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

Steven T. Newcomb

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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zakapu's picture
I have done a little research on Mr. Newcomb and have not yet found any anti-Mexican sentiment in things he has written. Indeed, he has argued that the USA is quite hypocritical in its stance for casting out "illegals". However, my point, a point which is known on many reservations, that their is a tense and sometimes unfair dynamic between full bloods and the mixed breed individuals and families that usually occupy positions of power. It is only recently where the tables have been turned where the darker skinned 3/4 and 4/4 families have risen to prominence, resulting in reverse discrimination. My point is that this tension exists between nations where Indigenous people exist and is based on that nations stereotypical attitudes towards the other, rather than on a unique and sole Indigenous mindset and viewpoint. Its unfortunated mexicans are left out of these discussion. Regarind South America, yes, genetics tells us we (all)indigenous of the west came from 6 mitochondrial mothers and 3 Y-chromosomal fathers. However, Mexico has direct trade and spiritual connections to what is now called the USA to the north and to the northern parts of South America (corn migration) to the south. But South America has little history of communication of what is now the USA except for some rare archaeological finds that may connect the Andes with the US Northwest and Venezuela with North Carolina and Florida.
jimdelduca's picture
It should be pointed out that everyone in the working class is dominated by the international capitalist bosses. That means that the oppression and lack of personal and community extends everywhere the the capitalist system is in power. For this reason I think that those who seek Native rights and sovereignty must be allied with the anti-capitalist workers movement. Without freedom for everyone it is extremely unlikely that Native people will achieve what the other members of the 99% do not have. Traditional Turtle Island culture is the exact opposite of capitalism. They can never happily coexist.
robertrose's picture
Great Turtle Island Respectfully, I think he means that [CANADA, UNITED STATES, MEXICO, CENTRAL & SOUTH AMERICA] are all within the legal/lawful jurisdictional limits of the original sovereign indigenous nations of the Great Turtle Island. But this is old news, most of us already know this. Actually when you look at our creation stories, we are all on the Great Turtle Island, and over time the Turtle shell/land masses have shifted-split and are now spread out throughout the world,....and this is one way to look at how we are all related, and can learn from our elders about the many stories of creation and then be able to pass these oral traditions down to our children so that they will share them with their children and so on how we are all connected to one another. And we do have the right to free ourselves from the oppressors, it is in the [INDIAN CITIZENSHIP ACT] where if in any manner we are deprived of our rights to tribal , or other property, then we do not have to be [U.S.CITIZENS], and here is where we can rescind the number that was attached to our name at birth without our consent, and we have done this and reclaimed our inheritance to the country of our national origin. You can do this as well, you do have that right and option. And by the "Two Row"the supreme law of the Great Turtle Island we can acknowledge our friends-and-allies and live side-by-side with them in peace. Nvwatohiyadv Peace To All Our Relations www.unitednationsofturtleisland.com e-mail: admin@unitednationsofturtleisland.com
Anonymous's picture
Yes but the Empire of Genghis was a Shamanic (Indigenous) Empire and the largest the world has ever seen. Indigenous peoples constitute 123 million of the world's inhabitants and you can find International law and trade everywhere. But the beginnings of free trade were with the Mongols and Genghis. Kublai also had the most religiously tolerant regime in the world when he built the Imperial City in China.