A Is for Aardvark: A Is for Aborigine

Steven Newcomb

When I began attending the University of Oregon, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley, a book based on Haley’s interviews of Malcolm. One part of the book I found compelling was Malcolm’s time in prison. At that point he was barely literate. Eventually, he obtained a dictionary and over a period of time he rewrote every word of the entire dictionary, from A to Z, onto paper tablets. He could still remember the first entry in the dictionary; it was the word aardvark, a medium-size nocturnal mammal native to Africa.

Ever since I read Malcolm X’s story, I have spent countless hours reading dictionaries. By doing so, I am constantly finding new features of the English language I had not previously noticed. Dictionaries enable us to delve deeply into the meaning of key words. Take the word civilization for example. One definition is “the act of civilizing; esp the forcing of a particular cultural pattern on a population to whom it is foreign.” The word forcing lets us know that this is just another word for the domination of the said "population."

Or, take the word aborigine. It is defined as “one of the native people especially as contrasted with an invading or colonizing people.” Thus, the latecomer society’s domination by invading and colonizing is as the background context for the word aborigine. Aboriginal is the adjective formed from aborigine. Thus, in keeping with the definition of aborigine, aboriginal title is that form of title as distinguished from the title claimed by an invading or colonizing (dominating) people.

In U.S. federal Indian law, the title of those original nations and peoples on the receiving end of the invading and colonizing is defined as an "aboriginal" title of “mere occupancy.” The word “mere” means "only." Thus, from the point of view of the dominating society, "aboriginal title" of "the aborigines" is only a title of "temporary occupancy" as distinguished from the title of "the Dominator" ("the Sovereign").

In short, the invading or colonizing people impose a concept of title on the original nations and peoples labeled as "aborigines" (or "aboriginal"). The invading or colonizing people make certain that the concept of "aboriginal title" they impose on the original nations and peoples is a title that is incapable of interfering with successful and profitable domination by the dominator society. The aborigines get to keep living, albeit on a temporary occupancy basis, on the lands where they have been accustomed to living, and they are able to go on living there, until "the Dominator" (i.e., "the Sovereign") succeeds in obtaining the land from them.

This way of thinking was expressed as follows in a 1954 U.S. government legal brief in the case Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States: “This Indian right of occupancy, also known as ‘original Indian title,’ is not a right in the soil itself, but is merely a usufructuary right, i.e., the right of using and enjoying the profits of a thing belonging to another…” (emphasis added). In U.S. federal Indian law, as a result of the doctrine of discovery and domination, all Indian lands claimed by the U.S. in North America are considered to belong to the United States as "the Sovereign" dominator. (However, it is inaccurate to say that the Tee-Hit-Ton Indians got to "enjoy" the profits of a thing belonging to another, since the profits from the Tee-Hit-Ton timber taken from them went to the Ketchikan Pulp and Paper Company).

Given the framework of Domination embedded in U.S. federal Indian law, particularly in the “aboriginal title” of “occupancy,” several questions arise: What are the most effective arguments we as Indian people are able to develop to refute or challenge the notions of domination found in federal Indian law and policy? How much time are we as Indian people and our non-Indian allies working to develop such arguments? Clearly, continuing to use the dominating language of U.S. Supreme Court rulings as our best means of refuting the dominating language found in U.S. Supreme Court rulings is a self-defeating strategy.

One such approach is to stop treating ideas that are clearly nonsensical as if they make sense. For example, we need to say that Christian European claims to a right of discovery and domination failed to diminish Indian rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations, as the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling claims. We need to continual say that ancient assertions of a Christian right of discovery and domination of non-Christian lands are not a legitimate basis for the United States to claim an ultimate dominating authority over our originally free Indian nations and peoples.

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 (2008), and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

