On Federal Indian Domination

Steven T. Newcomb

For many thousands of years, our indigenous ancestors lived free and independent of Christian European domination. Thousands of years of being free resulted in our nations and peoples possessing to this day the inherent right to freely define our own political status, and to freely pursue our economic, social, and cultural development. Even today, we have the inherent right to live free of and from American domination.

The effort by one people to hold another people under domination ought to never be considered legitimate from the perspective of those being subjected. However, it is imperative that those being dominated pass a spirit of resistance on to every new generation so that they never stop challenging the dominance. If they fail to do so, later generations will no longer recognize the nature of the domination under which they have been made to live. Without realizing it, they may begin to accept, embrace, identify with, and even praise the domination that their people have been forced to live under. They may begin to live a delusion by calling the system of domination "our country," and "our system of law."

Neither the United States as a whole, nor any individual state of the United States, has a right to unilaterally impose an inferior political status upon us as Indigenous peoples, without our free and informed consent. I am challenging an argument commonly made during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and later centuries, that some "Christian people," "Christian state," or "Christian power" was entitled to assume a right of domination over our free and independent ancestors and over our traditional territories. To this day that argument undergirds the claim by the United States that it has an ultimate dominating authority, or "plenary power," over our nations, and our lands, territories, and resources, and that we are, at most "domestic dependent nations."

What is called U.S. federal Indian law and policy is nothing other than a carefully constructed and carefully guarded institution of American domination over our Indigenous nations that has been successfully passed from one generation of Americans to the next.

How do we know this? Because of the words found in Vatican documents and in the overall Christian European history that gave birth to U.S. federal Indian law and policy. The evidence is found in words such as "conquer" "conquest," "conqueror," "empire," "sovereignty," "the sovereign," "their Highnesses," "lordship," "overlordship," "overriding," "dominion," "the crown," "ultimate title," and "ultimate dominion," "domestic," "dependent." Each and every one of these terms is but a different expression and manifestation of domination.

With such terms, Marshall quite brilliantly provided the basis for the social construction of a reality of domination that made it unnecessary to physically defeat our Indian nations. The chief justice provided the linguistic seeds needed for propagating a future reality of Indian domination. From those seeds the US gradually grew itself a conqueror/domination reality within which it continues to hold captive our originally free Indigenous nations.

Johnson v. M'Intosh 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823) was the first U.S. Supreme Court ruling to express a tradition of domination that the United States has used in dealing with our rightfully free Indian nations. In that decision, Chief Justice Marshall employed the phrases "Christian people" and "Christian prince or people" as distinguished from "natives, who were heathens." To those nations categorized as "Christian" and "European," the Court ascribed such characteristics as "ultimate title" or "absolute title," "ultimate dominion," "perfect independence," "unlimited independence" and "civilization."

A sensible interpretation of the Supreme Court's phrase "ultimate dominion" is "ultimate right of domination." For the Court, Marshall said that the "discoverers" "assumed the ultimate dominion to be in themselves." From the perspective of Western Christendom, it was the "god-given" right of all Christian sovereigns to locate and dominate ("possess") all non-Christian lands on the planet.

Unfortunately, many American Indian leaders are now moving in the direction of appearing to embrace the domination of the American empire by appearing to accept an Indian nationhood or "tribal" political identity under the political framework of the American empire. This is a disturbing trend. Vine Deloria, Jr., was one Indigenous scholar and intellectual who called for a "political activism" combined with "critical reflection and constructive strategy."

Some federal Indian law scholars and law professors are moving in the opposite direction by advocating that Indian leaders be willing to embrace the "plenary power" (domination) of the American Empire. They advocate that we accept what I am calling domination by referring to it as "being under the protection of the United States." Unfortunately, such people never seem to advocate that we find a way to challenge and one day end the domination of Indian nations and peoples that is premised on mythical "discoveries" by some "Christian prince or people."

