Government: An Expression of Domination

Steve Newcomb

Some years ago, I was studying both the Latin and English versions of the Vatican document Inter Caetera, dated May 4, 1493, and came across the following sentence: “We trust in Him from whom empires, and governments, and all good things proceed.” In Latin it reads: “…in Illo a quo imperia et dominationes ac bona cuncta procedunt confidentes…”

The spelling of the pronoun “Him” with a capital ‘H’ (and Illo with a capital ‘I’) tells us that the sentence is signifying a Being that is not named in the sentence. In that context, the word “proceed” means “to issue from.” Thus, I saw that the sentence talks of “empires and governments” issuing forth from, or moving out from, the unnamed Being.

When I compared the Latin and English terminology, I found that the Latin word for ‘governments’ is ‘dominationes,’ or, in English, ‘dominations.’ Thus, the Latin word for a single ‘government’ is ‘domination.’ It is instructional and interesting that, the words “government” and “domination” are synonyms.

Based on the above information, we may accurately refer to “the federal government” as “the federal domination.” Federal Indian law and policy is an outgrowth of a conceptual and behavioral system of federal domination or dominance.

The Vatican document Inter Caetera and other such documents reveal that domination is the core problem that Indigenous nations and peoples have been dealing with for centuries. Once we have identified this, the possibility arises of calling the domination framework into question and of proposing a meaningful and beneficial alternative. Once we have thus accurately identified the nature of the problem, new paths for ending domination begin to open up.

The issue of domination gives rise to questions of legitimacy. For example, is it legitimate for the United States—as the American empire—to dominate the existence of American Indian nations? And from whose perspective shall we answer the question; from the perspective of the United States, or from the perspective of Indigenous nations and peoples?

A system of authority ought to be predicated on a belief that there is a meaningful and legitimate basis for the exercise of that authority. This does not hold true, however, when it comes to one people or nation exercising dominating authority over another people or nation. Thus, here’s a rhetorical question: Is there ever a legitimate basis for the domination of one people by another?

Referring to a structure of domination and subordination as ‘the law,’ as in ‘federal Indian law,’ makes it seem as if that structure is a legitimate basis for relations between the United States and Indian nations and peoples. Calling it ‘law’ makes it that much more difficult to call it into question and challenge it.

The same is true of applying the word ‘trust’ to the domination/subordination relationship, which has been euphemistically termed a “guardian-ward” relationship between the United States and Indian nations. The word ‘trust’ makes it seem as if such a top/down relationship is legitimate and beneficial.

Apparently, we as Indian people are supposed to ‘trust’ that the so-called ‘guardian’ will do the right thing by us because we are told that the relationship was established on a ‘trust’ basis for our benefit as Indian ‘wards.’ However, the lie that underlies this mythology is revealed as soon as we acknowledge that domination never works to the benefit of those who are being dominated or subordinated.

The judicial decisions that make up a significant part of federal Indian law are an integral part of European and Euro-American myth-making and storytelling. European and Euro-American stories about their explorations and ‘discoveries’ of the past revolve around one central theme: ‘How Christian European superiority and dominance came to occupy such and such place in the world.’

The overall body of U.S. federal Indian ‘law’ leads to another question: If we as Indian people fail to question ritualized claims by Christian European that they had a right, on the basis of Christianity, of domination over our lands, territories, and resources, then how are we ever going begin fundamentally transforming the basis of the relationship between the United States and Indian nations?

My former professor C. A. Bowers correctly points out that taking on the thoughts and ideas of one’s opponent is the worst thing you can possibly do in a conflict. Yet this is precisely what we do every time we as Indian people accept the domination/subordination structure of the ideas called "federal Indian law" as if they were legitimate.

