‘Dependent’ Is Not a Political Identity

Steven Newcomb

In his recent column, “The Long Road to ‘Free and Independent’ for Indian Nations,” Steve Russell says, “My ICTMN colleagues are fond of ‘free and independent’ as a description of the once and future status of Indian nations.” The phrase that Russell did not use in his title or his comment about his ICTMN colleagues is “free and independent of domination,” which is the way I prefer to frame the issue our nations and peoples are facing.

In his column, Mr. Russell hangs his hat in on the word dependent and claims, “As long as we remain dependent in fact, discussions of sovereignty are for amusement only.” But the argument that I’m in the habit of making, that our nations are rightfully free and independent of U.S. patterns of domination, is in no way nullified by the observation that our nations, as a result of centuries of the domination we are seeking to end, have been, to a great extent, made economically dependent on the United States.

Judge Russell places himself in a peculiar role by appearing to counter the argument that our Indian nations and peoples are rightfully free and independent from U.S. patterns of domination. It makes him appear to be saying to Indian nations: “You might as well just accept U.S. patterns of domination over your lives because it has succeeded in making your nations dependent on the United States.” In other words, you are foreclosed from effectively fighting against such domination because of its deleterious effects.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court ruling Worcester v. Georgia (1832) clarifies that Indian nations being “dependent” on the United States has to do with a kind of relationship, and not a rightful political identity. In Worcester, Chief Justice Marshall, writing for a majority of the Supreme Court, called the Indian nations “the neighboring nations,” and said of them:

Not well acquainted with the exact meaning of words, nor supposing it to be material whether they were called the subjects, or the children of their father in Europe; lavish in professions of duty and affection, in return for the rich presents they received; so long as their actual independence was untouched, and their right to self government acknowledged, they were willing to profess dependence on the power which furnished supplies of which they were in absolute need, and restrained dangerous intruders from entering their country: and this was probably the sense in which the term was understood by them.

The Court said our ancestors were not particularly interested in the exact meaning of words such as “dependence” in the colonizers language, so long as our ancestors’ “actual independence was untouched.” Furthermore, the Court said that the probable understanding of the word “dependence” by our independent Indian nations was, “dependence on that power that would be able to ‘furnish supplies’ and ‘restrain dangerous intruders from their country.'” The Court in Worcester expressed additional language acknowledging the correctness and accuracy of the term “nations” with reference to our political identity:

The very term "nation," so generally applied to them, means "a people distinct from others." The constitution, by declaring treaties already made, as well as those to be made, to be the supreme law of the land, has adopted and sanctioned the previous treaties with the Indian nations, and consequently admits their rank among those powers who are capable of making treaties. The words "treaty" and "nation" are words of our own language, selected in our diplomatic and legislative proceedings, by ourselves, having each a definite and well understood meaning. We have applied them to Indians, as we have applied them to the other nations of the earth. They are applied to all in the same sense.

With regard to our Delaware (Lenape) Nation’s 1778 treaty with the United States, Chief Justice Marshall said in Worcester: “This treaty, in its language, and in its provisions, is formed, as near as may be, on the model of treaties between the crowned heads of Europe.” Our generation of writers and thinkers ought to be powerfully invoking the Supreme Court’s explicit acknowledgment of our political identity as originally free “nations of the earth.” But “free” from what? We are still rightfully free and independent of the metaphorically constructed and religiously premised framework of Christian Discovery and Domination.

In Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), the U.S. Supreme Court used the phrase “domestic dependent nations” to characterize the relations between Indian nations and the United States. Additionally, the Court said part of the context for that phrase was the United States’ habit of asserting “a title” to Indian lands “independent of their [the Indians’] will.” The assertion of a U.S. title to Indian lands was clearly articulated by the Court’s 1823 ruling Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh, which means that the phrase “domestic dependent nations” in Cherokee Nation is correctly understood within the context of the Johnson v. M’Intosh.

