On Historical Narratives and Dehumanization

Steven Newcomb

Historical accounts of the European treatment of American Indians are marked by the little noticed phenomenon of dehumanization. A case in point is the way Europeans have treated the original nations and peoples of the geographical region now called California.

In a remarkable book, Domesticate or Exterminate, published in 1975 by Chad L. Hoopes, the following quote from Helen Hunt Jackson appears:

The history of the Government’s connection with the Indians is a shameful record of broken treaties and unfulfilled promises. The history of the white man’s connection with the Indians is a sickening record of murder, outrage, robbery and wrongs; taught by the Government that they had rights entitled to be respect, when those rights have been assailed by the rapacity of the white man, the arm which should have been raised to protect the Indians has never been ready to sustain the aggressor.

All of Ms. Jackson’s adjectives point to acts of dehumanization and domination. As Hoopes wrote: “The federal and state governments faltered and succumbed to a selfish, popular opinion that refused to accept reservations stipulated in the eighteen treaties, reservations known to contain valuable mineral, timber, and agricultural lands for which the ‘savages’ had little use.”

Use of the term "savages" is an example of categorizing the original human beings of the geographical area known as California in a manner that regards them as less than human, and attempts to justify treating them as less than human. Historical narratives written from a European viewpoint are inherently dehumanizing, and privilege those who referred to themselves as fully human because they were historically “white” and “Christian.”

Such narratives tend to be written in terms of a collective white “we” (or “us”) to the exclusion of the humans categorized as “Indians,” who are conceived of as a collective non-white “them.” Such language is well-illustrated by the following quote found on page one of Hoopes book: “The policy of removal, except under peculiar circumstances, must necessarily be abandoned. And the only alternative left is to civilize or exterminate them. We must adopt one or the other.” (Emphasis added.)

There is something never noticed with regard to the above mentioned choice: “To civilize them,” means “to dominate them.” This is revealed in the dictionary definition of the word “civilization” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary): “The act of civilizing, esp. the forcing of a particular cultural pattern on a population to whom it is foreign.” (Emphasis added.) Forcing a cultural pattern on another population or people is a form of domination, especially when the cultural pattern forced on them is one of domination and dehumanization.

Instead of recognizing that Indian nations and peoples were perfectly entitled to live their own cultural way of life within their own traditional territories, unhindered and undisturbed, the whites viewed themselves as destined to overtake for their own benefit and enrichment the vast lands and resources of the Indians. In order to accomplish this, the whites were able to use their concepts and their categories to construct a reality to envelop and enclose the original nations and peoples and all that rightfully belonged to them based on their original free existence.

The concepts and categories of the whites became their means of conceptualizing themselves as now being “in rightful possession” of the lands and resources of the Indians. Dehumanizing the Indians was the most effecting means of constructing such a reality. Once the Indians were depicted in a dehumanizing manner, they were also effectively silenced because the views of those who are less than human do not have to be taken into account. As a people, they literally do not count. They are null and void.

Today, in 2012, we can look back at the history with a heightened awareness of the impact of domination and dehumanization on the original nations and peoples of California. Yet being able to recognize these phenomena in the historical record does not explain what we ought to do with this understanding.

We as the descendents of those who were dominated and dehumanized, and continue to be, ought to be able to utilize our new found insight as a means of dealing with the aftermath of the cruel domination and dispossession of our ancestors. Yet it is certain that we will never be able to do so if we obey the non-Indian admonition: “Forget about the past.”

My response to that tired refrain by the dominating society that has benefited so handsomely from the theft and exploitation of our traditional lands and territories is this: “Remember the past because the past is present.” By this I mean that domination and dehumanization have been institutionalized in law and policy in the United States and in the state of California, and continue to form the context that works to the detriment of Indian nations and peoples in the present.

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, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page