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briangwinn's picture
Aboriginie comes to us from the Welsh, who call themselves Cymry, or Family. In Cymraeg; ab means son or sons and originau means originals or first peoples. It was a word they used for themselves. The Angles and Saxons called them Wealas, or Wallace. Which is either Angle or Saxon and means foreigner, or foreigners. Wales and Welsh come from Wealas. And the Cymraeg use the name without stigma. Much in the way some Dineh don't mind being called Navajo and/or Apache, even though those are not Dineh words. When immigrants in Cymraeg land called the Cymry; Wealas---or foreigners in their own land---the Cymraeg called themselves aboriginau, because they were "The Sons of the Originals or First People". It had nothing to do with being dominated or subjugated, as the Cymraeg were still a free people, at the time. It was a title of pride and defiance.
piqua's picture
To Brian Gwinn: Thanks for your insightful comment. Context and purpose are key in understanding terminology. Meaning is a result of our mental interaction with the social and physical world. As you have kindly pointed out, in the Welsh context, and for a particular purpose, you have provided a particularly useful understanding of the term 'aboriginie'("In Cymraeg; ab means son or sons and originau means originals or first peoples. It was a word they used for themselves). Every original nation or people has a name for themselves, and relates to family and the people. In the context of the manipulative non-Indian ideas called 'federal Indian law,' however, it is important to look closely at the meaning that the opposition has given to the term 'aborigine' because it gives insight into the background framework that is out of focus and not easily noticed. This is why I called attention to that part of the dictionary meaning "as distinguished from an invading or colonizing population." It points to the domination framework that enables us to understand at a deeper level what is behind the definition of 'aboriginal title' as a 'mere temporary occupancy' as the U.S. Supreme Court has stated, and as distinguished from the title of 'the sovereign' ('dominorum' in Latin, or 'dominator'). This also responds to Wovokanarchy's question: How is understanding Latin, which most legalese is, going to provide a ”solution”to our problems? It isn't necessarily going to "provide" a 'solution to our problems' but it is going to enable us to better diagnose the nature and root of those problems that we are facing, and enable us to see what keeps perpetuating those same problems from one generation to the next. It's sort of akin to asking 'what's the point of better understanding the English language?' Unless we shift the way we use our language, our reality cannot shift. And, as one Cree elder told me, you can speak your language fluently and still be colonized in your thinking. Decolonizing our minds is an ongoing process. Some 60% of English is Latin based, and it makes sense to deeply understand the language we use, whether it be English or original Indigenous languages. The entire point of research as I understand it is to increase knowledge and deepen understanding.
sandinista's picture
Mr. Newcomb: I have neither critique nor additional opinion on your article. I'm only writing to commend you on it, as not many people (scholars included) find languages. idioms and single words as vital, fundamental and revealing for the Wisdom/Truth seeker. I look forward to your next piece. Thank you.
piqua's picture
Thank you Sandinista. I appreciate it.
maunka's picture
Ha-ho! Good one Steven. I think your suggestions will work great for any Native nation planning on reforming their tribe's constitutions. I could see inserting the suggested tribal constitutional language into our governing documents, such as "...we need to say that Christian European claims to a right of discovery and domination failed to diminish Indian rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations,...[and]...We need to continual say that ancient assertions of a Christian right of discovery and domination of non-Christian lands are not a legitimate basis for the United States to claim an ultimate dominating authority over our originally free Indian nations and peoples." Do you have any other suggested language that would flip the equation, so to speak and further the effort of empower Native nations through tribal constitutional reform and tribal law enactment? If you get a chance, I would recommend watching the documentary "South of the Border." Produced in 2009, it is refreshing to see the originally and free peoples of South "America" reform their constitutions to take back their freedom.
beaver's picture
Amen to whatever you said! When I was tribal chair and lived on the rez, I always urged all youngsters to pursue a career in Indian law. Even today I think the 3-step solution to all our problems is: 1) Change our thinking. Think like our ancestors. 2) Buy up land. Buy as much land as possible. 3) Choose careers in Indian law.
softbreeze's picture
I completely agree that the doctrine of christian discovery is irrational and illegitimate grounds for the loss of native sovereignity. People do need to be made aware that this is illogical and severely lacks critical thinking. However, I think the obstacles in the way of unity and equality between native americans and mainstream americans go beyond this particular issue. Most mainstream american don't even know what the doctrine of christian discovery is. I think the main barrier that needs to be overcome is the absolute and total lack of understanding and awareness that mainstream americans have about native americans. I CANNOT STRESS THIS POINT ENOUGH. I don't think there's any way to accurately describe to you just how clueless the average american is about native americans. And I don't mean this in a derogatory way towards them, it just really is how it is. I think one of the most productive things that can be done is alot of Public Service Announcements to the general public about Native Americans, traditional native teachings and values, current urban indian lifestyles, and native political perspectives. I know this is