On Diminishment and Reduction

Steven Newcomb

During the papacy of Pope Alexander VI, the Holy See at the Vatican used the papal bull of May 4, 1493 to call for “barbarous nations” to be “subjugated” or “overthrown.” The Latin word employed in the document is “deprimantur,” which generally is translated “to reduce.” Reduction is another word for “reduce,” and as Richard H. Brown has succinctly stated, “reduction can go in only one direction: downward.” (R. Brown, A Poetic for Sociology, 1977, p. 103) Reduction is a well-established technique used to diminish us and “keep us down” as original nations and peoples.

Strategically using language to push entire nations and peoples ‘downward’ and keep them there for generations, or even centuries, is a process of reduction. Nations and peoples that have been subjected to that process are considered to exist in a sub position or status. The Spanish rhetorician and grammarian Antonio de Nebrija disclosed that he was fully aware of the use of imperial language techniques as a means of reducing other nations or peoples to a status under domination.

Nebrija said in 1492 to Queen Isabella of Castile, “Language has always been the consort of empire, and forever shall remain its mate.” (From “Vernacular Values,” Ivan Illich, in “Co-Evolutionary Quarterly,” No. 26, Summer 1980, pp. 33) According to Nebrija’s dictionary, reducir, in fifteenth century Spain means, “to change,” “to bring into obeisance,” and “to civilize.” (Illich, “Vernacular Values,” p. 38) This is in keeping with a modern definition of “civilization” found in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: “the forcing of a particular cultural pattern on a population to whom it is foreign.”

That contemporary definition of “civilization” is consistent with the statement from the Bishop of Avila to Queen Isabella, explaining why she would need Nebrija’s new Castillian grammar book: “Soon Your Majesty will have placed her yoke upon many barbarians who speak outlandish tongues. By this, your victory, these people shall stand in a new need; the need for the laws the victor owes to the vanquished, and the need for the language we shall bring with us.” (Ilich, “Vernacular Values,” p. 39-40)

Chief Justice John Marshall used the language technique of reduction when he wrote of American Indians in Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh: “Their [the Indians] 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].” (emphasis added) My definition of “diminish” is, “to reduce or make less than a starting point of fullness.” Something that has been reduced from an original or starting point of volume or extent can be said to have been “diminished.” To be considered fully-free, for example, and then be deemed by foreigners to be less-than-free as the result of an imposed language system of dominance, is to be considered to have been “diminished” by what the foreigners have “deemed” or “judged” in their language to be true.

Did Marshall have had a machine called a diminishment-ometer to physically measure the extent of the supposed “diminishment” of Indian nation independence? Of course not. I mention the possibility of a physical measurement to create a heightened awareness of the fact that Marshall was using what I like to call “the poetics of oppression” in his drafting of the Johnson ruling. It was not necessary for him to reference some scientific report based on a physical measurement of the supposed “diminishment” of Indian nation independence. All Marshall had to do on behalf of the Supreme Court was use language to metaphorically construct a “reality” of Indian nation independence having been “necessarily diminished.”

Marshall’s opinion in Johnson operates to this day on a metaphorical or figurative level. It works to constitute and create ‘a sense of reality’ that the independence of Indian nations was “diminished.” We as “Indians” live with that ‘sense of reality’ on a daily basis. And we have not yet figured out how to strategically challenge it and Marshall’s use of poetics against us.

When we analyze deeply what Marshall said in Johnson, “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished,” what we see is a contrast between what I call the original fullness of Indian nation independence, and what Marshall termed the “original fundamental principle” of title by “discovery.”

Marshall, being the skilled rhetorician (persuader) that he was, used the idea of “discovery” and “reduction” traced to the idea of deprimantur in the papal bull of 1493, to metaphorically negate or render null and void the original independence of our nations and peoples. This was designed to keep us from pointing out that we are the original and independent nations of the continent. Marshall was so skilled that, in the very same sentence, he was able to construct a usurper-reality in which the colonizers were metaphorically characterized as “original,” “fundamental” (foundational), as well as possessed of “perfect independence” on the continent.

Our “original,” “fundamental” independence as nations was figuratively negated by Marshall’s metaphorical acumen, and, in the process, our territories were metaphorically “vacated,” by Marshall’s language techniques of reduction and diminishment. He left us with a concept of “occupancy” that was stripped of our original independence as nations. Their “original and fundamental” independence as colonizers was then placed in the “vacant space” that Marshall had metaphorically created.

Marshall expressed this elsewhere in the Johnson ruling when he wrote of the British crown, “No distinction was made between vacant lands and lands occupied by Indians.” In his book The International Law of John Marshall (1939), Benjamin Munn Ziegler, interpreted that sentence in the Johnson ruling as follows: “The term vacant lands refers of course to the lands in America that were occupied by Indians but unoccupied by Christians.”

Marshall used the “right of discovery” to illustrate what he had called “the principle which has been mentioned” (“the original fundamental principle that discovery gave title to those who made it”). He documented “the right of discovery” with the John Cabot charter and other such English charters: “The right of discovery,” wrote Marshall, “was confined to countries then unknown to all Christian people,” “thus asserting a right to take possession,” “notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and at the same time acknowledging the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.”

In the version of reality that Marshall constructed for the United States, “Christian people” metaphorically became “original” and “fundamental” to the continent because of what the Supreme Court said was the “perfect independence” of “civilized nations.” As a consequence, the “complete sovereignty, as independent nations” of the original “heathen” Indian became figuratively “diminished” by the Court’s conceptualization of “Christians people,” as “the nations of Europe,” having “unlimited independence.” My assessment of this outcome was recently summed up quite well by a friend to whom I recently showed this information: “That’s bullshit man.”

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






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chahta ohoyo's picture
steven....this is 'right on'...wish all would take the time to read and understand....i have never figured out how you can 'diminish, de-sovereignize, demote, destroy' living, vibrant peoples...all in the name of 'manifest' destiny....where did it begin that white people who lived in hovels and ate gruel and labored at the pleasure of their kings and queens EVER get the idea that by manifesting the destiny of all we who lived freely and never labored for a king or queen, had the right to take our country...
chahta ohoyo
Anonymous's picture
Greetings Chahta Ohoyo, Thanks for the compliment. To answer your question: They used their mental powers to "make it up" as they went. Another very important question, however, is: Why do so few of our people spend the time time necessary to challenge the illogic and nonsense of the ideas that the colonizers made up, and are still using against us? All Our Relations
Ha-ho Steven! Native nations have amended their Tribal Constitutions to eliminate BIA and Department of Interior requirements, amended their constitutions to fix membership issues, to fix impediments to economic development, to stabilize leadership structures, etc... Why are we not furthering the use of our language in these type of documents as the preventative measure to stop the oppressive nature of that system? Countries in South America that are led by Native people have amended and ratified new constitutions to combat issues that are rooted too in the "Doctrine of Discovery." Recently, the White Earth Nation just ratified a new constitution for their people. Have you read their new constitution? Interesting read. Imagine the things we can undo and what we can preserve when we shift our thinking to use our own language and institute a new governing structure that preserves our law and inhibits another government/religion to infringe upon ours. The people just need to right it and ratify it. Just my thoughts. What do you think?