More than a century later, in Alcea Band of Tllamooks v. United States (1946), Justice Stanley Reed said in a dissenting opinion that Johnson v. M’Intosh had expressed the theory “that discovery by Christian nations gave them sovereignty over and title to the lands discovered.” It was on the basis of that claimed “right” of Christian sovereignty and title that Chief Justice Marshall said of the Indian nations in Johnson: “Their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished, by the original fundamental principle that discovery gave title to those who made it [the discovery].” This, then, was the first claim by the Supreme Court that the political identity of Indian nations had been diminished by “the right of discovery,” which pinpoints a key to the U.S. system of domination used to this day against our nations and peoples.

A documented expression of the “right of discovery,” said the Court, was the charter that King Henry VII issued to John Cabot and his sons in 1496. What the Supreme Court termed the “right of discovery” in Johnson was premised on what James A. Williamson explained was behind the Cabot charter, namely, “the law of Christendom that all Christians were in a state of war with all non-Christians.”

All these elements, when combined together, enable us to discern the Christian religious backdrop to the Supreme Court’s statement that the United States asserts “a title” to Indian lands “independent of their [the Indians’] will.” Granted the United States has gotten away with using its metaphorically constructed system of domination to make our nations “dependent” on the United States. But to say us discussing our right to be free from that imposed domination system is “for amusement only,” so long as that dominating system continues to make our nations dependent on the United States, seems strange indeed.

That is one bizarre sense of “amusement.”

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008).


