Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington, D.C.
President Calvin Coolidge with four Osage Indians after Coolidge signed the bill granting Indians full citizenship in 1924.

Subjects, Christians and Citizens: Paying the Cost of Colonization

Duane Champagne

When did colonialism start? How can we recognize it into the present? According to international law, colonialism started when explorers claimed the land for a Christian king. When the Spanish king claimed land over non-Christian peoples, the land immediately came under the power of the king. The Indians, according to international law, became subjects of the king. The king needed some land for forts, and administration, but most of the land was granted to Spanish subjects through land grants. Indians, in this colonial view, no longer owned the land. Indigenous Peoples had the right to hold just enough land for their sustainable agricultural subsistence.

Right from the beginning of colonialism, Indigenous Peoples are dispossessed of ownership of the land, and are immediately brought within the political order of the Christian governments and international law. The king was obligated to look after the well being of his subjects, and therefore was obligated to look after the future well being of his indigenous subjects. Indigenous Peoples had the right to form municipal or town governments under the jurisdiction of the Spanish king, and to engage in the state or departmental government.

Every year on January 1, the municipal government held an election and elected a governor or alcalde along with a council and other municipal posts. The king often protected the municipal land and recognized the municipal governments of Indigenous Peoples. In this way, the Spanish colonial system incorporated Indians in the colonial empire, and at the same time recognized limited land and self-government rights.

British North American colonialism started out somewhat differently than Spanish colonialism, but ended nearly at the same place. The colonies, preceding present-day Canada and United States, were confronted with numerous independent indigenous nations, who had the power to make political and trade treaties with colonial governments. After the French and Indian War of 1760, also known as the Seven Years War in Europe, the European powers granted to Britain the eastern portion of present-day United States and Canada. As victors in the Seven Years War, the British were recognized by international law to control this new territory, while much of the land was forfeited by the Spanish and French colonies.

Now, the British king through the Proclamation of 1763, declared the land crown land and the Indigenous Peoples lived on the land at the discretion of the crown. Furthermore, the Indigenous Peoples were considered by the British to be subjects of the British king, who was responsible for looking after indigenous welfare. Indigenous Peoples east of the Mississippi River were incorporated into the British colonial empire, without land ownership and no formal recognition of self-government.

The American War of Independence led to a new political form of democracy, and the renewal of treaty making with Indian people. Indians were not originally citizens of the United States and were recognized as having self-government. The United States took up colonial relations with Indians, claiming the ownership of land, while indigenous people lived on the land at the discretion of the United States. As individuals, Indigenous Peoples were not citizens, but wards, or under the political protection of the United States. In the Southwest, after the separation of Mexico from Spain by 1822, Indigenous Peoples were made citizens, and had rights to form municipal governments and maintain state protected municipal lands.

Christianization of Indigenous Peoples offered inclusion within the cultural and political community of Christian faith. Conversions among many Indigenous Peoples were nominal. Many honored Christian ways, but also continued to uphold major aspects of traditional worldviews. Hence, many indigenous people lived in multiple cultural and political settings. The formation of democratic nation states in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico led to policies of cultural and political inclusion, while at the same time discouraging participation in indigenous nations and communities. Nation-state citizenship came at the cost of indigenous identity and community, a decision many Indigenous Peoples resisted.

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