an unpleasant analogy, but native americans are like the shut-ins of american society. Most think that native americans are a bunch of wife-beating, lazy drunks, that there aren't any more REAL indians, that the culture died out a hundred years ago, and all sacred items belong in museums in order to preserve "history". I also think part of the problem is that some mainstream americans don't WANT to see. I've gotten to know a few who are willing to learn and are open minded, and appreciate the opportunity to expand their horizons, and I greatly enjoy my friendships with these people. But, unfortunately, alot more people just don't want to think about it. They WANT to believe that because they have a technologically and militarily superior culture, that EVERYTHING about them and their society is superior. It's a level of arrogance that is difficult to abide, for sure. But, I think the more that can be done to get the word out in mainstream society about native people and native culture, the more progress will eventually be made in equal and fair treatment toward the native nations of Turtle Island.
piqua's picture
Greetings Maunka, First of all I recommend that we dispense with use of the terms "tribe" and "tribal" as being politically ineffectual. I recently found a little book "Sovereignty: Power Beyond Politics," (1988), by L. L. Blake, "of the Middle Temple and Gray's Inn Barrister." He has this to say on p. 16: " 'nature' and 'nation' spring from the same root, to do with birth or manifestation in creation. While man's nature, as its highest, may be said to partake of his creator--happiness, being, knowledge--nations are groups of people with a common origin and a common will to pursue happiness, being, knowledge in a particular way, through their own laws, languages, and religions." (emphasis mine) Secondly, it makes sense to begin speaking in terms of the traditional territories of our nations rather than simply in terms of 'reservations.' When someone asks me where I currently live, I say: "I live in the Kumeyaay territory, which is commonly called 'San Diego'." In other words, I acknowledge the territory of the original nation and people first, which is a basic respect. No matter where we go in North America we are on the traditional territory of some nation or people. The thousands of years of our ancestors' experiences did not simply disappear because our territories have been invasively overun at this time. But speaking in a decolonizing and liberating manner is at first clumsy and takes extra effort. It requires the discipline of engaging in that effort. The constitution of every Indian nation ought to begin by acknowledging the boundaries of the traditional territory of the nation, and there ought to be a map on the cover sheet with a watermark of the traditional territory. Take care.
piqua's picture
Greeting Beaver: Whenever someone calls federal Indian law "Indian law," I say, "Yeah, what Indian made it?" It is and always will be non-Indian law, and we are probably giving it too much credit by calling it 'law.' Let me give you an example of nonsensical ideas being called "law" or "the supreme law of the land." In the case Shoshone Indians v. United States, Justice Hugo Black (from Alabama and at one time a member of the KKK)stated: "...Ownership meant no more to them [the Shoshone] than to roam the land as a great common, and possess and enjoy it in the same way that they possessed and enjoyed sunlight and the west wind and the feel of spring in the air. Aquisitiveness, which develops a law of real property, is an accomplishment of the 'civilized'." Now, since "acquisitiveness" is "an intense desire to obtain or possess something" one does not already possess, and since it was impossible for Indian nations and peoples to have an intense desire to obtain that lands they already possessed as a traditional territory, then it was on the basis of an impossibility that Justic Black, for the Court, framed the Shoshone as being disqualified from a true 'ownership' of their lands. According to the non-Indian Supreme Court's reasoning, a legal ownership was only attributable to those Christian Europeans who arrived to North America with a burning desire to acquire and take the lands of the Original Nations and Peoples, or attributable to the successor of those first Christian Europeans, such as the United States. Whenever I hear people saying "the law," I remind them that it makes sense to add the letters "ir" to the word "the," thereby acknowledging that its "their" law. Later.
maunka's picture
Ha-ho! Piqua and Beaver: Agreed. Federal Indian Law in my mind is their church law, as propogated by Chief justice Marshall and the Papacy underpinnings. Certainly, the proper naming and words are important, and as Beaver pointed out, it begins with a paradigm shift within our own people too. I can certainly, envision within my lifetime a new "Hochunk Nicos Nation" Constitution that includes defining our original ancestral territories and finally protecting the encroachment on our land, resources, people, culture, etc. Just last night in my Contemporary Native Issues course, I shared with my students these fforts by Indigenous peoples all over. In particular, shared an September, 2011 article from Indian Country Today, which was revealed through Wikileaks, the Bolivian people rewriting and ratifying a new constitution and inserting very select UNDRIP language in an attempt to counter the ill effects of the Christain Doctrine of Discovery. I really don't think many of our Turtle Island peoples know that Indigenous peoples or our relatives to the south are reclaiming their nationhood and freedoms by just defining themselves in their new constitutions and not allowing someone else too. Moreover, it was also interesting to read the U.S. Embassy cables to the U.S. state department, expressing concern on how Bolivia's new constitution will change the courts interpretation of land ownership, rights, and freedoms for the indigenous people there. In other words, how the undoing of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery tenants are replaced with Indigenous self-determined values of property, land ownership, etc. So, why are we not doing the same thing?