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Thinking About ‘Tribes’

In the first chapter of The Evolution of Physics (1938), Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld say they are focused on “the adventurous search for knowledge of the physical world,” and that they are “chiefly concerned with the role of thoughts and ideas.” Searching for knowledge of the “physical world” leads to an intriguing question: “Do ‘Indian’ ‘tribes’ physically exist “in” a physical world external to and independent of the language system used to express the idea of “tribes?” Were there “tribes” existing here in our part of the world before the Christian Europeans invasively arrived with that word? The answer is “no.”

Before Colonization (B.C.) our ancestors were existing here on Great Turtle Island in worlds and realities of their own making, with experiences that were the result of our own languages and our own words that were woven into our free and independent existence; free and independent of Christian European colonization and domination. The word “tribe” and the associative ideas that accompany that word were necessary to create the mental (cognitive) experience of a “tribe.”

“Tribes” do not exist as a feature of the physical world, but as a result of the word and idea of “tribe” and “tribes” being mentally projected onto and applied to certain groupings of humans. Once that word and the mental associations that go with it have been established as an ongoing and unquestioned habit, a habit shared in common with others, no one bothers to ask whether that word makes sense, or if there is a downside to the use of that word. It becomes treated in everyday life as simply a “natural” feature of the world of everyday experience. Once the people have become accustomed to that idea and that wording, it is as if the “tribe” were physically existing, independent of our minds, of the word itself, and of the English language.

It is my contention that we experience our lives in terms of the words and mental concepts “tribe,” and “tribes,” and “tribal” as a direct result of us having become mentally conditioned and adapted to the colonizing language of English. It is a product of colonization (domination), which means that decolonization (liberation) ought to involve an effort to shift our words and our use of language in a manner that enables us to construct the mental and physical reality we desire to experience. But what is the reality we desire to experience? And what are the obstacles in the way of achieving that desired state? If “tribe,” “tribes,” and “tribal” are self-subordinating and self-reducing, then what is the sensible rationale for continuing to self-identify with such politically subordinating and diminishing terms?

In Johnson v. M’Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall said that the U.S. Supreme Court was going to use a pretension (something pretended) as the basis of its ruling about a U.S. right of domination. Based on the political and economic needs of the United States, he said that pretension of a U.S. right of domination over Indian nations would be regarded as “the law of the land,” and as something not to be questioned. What he was writing about, though, is the way in which human reality gets constructed and maintained.

Marshall, being the sharp operator that he was—aligned with the intellectually astute elite operating at the highest levels of the United States government—understood one thing very well. Given a long enough period of time, everyone would lose sight of the fact that they had started out with a pretend reality of Indian domination and subordination. The ideas that began by being pretended would begin to be experienced by later generations (such as ourselves) as if it were a physical fact, and as if physically existing. Marshall knew that once that had happened, once the pretended ideas had been “solidified,” so to speak, then those ideas would take on the false appearance of being part of an unquestioned and unquestionable physical reality.

That is where we are today. However as a product of the white man’s mind and mental processes, the Supreme Court’s pretension in Johnson v. M’Intosh has been and continues to be open to question and challenge from our original free and independent viewpoint. It is a matter of us acting on that truism and not acting as if we must passively accept the words and ideas of the colonizers that have been metaphorically “handed down to us from on high.”

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 U.S. federal Indian law and international law since the early 1980s.