sierra's picture
Greetings Mr. Newcomb - and thank you for this. I enjoy responding to your columns becuz you're always writing & it's often stuff I can relate to. :) And no doubt - the past is the present; like Marty Two Bulls put it -"we as Native peoples are an ancient race caught up in a modern society, a world we have little or no control over, a world that puts our future in question. The answer to a lot of our questions lies in our past and is something that we left behind. The only real way to find it is to retrace our steps." I especially enjoy your educational efforts in deconstructing the English language, as like Alex Jacobs's winning poetry slam showed - so many labels and phrases about indigenous peoples are in layers upon layers of the English language that goes beyond mere misunderstanding and racism. I am reading the late John Mohawk's (Seneca) [u]Utopian Legacies: A History of Conquest and Oppression in the Western World.[/u] His assertions in the first few pages make it easy to understand what 'walking in two worlds' means. For example, he discusses how the ideals of western society are produced and reproduced, as if the future is never something that is; it is something that "progress" - gets certain members of society - to. He points out how values would be vastly different between say, the Amish and a Japanese industrialist, to list a straight forward example. And something more is where he wrote: "When the supernatural is expected to deliver the utopia, this trust or confidence is defined as faith, but that term is not inappropriate when applied to secular utopianism. The Christian's belief in the utopian Kingdom of God on earth is an article of faith, but so is the Marxist belief in the inevitable triumph of socialism." (2000:4). And his book is an invaluable reading/resource, as one that makes it much easier to turn the tables when it comes to that 'rote learning' that tends to produce and reproduce that racism/ethnocentrism that North Americans may have become accustomed to re: Native Americans. And the values analogy - the same applies to Reserve communities wherein grassroots people don't look to the past, but who continue to live in, and try to make sense of a society that has been attempting for generations to make us conform to their design. One which has small, remote communities especially, at the whim of state laws, funding and access to resources. This is why, as asserted by Iroquois spokesmen to the gentlemen of Virginia in 1744, and which was re-iterated in 1972, (by the predecessor to the AFN, the NIB) and again in 2010 by the Assembly of First Nations - First Nations Control of First Nations Education is our future - and our present. The late Ernest Benedict (Kanienkeha'ka from Akwesasne) - who helped create the Trent University Indigenous Studies program from an initial Travelling College - related his thinking during a three day interview surrounding the death of a young Ojibway boy, named Charlie Wenjack who ran away from residential school in the 1960s and died from it. Mr. Benedict's words (taken from [u]In The Words of Elders[/u]) .."now this was at the same time that I was wondering what could be done about the situation of that was exposed by the Charlie Wenjack story. Somebody has some conferences about it there amongst the neighborhood and we thought well let's do something. Why not revise the whole attitude of the education system. We are not anymore to be empty bags that need to be filled by the White man. Let's decide what it is we want to know and find out what that is..let's make the education system work for us, and not us for the education system." (1999:102). Nia:wen.
rainbow's picture
Greetings Steven Newcomb, Thank you for corresponding with me in the past. I enjoy reading your articles. I agree with your statement "...domination and dehumanization have been institutionalized in law and policy in the United States..." A MN country newspaper recently published a letter of mine on this topic. Set U.S. Indigenous Peoples Free Our "Founding Fathers'" act of establishing this nation of ours was fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus. The United States of American was established on a bigoted religious doctrine, the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, a doctrine that denied, and still denies, this land's indigenous peoples/tribes their fundamental human right to own land and to be complete independent sovereign nations. The Doctrine of Discovery was a series of fifteenth century papal doctrines that were used to create the international laws of Western Christendom. These laws were used to regulate and guild colonizing European Christian nations. After crossing the Atlantic ocean and setting foot on Guanahani island, Christopher Columbus, acting under the international laws of Western Christendom performed a ceremony to "take possession" of the indigenous people's island land for the Christian nation of Spain. Then, Columbus and his men, by an act of thievery, forcefully took possession of their land and enslaved them. The international laws of Western Christendom asserted that Christian nations had a right, based on the Bible, to claim absolute title to and ultimate authority over any newly "discovered" Non-Christian inhabitants and their lands. In the Inter Caetera papal doctrine, Pope Alexander stated his desire that the "discovered" people be "subjugated and brought to the faith itself." By this means, said the pope, the "Christian Empire" would be propagated. Because the World Council of Churches recently denounced the Doctrine of Discovery and declared it to be "fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus", more and more U.S. Christians are becoming aware that, both, Columbus' act of taking possession of indigenous people's land for Spain and the founding fathers' act of establishing the United States of America were "fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus". In 1823, the Doctrine of Discovery was adopted into U.S. law by the Supreme Court in the celebrated case, Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for a unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that European Christian nations had assumed "ultimate dominion" over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery and that upon white Christian "discovery" the red pagan Indian peoples had lost "their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations," and only retained a right of "occupancy" in their lands. Marshall also observed that upon the establishment of the United States of America, this nation acquired ownership of the indigenous peoples' lands (stolen lands) from Great Britain, and that it also acquired the right to subjugate and have "dominion" over this land's pagan indigenous peoples from this same Christian nation. This land's indigenous peoples are still being held hostage in their own homelands; it's time to set them free from our nation's Christian bigoted laws and oppression. Thomas Dahlheimer Wahkon, MN