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'Canada' and the 'United States' Are in Turtle Island

Steven T. Newcomb
9/30/11

It is typical to refer to our respective nations and peoples as being "in" Canada or "in" the United States and therefore as being deemed subject to the jurisdictions of those two political constructs called "states" in international law. What we seldom express, however, is the more profound point that those two Western European political constructs are on and in Turtle Island, as North America is traditionally known to the Original Nations of Turtle Island.

For far too long we have been conditioned to seemingly accept the idea that Indian nations are subject to the political and legal jurisdiction of the United States and Canada. We have not spent much time at all developing the viewpoint that originally free Indian nations are still rightfully free and that those two political constructs of European origin are in and on Turtle Island. To even express such an idea seems mad because of the ingrained conditioning we have received from a very young age that we as Indigenous nations and peoples are unquestioningly subject to the dictates of dominating societies.

In his amazing book Imperialism, Sovereignty, and the Making of International Law (2004), Professor Antony Anghie argues that international law is a product of the colonial confrontation between European and non-European peoples. International law is, in other words, an outgrowth of imperialism, and thus was conceived and operates on the basis of a structure of domination and subordination. In the book's Foreword, the eminent scholar James Crawford refers to the "relations between civilizations and peoples" as "relations of domination." (original emphasis)

To further Anghie's perspective, it has not been well understood that in the context of international law "Indigenous peoples" are understood as dominated peoples, or, peoples that have been compelled by various means to live under forms of domination. In the book Indigenous Peoples: A Global Quest for Justice (1987), published by the Commission for Humanitarian Issues, we find a "working definition" of the term "indigenous peoples":

Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendents of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them and, by Conquest, settlement or other means reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial situation.

Key words above which indicate domination are "overcame them", "conquest", "reduced them", "non-dominant" and "colonial situation". Given these terms, the phrase "arrived there from other parts of the world" may be sensibly rephrased as "invaded from other parts of the world."

There is evidently, no clear doctrine in international law by which "Indigenous peoples" that have been and continue to be forced or compelled to live under regimes of domination have the perfect right to free themselves from that condition. It was that condition and the effects of domination which inspired American spiritual leaders, elders, scholars, and activists to enter the international arena in the late 1970s in an effort to find redress for their grievances from the centuries-long effects of domination.

Now, more than three decades later, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples has been formally adopted by the United Nations General Assembly. Given that domination has been clearly identified as the root problem of all peoples termed "Indigenous", the question now becomes: "to what extent does the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provide the means for our nations and peoples to free or liberate ourselves from domination?" For if that document does not provide a path to free ourselves from domination then we must now move on to the next phase of the work that needs to be done to find that path on Turtle Island.

The states of Canada and the United States that have erected themselves on and within Turtle Island—on the conceptual foundation of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination--desire to maintain their illegitimate claims of dominance over our originally free nations and peoples. Now that the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues is scheduled to hold a half-day session on the Doctrine of Discovery next May, there has been a deft response to redirect the discussion toward the theme of "reconciliation."

Thus, the question from the perspective of Original Nations of Turtle Island becomes: "What does the term 'reconciliation' mean in a context of ongoing domination by the states of Canada and the United States?" It evidently means this: "How do we get them to reconcile themselves with and to the unquestionable dominance (ultimate sovereignty) of the state?" In other words, the issue of "reconciliation" is nothing other than a trap door that leads inevitably right back to the seemingly never ending cycle of domination.

