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White Supremacy (‘Ascendancy’) Is the Basis of US Federal Indian Law

As long as we keep calling an idea system of domination ‘the law,’ we will continue to be controlled and dominated by the system of white supremacy.

The Trump Era has given rise to a new wave of white supremacy in the United States. In response, a number of statues dedicated to Confederate figures and slave owners have been removed or torn down recently because of the backlash against what is perceived to be the history of racism in the United States and the racist atmosphere of white nationalism that has arisen in U.S. society since the beginning of the Trump presidency. A statue dedicated to General Robert E. Lee, for example, has been removed, in part because Lee commanded the Confederate Army during the American Civil War.

Yet those who have recently decried statues dedicated to a number of racist figures in the history of the United States have been rather selective in their indignation toward other white men who were slave owners and who believed in “white supremacy.” Ironically, President Trump pointed this out when he wondered, rhetorically, whether the statue-opponents thought that statues dedicated to two other slave owners, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, ought to be taken down as well. My answer would be “definitely.”


An example of an attitude of supremacy is evident when a ruling class of people considers itself to be better than all other classes and holds the power. A white supremacist has been defined as “a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.” Claiming “ascendancy” is another way to claim supremacy.

To claim white “ascendancy” is to assume that white people are supreme and ought to be seated in the highest position in U.S. society, above all others. In the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall, another slave owner, said that the character and religion of the Native inhabitants of North America provided “an apology for considering” them to be a people “over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy.” The Webster’s dictionary definition of “ascendancy” is “controlling or governing power: domination.” Thus, “white supremacy” is simply a euphemism for white domination.

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A statue dedicated to Chief Justice John Marshall currently sits in the U.S. Supreme Court building in Washington, D.C. Even if that statue were removed, the racist mental patterns (patterns of thought) that Marshall wrote into the Johnson decision would still remain in the building in the form of the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling and other racist and religiously bigoted U.S. Supreme Court decisions. Statue or no statue, the Supreme Court will continue using the racist and dominating patterns which that institution has used against our nations and peoples for nearly two centuries now. (The year 2023 will be the two century mark since the Johnson ruling was issued).

After people have watched our documentary movie about the Johnson decision, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, they often ask, “What can we do?” or, “So, what’s the solution?” Reflect on those questions for a moment. The men and women seated on the U.S. Supreme Court fully intend to continue using as “legal precedent” the racist and religiously bigoted precedent of the Johnson ruling, and the resulting system of white domination (“supremacy,” “ascendancy”). No legislation is going to stop the Supreme Court from using that decision. And, besides, Congress would have no reason to pass legislation contradicting the Johnson ruling.

Given the dominating nature and temperament of the Trump administration, the current make-up of the Executive Branch of the United States government is not likely to try and end the patterns of white supremacy and domination found in the Johnson ruling and in U.S. federal Indian law and policy generally. We can be certain that the United States does not want to discard the ideas of the Johnson ruling which also serve as the cornerstone of the property law system of the United States.

Chief Justice Marshall wrote the Johnson ruling to make certain that our Native nations would not be recognized as our own countries in the world such as England, France, Spain, Portugal and so forth. The Johnson ruling was written to make certain that the national boundaries of our nations were only regarded as dotted porous lines, which the U.S. could easily transgress with impunity, and not hard lines capable of keeping the United States and other countries out.

One unique feature of nations called “Indigenous” is that their oppressors, such as the United States, are able to unilaterally define them in a subordinating manner. Indigenous nations have no effective means of preventing their oppressors from unilaterally imposing those definitions upon them. It seems to me that so long as we keep calling an idea system of domination “the law,” we will continue to be controlled and dominated by the system of white Christian supremacy which is well exemplified by the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling.

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 is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from