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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beaver's picture
Hey, we serve in our conqueror's military. We are proud to serve in our conqueror's military. We are proud to call ourselves warriors who murder indigenous people all over the globe so that our conquerors can profit from oil and military businesses. We honor our conqueror's flag at every powwow. The top status in our Indian society goes to those 'veterans' who fight battles for our conqueror's military. We honor those who killed innocent indigenous people for our conqueror's armies at every single pow wow. Open your eyes Newcomb - the domination is complete and absolute!
softbreeze's picture
I agree that it's important to teach our next generation about the different perspectives that we, as American Indian and Metis tribes, hold in comparison to the dominant culture. Books like yours, "Pagans In The Promised Land", and, "Thinking In Indian, A John Mohawk Reader", among many others, are important resources in teaching these truths. I think one of the difficulties people face in trying to achieve this shift in perspective is our dependency on the dominant culture. Economic, educational, medical, and also with law enforcement needs on reservation lands, I think it makes it monumentally challenging to see things from the other side. But, we can never give up. Continuing to educate while working toward 100% self-reliance I think is the key. It is about preserving our unique identity and dignity, freedom and autonomy, while living in harmony with all other human beings and all our relations.
thechief's picture
I used to think like this but after witnessing how tribal members really are I think we make ourselves slaves to the US gov't. I would like to say we are a strong independent minded group but instead I continually meet tribal members that have lives that revolve around government programs. I don't know how many tribal members are slaves to SS, SSDI, WIC, etc..I always hear tribal members whining about the need for more federal programs and more federal aid. How are we supposed to be independent if we continue to ask our slave owner for such paltry benefits?
beaver's picture
Newcomb is totally correct in observing that many American Indian leaders are now moving in the direction of embracing the domination of the American empire and that many federal Indian law scholars and law professors advocate that Indian leaders be willing to embrace the “plenary power” (domination) of the American Empire. Shame on such people. Basically, our current leaders lack the "balls" that our ancient leaders had. Our current leaders are spineless, groveling before the United States of America. Most of our tribal members are likewise spineless and groveling. I hear statements proudly thrown around like "I have dated only Whites," "I have slept with only White women," "I don't want to live on the rez," etc. Such statements are asserted with considerable pride, which goes to show that ordinary tribal members have been completely subjugated by the White society. Or look at our language programs. How many of the thousands of members in our tribe show up to learn our language? In most language classes only 2 to 4 show up. The story is the same from tribe to tribe. If free pizza is available, at most 6 to 8 people of the thousands show up to learn our language. If free pizza is not provided as an incentive, only 2 or 4 show up to learn our language. The other thousands of tribal members just don't care that a language is dying. Because they are so freakin' Americanized. The ultimate symbol of domination is when we Indians fight in our conqueror's military. And we not only fight but also hold those who kill innocent indigenous peoples in profiteering wars in the highest esteem. The solution to such problems may be at the grassroots level, such as refusing to stand when "veterans" are honored at the start of every pow wow. There is considerable academic/research literature on the influence of a consistent minority. A consistent minority voice that moves a lethargic, stupid and subjugated minority might open the eyes of Indians. Otherwise I see no hope for us and we might as well stop calling ourselves Indian and call ourselves American.
softbreeze's picture
This excerpt is from the college textbook; "Sociology, A Down To Earth Approach", by James M. Henslin. "Native Americans can truly be called the invisible minority. Because half live in rural areas and one-third in just three states-Oklahoma, California, and Arizona-most other Americans are hardly conscious of a Native American presence in the United States. The isolation of about half of Native Americans on reservations further reduces their visibility." I think one of the problems that many Native Americans and Metis face today is a lack of cultural validation. People want to feel positive about their identity and want and NEED validation in their identity on some level. Let's face it, how often do we see Native Americans portrayed in movies, commericals, as celebrities, etc. When the media mentions minorities, they don't even mention Native Americans. It's no wonder that many people are struggling to feel positive and whole in their native identity. You see a similar phenomenon in the African American community. Very Americanized, and very much into dating outside of their own. We need positive, strong, and successful role models for our young people, and our middle aged and older people as well. One book I've read recently is called, "The Lakota Way". It talks about the 12 virtues of the Lakota value system, and they are taught using traditional Lakota stories. I think it is an excellent resource for teaching traditional native values, even if your tribe's stories to teach the virtues might be different. Also, this might sound a little corny, but, even watching movies like "Dances With Wolves", or the mini series, "Into The West", which depict Native Americans in a positive role, could be beneficial. Of course, it goes without saying, seeking out your traditional elders is your best resource of all. My prayers are with all of my native brothers and sisters. Noki Lomsen
michaelmack's picture
Steven - I always appreciate your commentaries because you are one of the few truly articulate voices to write about the foundational issues facing Indian Country today. In my work as an educator and lecturer for almost 20 years, my primary message is also of the necessity of Indian Country to take back its heritage in its own terms, to re-educate ourselves in our old ways and update them to make them useful in our lives today, and most importantly, to NOT rely upon the American legal system, educational system, historical interpretations, social constructs, etc. as the ultimate authorities. As much as I personally agree with you in spirit 100%, my years of experience have shown me that even the most educated and "forward thinking" Indians I've been fortunate enough to meet, have been so indoctrinated into the "American" mindset, they find it hard to listen to concepts outside of that mindset. One of my most recent disappointments was with one of our tribe's young lawyers, who is a tribal member, and who does great work with our tribe, but still doesn't "get" that we have to look beyond the American system, if we are to retain any substantive hold of our heritage. He is frankly overwhelmed by the issues of helping to keep the tribe's wellbeing "above water" operationally (and literally with the recent floods), that his scope of thinking has yet to grasp beyond his education and the tribe's practical operational needs. My fondest hope is that he and other young educated tribal members will someday firmly grasp that we as Indian people, cannot focus on American ways, the American model of doing life. Indian Country needs to more fully understand that we are not extensions or branches of "Americana", and we also need to see America for what it is - neurotic, power obsessed, insecure, pretentious, and with any real substance - think about it, if this was a person, would you want them to be your role model? This is what America has always been, today it is simply becoming more visible. This is why Indian Country needs to move beyond the American model. Our ways worked well for thousands of years before Columbus, but until we let go of the mindset of following and adopting American ways, and put for substantive efforts to rebuild our old ways, nothing will change, and we will remain 2nd and 3rd class Americans.