Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s column, “Moving from Sovereignty to Autonomy,” is troubling on a number of levels. She advocates that we use the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to achieve “autonomy” within the context of what she terms the “multinational state.” Unfortunately, her article lacks semantic depth and critical analysis, and serves to undermine the foundation of the movement by our Original Nations and Peoples of Great Turtle Island to liberate ourselves from established patterns of domination on the basis of true self-determination.
One problem is Gilio-Whitaker’s uncritical usage of the English language. That, along with failure to address the linguistic patterns of domination and subordination endemic to U.S. federal Indian law and policy, and international law, prevent readers from understanding the stakes and the importance of current international debates about the rights of peoples termed “indigenous.”
Current international working definitions reveal that “indigenous” in that context means “dominated peoples” and “peoples under dominance.” One definition, for example, says that “Indigenous populations are composed of existing descendants of the peoples who inhabited the territory or a country.” Then, “persons of a different culture or ethnic origin arrived from other parts of the world,” “overcame” the peoples living already there, “and, by conquest, settlement or other means, reduced them [those peoples] to a non-dominant or colonial situation.” In other words, the original peoples are considered to have been “reduced” to a predicament of domination. In her article, Gilio-Whitaker fails to make this background explicit.
Another international definition treats the words “indigenous” and “aboriginal” as synonymous. (See UN Centre for Human Rights, “The Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” 1990). The term “aboriginal” traces to “aborigine,” which, according to Webster’s unabridged dictionary, means “an indigenous inhabitant [a single person] of a country: one of the native people as distinguished from an invading or colonizing people.” Thus, peoples termed “Indigenous” or “aboriginal” are contrasted with present day dominating or domination-societies, typically called “states,” which are descended from the invading and colonizing peoples of Western Christendom.
Gilio-Whitaker’s column does not grasp a key point: We have to explicitly focus on the above framework of domination, and specifically use the word “domination,” in order to become conscious of the ‘state of domination’ that has been forced on those nations and peoples the UN now calls “Indigenous.” Importantly, Gilio-Whitaker does not mention the history of colonial domination in her article. Her omission is not unique. In the strange unspoken code in the English language and international political discourse, “’domination’ is the name that shall not be spoken.”
It is within the above noted context of domination that Gilio-Whitaker’s use of the term “autonomy” is accurately understood. In the classic Greek sense, autonomy means “the quality of state of being independent, free, and self-directing,” which is a powerful meaning for purposes of liberation. However, another meaning is, “the degree of self-determination or political control possessed by a minority group, territorial division, or political unit in its relation to the state or political community of which it forms a part.” (emphasis added)
The latter concept of “autonomy” is meaningful “in relation to” and “inside” the context of “the state.” It envisions “indigenous” units of “autonomy,” or “minority groups of autonomy,” considered to form “a part of the state,” which is a system of domination. In this sense, then, autonomy is considered to be a form of political assimilation whereby originally free nations and peoples which are now considered to be existing under, and subject to the authority of, some state dominance. They are deemed to have been made a part of, or politically incorporated into the body politic of “the state.” This version of “autonomy” is completely consistent with the racist and Christian-premised pronouncements of the US Supreme Court in the areas of “domestic dependency,” “and “plenary power. ”
Many people outside of California are not aware that in the fourth grade, the curriculum includes studying the California Mission System. Little fourth-graders run to the nearest arts and crafts store (Michael’s sells them in particular), to buy a styrofoam mission kit, that the student puts together and presents to the class. The project is designed to teach about California history, quickly and inaccurately, educate about California Native Nations, and the relationship they had with the missions. However, according to Alvin M. Josephy in his book 500 Nations, the history of the California tribes "was as close to genocide as any tribal people had faced, or would face, on the North American continent."
In public schools, history books might skim over the fact that "Indians" were forced into labor. Rarely do they go into further detail as to how the Missions rivaled even the most horrific of concentration camps of fascist Germany. Professor of American Studies, David Stannard, states in his book American Holocaust that Franciscan missions in California were known to be like "furnaces of death." Had the Padres been able to build a gas chamber, who is to say if they wouldn’t have gassed Natives that refused to meet building quotas, and those who revolted against the Padres, the Spanish military and the Colonizers?
A Franciscan missionary named Father Junipero Serra led a Spanish army up from Mexico and reached present-day San Diego to build the first mission in 1769. It was Serra who built the first of 21 missions that eventually stretched from the southern tip of the Baja California to Sonoma, just north of San Francisco. Missions, often built near presidios (military outposts), helped the surrounding pueblos to steal and develop pristine land. Slave labor would then in turn exploit and export natural resources.
