spain or not." (emphasis added)
The story of Chief Tomochichi draws our attention to the original free and
independent existence of the Creek Nation, and to the British monarch's
acknowledgment of a clear distinction between two different categories of
people: "the Creeks," and the king and his "subjects." This example is
emblematic of the original free and independent existence of every Native
nation indigenous to this hemisphere.
What do we mean by "free"? In addition to being physically free, the
concept indicates that one nation has no right to forcibly impose its
decisions, its ideas, its policies or its laws on another independent
nation. This indicates that the people are free precisely because they live
under laws of their own making, and because they are free of the thoughts
and ideas of every other people.
A treaty is a compact, agreement or contract between independent
communities. Treaty relations are established when one free nation enters
into a diplomatic agreement with another free nation. The existence of
every free nation has certain characteristics - a territory, a language and
culture, a population, a history and a mental consciousness that the people
express through their ideas.
The story of Chief Tomochichi's visit with King George points out a vitally
important moral standard: all free nations and peoples such as the Creeks
are inherently entitled to remain free, and no independent nation of people
should be forced against its will to submit to the laws of another nation
that would purport to be its master.
This raises a second moral standard: free nations that have been deprived
of a free existence have the inherent right to one day regain a free and
independent existence. During the time that the Baltic states were forced
to live under Soviet rule, it was precisely upon these two moral standards
that the United States advocated their liberation from the Soviet empire.
Federal Indian law and policy rests on a different kind of standard. Once
the European bloodline and the Christian religion arrived at some region of
the world where non-Europeans and non-Christians lived, the mere arrival of
the Christian Europeans supposedly resulted in the Indigenous peoples
losing forever the right to retain their original free and independent
existence. The reason for this antagonistic standard is really quite
simple: the Christian Europeans were able to use this standard to achieve
and maintain a seemingly permanent and oppressive supremacy over the
indigenous nations and their lands.
What a bizarre contradiction it is to acknowledge that a given indigenous
nation, such as the Creek Nation, was originally free of the thoughts and
ideas of the Christian Europeans while simultaneously assuming that that
indigenous nation is now subject to the thoughts and ideas of the Christian
Europeans - but with no explanation as to how that nation went from being
free to supposedly being no longer free.
One explanation would be that the Christian Europeans were successful in
creating the false assumption that once they arrived at this hemisphere,
the free and independent existence of that particular indigenous nation
magically "evaporated" and ceased to exist. If the Christian Europeans
succeed in placing a fervent energy behind this wrongful assumption while
doing everything within their power to prevent the indigenous nation from
building and putting forward arguments that successfully contradict the
assumption, then over time, the assumption would be perceived - and acted
upon - as "reality." Given such a scenario, the worst thing that any
indigenous nation could possibly do is drop the ball by no longer
reaffirming the original free and independent existence of their ancestors
... which is also their own sacred birthright.
Steven Newcomb is the Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at Kumeyaay
Community College, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law
Institute and a columnist for Indian Country Today.