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swrussel's picture
You just won't take "yes" for an answer, will you? There's nothing in this column I disagree with, or that conflicts with anything in the column you purport to criticize, save "amusement," defined at the top of my column as like unto a religious discussion among people who believe "the spirit world takes care of its own business." Amusement in the sense of a discussion of no immediate practical import. Nothing bizarre about it but no reason not to participate. We're both in the word business and I'd be the last to claim we ought not to play now and again. However, if you disagree with the made-up legal status of Indian nations, as we both do, and if the literature supports the fact of it being made up, which it does, that's pretty much a dead end in terms of practicality. Amusing, and useful to those who have not reached the conclusion that federal Indian control law is a house of cards. I assume on this forum that those who have not reached that conclusion are few. If imposed dependency is the fact of the matter, it seems to me safe to say it's not going away by itself and, except for playing the hypocrisy card, it matters not whether the made up law was made up from the thoughts of militant Christians or militant space aliens. "Dependent" is not opinion but arithmetic. We both agree it's a fact and that the colonists did it on purpose. It's in your column above and it's in my column that you purport to criticize. Change the arithmetic and you can change the terms of discourse in our favor. That's the step upward from the flat, level ground on which we both stand in essential agreement. I have a really old column that dealt with the economic end of that and my latest column deals with the political end. Both should be filed under "what we do about it" rather than "what it is." I may be wrong about what should be done and I expect many folks will tell me I'm wrong, that we can't just step outside the colonial law. I'm more certain I'm correct when I say it's not useful to make up a conflict where none exists.
azpark's picture
Mr. Newcomb You like so many others seem to be hung up with the semantics of the 19th Century. At least Steve Russell is looking forward in the 21st Century. As he said if you want to maintain your heritage then use it or lose it but don't whine.
hesutu's picture
This is a good article. I am glad Mr. Newcomb wrote it and glad Mr. Russel wrote a response because it cleared some things up. I had read Mr. Russel's statement about amusement the same way when I saw that article. It came across as patronizing and the gist of the article, to me, seemed to be leaning towards accepting the way things are, just as Mr. Newcomb read it. I am greatly relived to see that this was a miscommunication and that Mr. Russel did not intend any of this, and that he is in agreement with Mr. Newcomb's words above. So this article has cleared these things up and thus it is a good article. Aho!
piqua's picture
Greetings Steve: This column is an effort to clarify the way that I see the issue about the rightful political identity of Indian nations, while criticizing the U.S. assigned or imposed non-Indian "legal" identity of Indian nations. Part of the problem, as I see it, is that you are sometimes less clear than you realize. For example, you correctly say in your post that we both disagree "with the made-up legal status of Indian nations," and that "the literature supports the fact of it [that legal status] being made up." And this leads you to the conclusion: "that's pretty much a dead end in terms of practicality." I have no idea what that means. "Practicality" about what? Also, you say in your post: "Change the arithmetic and you can change the terms of the discourse in your favor." Again, I have no idea what that means. In my view, changing the terms of the discourse in your favor (debate) is what changes the terms of the discourse in your favor. If by "arithmetic" you mean economic might or strength, simply having more money to work with does not and will not change the terms of the discussion. What I disagree with in your column is the view, if I understand it correctly, that any discussion we might have about "sovereignty" is "for amusement only" until we adequately "change the arithmetic" of Indian nation economies so that we are not financially "dependent" on the United States. You probably noticed that I reframed your use of the word sovereignty to "our right to be free from that imposed domination system." We shouldn't have to change the arithmetic or anything else to have that discussion, and the specific way in which I use my language, in terms of domination and dehumanization, is not something I've ever seen you write about. Perhaps you have,and I just don't recall it. How we frame the discussion is crucial to our assessment of the nature of the problem(s) we are dealing with. What you refer to as "the arithmetic" is a direct outgrowth and consequence, in my view, of the domination-dehumanization system that the dominating non-Indian society has constructed in an effort to keep us as the original nations and peoples of the continent "down." The effectiveness of that semantic system is precisely why Justice Scalia can feel perfectly at ease saying to Congressman Tom Cole of the Chickasaw Nation, "Don't forget you belong to a conquered race."
wanbli's picture
Steve, great insight into the truth of the genocide taken place. Keep up the Good Fight of Faith!!!! To all authentic traditional first nations peoples and the Ochiti Sakowin Tetuwan Oyate that I' am appointed spokesman, waste lo kola, keep counting coup! And surussel, you don't know shit about first nations and the rest of the unrested. Nothing changes for the oppress of our people, to go ahead, live a lie, and die in that lie, that belong to a bunch of ungrateful, dehumanizing race of people, the White European America Race. America is not wealth and prosperous because God has blessed it, it wealth and a the supreme greedy, evil, lying, destructive, power of brutalities and human rights crime of genocide and has become the most violent empire of earth and the entire human existence, only because it has for centuries have exploited the poor and sovereign covenant first nation's peoples and tribal governments, lands and resources, ordained by God! Hoka Hey, my Brother Steve! Good One of many!
azpark's picture
Mr. Newcomb You state " We shouldn't have to change the arithmetic or anything else to have that discussion .." That approach hasn't worked very well for the past 3 centuries. And until you stop acting like dependent nations it is going to be very difficult to change the dialog. I am in the process of reading the Indian Trust Commission Report recently published and sadly they seem to be listening to you rather than Mr. Russell. Read more at https://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/12/19/dependent-not-political-identity?destination=node/152783
piqua's picture
Greetings AzPark: Gee that's great news about the Report from the Commission for Trust Reform. I'll look forwarding to reading the Commission's support of my call to overturn the doctrine of Christian discovery, domination, and dehumanization. It will be good to read about the Commission calling for a repudiating Chief Justice Rehnquist's use of the Johnson v M'Intosh ruling to claim that Indian rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations [are] necessarily diminished," and the Supreme Court's use of that reasoning to say that Indian nations may not prosecute non-Indians for crimes committed on Indian reservations. Thank goodness the Trust Commission is calling for that premise in federal Indian law and policy to be dismantled and disestablished. It will be exhilarating to see the Commission finally acknowledging that our nations are rightfully free and independent of the U.S.'s claim of plenary power over Indian nations. I do have my doubts though that their report expresses any such ideas... We ought to be like hoop dancers and be able to deal with more than one "hoop" (task) at a time; in other words, folks can work toward ending Indian nation economic "dependency" while at the same time reminding everyone of our inherent right to live free of the U.S.'s domination system. And, we ought to be able to have a dialog about the surreal nature of the domination-dehumanization system that has been and continues to be used against us. As a matter of fact, that's what we are doing in this forum. Thanks for contributing to the discussion.
swrussel's picture
Props to my colleague Mr. Newcomb for this word to describe much of what goes on in federal Indian control law: "surreal." I'm wondering if there's anybody on this forum who cares to disagree with that description and say why? If not, it seems to me we are all pulling the wagon in the same general direction and a disagreement about priorities does not justify kicking the shins of the guy in the next harness. It's a hard pull. I also like the hoop dance analogy to the dominant culture's "walk and chew gum at the same time."