Spanish soldiers kidnapped Indians by the thousands. They were given Spanish names, dressed in blue uniforms, forced into slavery to build the missions and to work in the surrounding farms or pueblos, in which the church was generously compensated. They also were forced to care for livestock, tanned hides, and produced candles, bricks, tiles, shoes, saddles, soap and other necessities.
Many Native families have kept record of what life was like living in the missions by way of oral history. The missions imprisoned Natives in cramped quarters, with poor ventilation and bad sanitation, which encouraged the spread of disease. Native Peoples were fed "gruel" and not allowed to hunt fish or gather their traditional foods. The People were not allowed to speak their own language, sing, pray or practice ceremonies, nor were they able to keep their families intact. Children were separated from parents and housed in different quarters. It was common for women and children to be raped and kept as sex slaves. In her 2010 essay, “Rape is the Weapon, Story is the Cure,” Professor Deborah Miranda (Ohlone Costanoan Esselen Nation), argues “that California Indian women still have not healed from the tragedy of Missionization, colonization, and the violence it inflicted on our bodies."
Professor Joshua Jeffers, a History Ph.D. candidate and instructor at Purdue University, authored an important study of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, published in the Maryland Historical Magazine (Spring 2013). Jeffers began his scholarly review with a discussion of the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Johnson v. M'Intosh, which made the Doctrine "the fundamental legal principle on which United States land title was based…with devastating consequences for Native Americans."
After a thorough analysis of the trajectory of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery from its origins in 15th century papal decrees, Jeffers explores the ways in which this once-obscure religious-legal doctrine has emerged into open discussion in our time. He describes the current situation as "increasing ferment over this issue." Readers of Indian Country Today are witnesses to this ferment, as columnists and news articles report the growing movement to focus United Nations attention on Christian Discovery as a colonial and imperial doctrine.
In a provocative conclusion, Jeffers suggests that Native Peoples' 21st century challenge to the doctrine are as significant as the 16th century debates that examined theological and legal underpinnings of Spanish colonialism. He points out that the current reexamination of Johnson v. McIntosh, calling into question its legitimacy as a precedent, also echoes arguments among 17th century British land speculators and 18th and 19th century American legal theorists.
Jeffers's conclusion about the historical significance of the present moment seems amply supported by the facts. As he notes, "in the past two decades more than 750 articles and several books, from scholars as varied as political scientists, legal theorists, and colonial historians, have critically evaluated the Johnson ruling."
Not only has there been an explosion of scholarship and commentary, the critique has broken out of the academic arena and into the regular press and the international political arena.
The 11th session (2012) of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues examined the Doctrine of Christian Discovery as a "special theme." The session involved a panel of international experts, preparation of a conference paper, and statements from indigenous peoples around the globe. The Report of the session recommended that a formal study be undertaken on behalf of the Permanent Forum itself.
The study recommended by the special session was prepared by Mr. Edward John, a member of the Forum, and is now in final editing stage. It will be presented at the 13th session of the Forum, scheduled for 12-23 May 2014. Mr. John investigates not only the "impacts" of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, but also "mechanisms, processes and instruments of redress."
The Study will indeed reach the level of historical significance suggested by Prof. Jeffers: it portends a worldwide examination of the notion of Christian Discovery, with implications for law, politics, and economics, as well as for the proper place of religion in the activities of government. The question is whether the discussion will focus on "redress" as the verb meaning "put on new clothes," or "redress" as the noun and verb meaning "put back into a stable, upright position."
For starters, it is significant to refer to the doctrine by its full and proper name—Doctrine of Christian Discovery—and not by the common phrase used by most writers, even those who are critical—Doctrine of Discovery. This emphasizes that the doctrine is rooted in religion. It is not a secular rule, but a rule of religious discrimination.
We owe it to Steven Newcomb for laying the scholarly groundwork demonstrating the historical and documentary record of "discovery" as a religious doctrine. It was Newcomb who hammered on "Christian Discovery," at a time when most writers were simply referring to "European Discovery."
The historical record that "European Discovery" is "Christian Discovery" is clear all the way back to the initial colonial intrusion, when Christopher Columbus planted the Spanish flag in the "New World" in 1492.
In the 1493 Bull "Inter Caetera," Pope Alexander VI praised "our beloved son, Christopher Columbus"; and, for the Spanish Crown that financed Columbus, the Pope did "give, grant, and assign to you and your heirs and successors, kings of Castile and Leon, forever, …all rights, jurisdictions, and appurtenances, all islands and mainlands found and to be found, discovered and to be discovered." The only limit to the Pope's grant was if the lands were already "in the actual possession of any Christian king or prince." Columbus' name bears witness to the doctrine: As the Oxford English Dictionary states, "Christopher" means "Christ-bearing."
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