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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greenspider's picture
I suggest that for indigenous people within the United Sates (upon Turtle Island) to ever have total rest may possibly be to create our own country, such as Nunavit. We are now too spread out and most importantly, we are land-locked away from each other. Imperialism here was thorough, almost. We still have our spirit. What do you think it would take to make American Indians "whole" again? Jamie Walker Sault Ste. Marie tribal member-3386
greenspider
dbender's picture
My answer to your question is networking. Networking, the Indian way. Through diet, culture, athletics, training and education. I would like to see Native children and adults take part in lacrosse, language, adhering to a hunter-gatherer minded diet, and education on the true realities of capitalism. I believe that Indigenous people should lead the nation as scientists, physicians, and environmental activists. That is what is going to make us whole again. Living as a community and creating bonds inter-tribally and internationally. ALL OUR RELATIONS.
dbender
tewanna's picture
You are right on with your words of wisdom. We as sovereign nations within a nation need our own seat at the United Nations in exercising our soverignty.
tewanna
beaver's picture
Not USA. Not Canada. ONTI. Original Nations of Turtle Island.
beaver
beaver's picture
And I love you Steven Newcomb. Our #1 problem is that Indian nations are full of people and leaders who raise and salute the American flag, give lives for American imperial/capitalistic interests, worship the White man's Man-God and think/act like Americans. If our Indian leaders and Indian people thought like you, all our problems would end. All of them. I love you man!
beaver
tewanna's picture
We can began our discussion of righting wrongs for a 'just reconcillation' in reference to "the Doctrine of Discovery", originally, "Doctrine of Christian Discovery", by petitioning the reigning pope and or the papal representatives to revoke Pope Alexander VI, of 1493, Papal Bull called "Inter Cetera" l (official decrees of the pope), that sanctioned Christian claims to superiority (exploration, capture, vanquish, subdue, slavery, genocide, take all possessions and real property) over non-Christians (American Indians) encountered in American. As history reveals, in hindsight, we know that the Indian Nations of Turtle Island were never non-christians, but believers of the Great Spirit. The similarties of the European christians belief are so similar to the American Indian Nations which was revealed, once a form of communication was established. (U.S. Constitution's 1st Amendment is Freedom of Religion.) It is not too late for our people and land to heal, but only by addressing, correcting and revoking the unjust deeds done to the Indian Nations (American Indians) in the 1400's by the passage of the official decrees of the pope.
tewanna
zakapu's picture
"It is typical to refer to our respective nations and peoples as being “in” Canada or “in” the United States and therefore as being deemed subject to the jurisdictions of those two political constructs called “states” in international law. What we seldom express, however, is the more profound point that those two Western European political constructs are on and in Turtle Island, as North America is traditionally known to the Original Nations of Turtle Island." What is typical is that this white looking Indian wrote a book and forgot to include Mexico. Look at a map...any cartographer will tell you Mexico is part of North America. Pick up a book, any book will tell you of how the Southwest and Southeast US has much in common with Mexico when DeSoto took his wild tour of the lower USA. Look at the mound building cultures up every major river system that branches from the Mississippi. Those white folks dug them up and found actual products from Mexico and found several similar spiritual symbols. Norteno Indigenas are as racist as the white people who put them on reservations.
zakapu
rezzdog's picture
Zakapu, You saying Newcomb forgot to mention Mexico simply because he 'looks' white? Or, because he is not a cartographer? I am confused with your logic. ME? I think Newcomb simply had a bad camera day. lol. The Oneida Nation does a annual Archeological dig on their territory and a few years ago found corn that according to study of its DNA originated in Columbia. So, why stop at Mexico?
rezzdog
sierra's picture
[i]"In the book Indigenous Peoples: A Global Quest for Justice (1987), published by the Commission for Humanitarian Issues, we find a “working definition” of the term “indigenous peoples”: Indigenous populations are composed of the existing descendents of the peoples who inhabited the present territory of a country wholly or partially at the time when persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived there from other parts of the world, overcame them and, by Conquest, settlement or other means reduced them to a non-dominant or colonial situation." This "working definition" of us descendants of the First Peoples consists of meaningless English words which gloss over the near annihilation that colonialists brought and continue to inflict by denying the First Peoples our right to exist. One only has to point to our recognition and acknowledgement that was compelled on the establishment/imagined political communities by the UNDRIP. Before that, and indeed still today, we were/are still arguably in the vanishing race era, as Euro-Americans and Euro-Canadians remain, for the most part, ignorant of how our world views, land tenure systems and stewardship were far more advanced than the empty rhetoric of "hunter-gatherers and nomadic socieities." And that which the latter were NOT before their food supply was purposely targeted for slaughter to open up the west for settlement in the 1800s; but wherein state officials did the same to the Inuit sled dogs in the 1950s, again to bring about starvation to the Inuit and the forced treatising of indigenous lands and territories where the terms and conditions are as written and enforced as the newcomers' history was. If every American schoolboy was compelled to study the extent and influence of the First Peoples' cultural lifeways and ways of life FROM the land, our mother tongues, value and belief systems encompassing the interdependence of all living life, as well as our wholistic education systems - the impact this could have had on forever extinguishing the notion of land ownership and imposed jurisdiction where absolute power corrupted absolutely, their man-made science and their self-made ruling elite might not have succeeded in destroying us and our Mother since the Industrial Age.
sierra
piqua's picture
The column is narrowly focused on the contexts of 'Canada' and the 'U.S.' because of my recent travels north of the artificially imposed international boundary line betwen those two 'states,' and my memorable visits with great people of the Anishnaabe Nation and of the Mohawk Nation. The column is wide open to expand the anaysis to sensibly include Mexico and, for that matter, the entire Western Hemisphere, as Rezzdog suggests. Not sure why Zakapu felt the need to strike out at my physical appearance which, so far as I know, I have no control over. The phrase "white looking" is ironic coming from someone who accuses all 'norteno indigenas' of being racists. As for my book, the focus is intentionally pretty narrowly focused on United States federal Indian law and policy. Zakapu's remarks do serve to highlight the fact that a huge portion of the territory now claimed by the United States was first claimed by Spain (and France), and then the Republic of Mexico. If you look at the sources for my book you will see a number of them that deal with the history of Mexico (Pagden, O'Gorman, Las Casas). Perhaps I could have done a better job of making that more explicit in the book. One last point, Zakapu carelessly writes of "when DeSoto took his wild tour of the lower USA." How could he take a "wild tour" of a region of a political entity (the USA) that did not yet exist? He was invading the traditional territories of various Original Nations. We are all on our respective learning curves as we work toward Healing and Decolonization.
piqua

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