Steven Newcomb is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, international research coordinator for the American Indian Law Alliance, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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dinagw's picture
Questioning the legitimacy of government domination of Native peoples also raises troubling questions about nationalism in general, and more specifically, how power is enacted. If we acknowledge that governments are more formalized processes of power OVER people than power OF people, then how do we reconcile this to the mythologies so familiar to us: democracy is the enactment of freedom, and that it is our duty to export American democracy to the rest of the world? Isn't it more appropriate to just admit that nationalism is a necessary evil that we are all stuck with? Or can we imagine a different world where human dignity is truly honored, and we live harmoniously with the natural world?
softbreeze's picture
Something is a law when people have the ability to either persuade other people to follow their laws, or have the ability to enforce the laws through police, courts, or military. So, even though it is unconstitutional to violate the law of separation of church and state, unless those with the ability to enforce this law choose to enforce it, which in this case would be towards themselves, I think it's not likely to change. I think one thing we could perhaps change is how we address the issue. I think it's good and useful to be knowledgeable about federal indian law. But, maybe it's even more important to become experts and scholars of out own traditional native law. For example, traditionally, native americans did not accept the idea that you could "own" the land anymore than you could "own" the sky. Yet, for understandable reasons, many of the native tribes have gone to federal and state courts to sue over land "rights". In some sense, we are adopting the Christian-European/and Euroamerican ideology of "owning" parts of our Mother Earth. When we do this, we are in a sense, invalidating our own cultural concepts and beliefs. Maybe instead we could assert that as children of the Creator and Mother Earth, we believe we have the inherent right to live in a clean and safe environment, to obtain what we need to live directly from Mother Earth, and that we have the right to live harmoniously with all other Human Beings. So, instead of approaching the problem from a position of subordination by addressing the issue within the context of another culture's perspective, we could approach the issues from a position of equality by discussing and negotiating the problems from our own cultural perspective. This might also facilitate a better understanding on the part of the other culture as to where we are coming from.
ndnlady's picture
Thank you, Steven, another fine and thought-provoking piece.
dbender's picture
World order. It's what gives paper money value.
lakotaiam's picture
Domination or discrimination no matter how you word it or color it. The meaning is the same slavery. This land was not lost, we knew exactly where we lived on our land until greed came ashore and wiped us out. It still exists today in our our so called privledged boarding schools for our youth to learn of ruthless ways and forget their cultures.. There is a boarding school in california where all the head people are whites who have no shame in degrading and verbally abusing our children ( who are too afraid to speak up) do you think anyone cares?????? not on this continent unless they own half. These schools should not be closed unless decided by the people not white men who call natives trash and no accounts.. Does that mean all the gold and other Valuables are meanless also... This so called freedom of speech only applies to politicians who all speak with fork tongues.
dawnlawrencemusic's picture
Steven Newcomb you don't shy away from looking at the tough Christian concepts!! As a non Catholic Christian the concept of “…in Illo a quo imperia et dominationes ac bona cuncta procedunt confidentes…” is one that's not completely unfamiliar to me. Basically it's saying that God ordains and allows good and bad government. I think about that for a minute in light of the Nazis(or any negative example you would choose). I think about this even in light of a US government administration I don't like and didn't vote for. Some of the most vocal opponents of this administration or that, are Christians who do NOT appear to be accepting the premise that God ordained and allows the leader they don't like. The culture of the United States operates on the premise that people have the power individually and collectively to challenge authority and government within given structures. The fact that I have lived in the twentieth century, thinking of myself as someone powerful enough to determine details of my own life and future makes this a particularly sticky Christian concept to stomach but there it is...in Protestant theology as well. In the Vatican in 1493, this doctrine was part of the larger Western European concept of unquestioned submission to authority; Church authority, authority of family members, submission to local officials as well. In 1493 this went as far as submission to the idea that each person was born into a social class and even a location and a VOCATION in which God expected you to stay. How exactly this doctrine changed (or didn't) as it traveled with the people who practiced Catholicism wherever they went and encountered new and completely unfamiliar situations still holding onto concepts learned in "the Old Country" is recorded in the history we read or hear.