Understanding the roots of oppression
Behold in these pages this week an interesting and perhaps uniquely Indian
discussion: perspectives on the roots of the American conquest mythology -
seeking to understand the origins of the particular American belief that
continues to justify the destruction of Native cultures and the taking of
Native peoples' assets, particularly lands and political rights to
independent cultural and economic self-governance.
This might be heresy to the "true believers" in America, but among Indian
thinkers these days, as has been the case for many generations, the
question of what drives the voracious American appetite to own the Indian
world has always been an honorable one. As Indian cultures have their own
creation stories and subsequent cultural and legal histories, so the
fundamental culture of the American mainstream requires study and
understanding. Every new Indian generation, believe it, will examine these
questions in the ongoing search for understanding of the justifications for
the theft of their lands, resources, freedoms and even identities, and in
their continued quest for actual justice. The perspective of Oglala Chief
Red Cloud, who said in the 1890s, "They made us many promises, but they
only kept but one: They promised to take our land and they took it,"
remains a topic of discussion. (Consider, too, David Monongwe, Hopi elder,
at the United Nations in 1977: "They say they took our land, but where did
they take it?")
The old raiding cultures are somewhat understandable, where what might be
called "theft" was conceived as part of honored traditions, depending on
what is being taken and from whom. But the complete theft of possession or
use of land and resources, the many brutal wars of contact and conquest,
the forced abuse of people's labor, the usurpation of Native leadership in
longstanding traditional communities - we submit that a piece of
present-day America continues to believe and propagate the myth that great
crimes committed against American Indians were and are somehow justifiable.
Question: How is it that courts and certain fundamental political opinion
can justify the theft inherent in the usurpation of Indian properties?
For Native nations who still hold lands and are working to hold onto their
sovereign territories and add new parcels of land to their peoples'
destinies, this is always a good discussion. Tribal peoples rarely forget
any unjust loss of lands or resources that once were properly owned and
managed by their own people. The more unjust the theft or taking of the
resource, the more it is remembered and often continually claimed
We highly recommend these pages this week as a good historical foundation
to ponder. American policy makers, tribal leaders, legal and historical
scholars, high school and college students, Indian opinion leaders, indeed,
all of our readers, please take it for the weekend and deepen your
historical and cultural understanding of the deeply ingrained and
presumably religious justifications of the dispossession of American Indian
Prominent Indian Country Today columnist Steven Newcomb, a primary
researcher in this area, leads the way by examining the metaphors that have
been prevalent in forming America's perspective of the Indian world.
Newcomb cites research by Steven L. Winter that "the mind functions largely
by means of metaphors." The question that Newcomb follows through is the
extent to which these metaphors have led to thoughts and, this is
critically important, behaviors that exhibit dehumanizing and pathological
tendencies. Writes Newcomb: "Cognitive theory posits that how we conceive
(think) of something predetermines how we will behave toward that thing.
Thus, the imaginative American conception of Indians as 'beasts of prey'
led to very specific kinds of pathological behavior consistent with that
mental image (thought, or idea)." Such behavior was demonstrated in the
abuse and killing of Indians while compulsively stealing massive amounts of
their lands and resources writes Newcomb. Remarkably, the irrational
thinking that enabled such injustices to occur still serves as the
foundation of federal law dealing with American Indians.
Preeminent scholar of world cultural history and American Indian
philosopher John Mohawk points us to the "peculiarly American version of
Christianity," which induced the self-identification of early Americans as
new Israelites, "a Chosen people," entitled by virtue of discovery to "all
the riches of the world." Mohawk links this belief to the version of
American nationalism currently constructed by the neo-conservative wing in
America. Mohawk: "Here you find the roots of America's go-it-alone,
treaty-breaking, empire building, xenophobic us-against-them psychology."
Most Americans don't believe the mythical credo of manifest destiny, says
Mohawk, but the much louder true-believer minority is always ready to take
the reins of power. These intimidate the media who do not analyze whether
things are true or not, as much as whether they reinforce the mythical
claim of American "infallibility." Mohawk warns that while the most
Americans, who are capable of thinking through such issues, "Rational
America" as he describes them, are nonetheless "dangerously tolerant of
Other contributors land on the "Doctrine of Discovery," which emerges from
the concept of "the chosen people" gaining title to lands and resources by
right of claiming it from the "heathen" or non-Christian peoples. This,
amazingly, is the doctrine that defines the fundamental American legal
policy with American Indians known as American Indian Law. "The entire
Western Hemisphere was deemed to be terra nullius - 'vacant land,'"
according to contributing columnist Steven McSloy. McSloy writes,
"Americans thought themselves, "the 'chosen people,' with a 'Manifest
Destiny' to own the continent." Christian sects and religions diversified
and warred among each other, confounding everything even more. From a
traditional Indian spiritual perspective, one complaint is central:
fundamentalist Christians will claim that only through Jesus can a human
being be "saved" - ie., have spiritual life, after death. This denies the
direct, Creator or Creation-driven belief systems, prayers and practices of
traditional non-Christian ceremonies, which are very seriously prescribed
and practiced in Indian country.
This discussion might seem dull to some, but Indian leaders call for it
because the fundamentals of the thinking that has historically been arrayed
against Native peoples is formidable and remains active. We can only
educate ourselves if we aspire to accurately communicate with those who
deny our histories, cultures and identities. We hope it is also refreshing
to those Americans who in recent years have felt beaten over the head by
the loud and nationally prominent Christian political missionary movement.
There are a lot of assumptions worth challenging in the Christian-based
argumentation aimed at Indian circles. A humble step back from arrogance of
Western cultural beliefs in these matters, not to mention the intellectual
chasm that renders these beliefs groundless, remains a welcome gesture.