What Shall We Do? Decolonize U.S. Federal Indian Law

Steven Newcomb

The documentary movie “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” directed by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), tells a powerful story. Sheldon and I created the movie based on my book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Discovery (2008), and on the basis of other research that I first began reading Vine Deloria, Jr.’s books during my teenage years in the early 1970’s.

After audiences see the movie, they tend to ask, “What can we do?” Whenever I’m asked this or some similar question, I always think about how difficult it will be to fundamentally reform the attitudes, values, and beliefs of the dominating U.S. society relative to our Native nations. Such work is easier said than done. It’s not as if respect for our original nations can be legislated into existence, for example.

Every audience that sees “The Doctrine of Discovery” is introduced to a pattern-recognition that I’ve been working to understand and to develop since I began my research. As a result, the movie enables people to see the mental and behavioral patterns of Christian domination that are traced to the Vatican papal documents of the fifteenth century, and that are still being used against our original nations. Learning to recognize such patterns is important because, as the saying goes, knowledge is power. People who want the United States to stop using the Christian-premised doctrine of domination against our nations and peoples need to know why it is important for people everywhere on Mother Earth to challenge the assumed “right” to dominate others.

“The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code,” shows why it is that when U.S. government officials claimed our ancestors were in need of “human and Christian civilization,” they were actually calling for the domination of our nations and peoples. Viewers of the movie are informed that “civilization” in that context involves “the forcing of a particular cultural pattern on a population to which it is foreign.” The word “forcing” indicates that the word “civilization” is tied to an underlying and forcible pattern of domination. As a counter measure, I made certain that “The Doctrine of Discovery” speaks about our nations as “the originally and still rightfully free nations” of Great Turtle Island (the North American continent and the Western hemisphere). In other words, despite claims by the United States and other countries to the contrary, our nations continue to be rightfully free from the imposed Christian doctrine of domination.

There are many reasons why our audiences are shocked by what they see in “The Doctrine of Discovery.” The movie teaches them to “see” the dehumanizing assumptions that were and still are readily accepted, such as the view that the pope or other Christian monarchs had a “God-given right” to grant to Christian monarchs a “right” of domination over our original nations and our territories. The movie shows how such attitudes often resulted in the indiscriminate slaughter of our ancestors, men, women, children, and even infants, and resulted in Christian societies enriching themselves by overrunning and robbing our national territories.

The assumed right based on Genesis 1:28 in the Bible to subdue and to dominate, while attempting to altogether eliminate our nations and peoples through genocidal acts, was based on certain metaphorical comparisons made by the Christian world. Christians saw our nations as “heathen” (a word defined as “of Christian origin”) and “infidel” (“those not of the Christian faith”), and “barbarous” nations, and therefore as “less than human.” They even compared our ancestors tobeasts” (bestias, in Spanish). The Christian world thought of the territories of our nations as devoid of, and therefore in need of, Christian dominion (i.e., domination).

Such religious patterns of thought and behavior resulted from the premise that the Christian and American empires, as they proceeded with their imperial expansions across this continent and throughout this hemisphere (North, Central and South America), had the perfect right to exert a Christian-premised domination over our nations and peoples. Native people today who consider themselves Christian might want to question me metaphorically characterizing our nations as “heathen.” Take the Cherokee Nation, as an example, they might say. Once it had fully embraced Christianity it could no longer be considered “heathen,” right? Wrong.

“The Doctrine of Discovery” documentary shows that in order for the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination to not apply to your nation, it had to have been Christian nation before the Christians first invasively arrived. Lands not already inhabited by Christians when Christians first arrived as a colonizing force were deemed subject to the claim by the Christian world of a biblical right to subdue the earth and dominate all living things. According to the doctrine of Christian domination, you cannot become Christian after the Christians invasively arrived as a means of your nation escaping the claimed right of Christian domination. Your religious conversion to Christianity will not be credited to your nation retroactively because as a non-Christian you were categorized by the Christian World as, “nullus,” “null and void.” “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code” makes these patterns recognizable.

Upon reflection, what could be clearer than the fact that every one of our Native nations can trace its existence to a time before Christians had ever invaded this continent? What is more clear than the fact that the white men who sat on the early U.S. Supreme Court mentally created and imposed certain metaphorical ideas on our nations, ideas which the United States government now assumes that our rightfully free nations are obligated to accept and obey? “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code” argues that we need to reject such claims of domination that are still being made against our nations on the basis of a claim of Christian “superiority” or “ascendancy.”

When Chief Justice John Marshall said that the United States had adopted the principle of “Christian people” by applying the “right of discovery” to lands that were inhabited “heathens,” he as the Chief Justice, a unanimous Supreme Court as a body, and the United States government as a whole, thereby applied a biblical context and form of reasoning to and against our nations and peoples. This biblical pattern of reasoning about non-Christian “heathen” nations only having a “right of occupancy” and a “diminished” independence, became an established precedent of the U.S. Supreme Court as a result of the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling, which the United States government first began imposing on our nations one hundred and ninety three years ago.

“The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code” is a movie which demonstrates that we need to reject the United States’ imposition of biblical thinking on our nations. Now that the late Justice Scalia must be replaced on the U.S. Supreme Court, it will be necessary for President Obama (or his successor if the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate has its way) to appoint a new member to the bench.  Once the new appointee has been confirmed, he or she will be expected to make decisions about our Native nations, using the U.S. tradition of such ideas as “subjection,” “mere occupancy,” “conquest,” “conquering,” “plenary power,” and more, on the basis of the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination.

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). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com.

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mem's picture
In layman's terms - the White terrorist did nothing different from today's terrorist in the mid-east calling out "...for Alla" which is the word they use for their god. So if the White terrorist would be exposed maybe he would not feel so entitled to his ill-gotten riches. But, and it's a BIG but, they hide all of this knowledge from the world just as they have hidden American Natives for centuries. Sure we know but we've always known. To expose all this true knowledge takes a much more aggressive campaign & a campaign that is quick because the signs are apparent that things are changing and there is a need for protection against a rage that will come.
Sammy7's picture
What to do? I can only answer for myself. Support all “life”, the life in all of our relatives, absent wars of aggression, absent abortion, absent the destruction of mother nature. Pray for the wisdom of understanding and the courage to live in right relationship with all things.
rainbow's picture
Good article Mr. Newcomb. Recently, the Mille Lacs Messenger, a Minnesota county newspaper, published a letter of mine that is related to the topic of this article. It was given the title Father Hennepin. It reads: Our state’s art subcommittee voted on the 5th of February to move the offensive painting of Father Hennepin out of the Governor’s conference room. Leaders of our state’s tribal nations said the Father Hennepin painting was “inaccurate and demeaning to Dakota women.” Nor did they like the image of the spreading of Catholicism.....A related issue: I believe that it is radically wrong for our state to have a state park that is located within the Dakota’s Mille Lacs ancestral homeland named after Father Hennepin, a subjugator of native peoples and religious sectarian proselytizing bigot and villain who denied native peoples their fundamental human rights to religious freedom, absolute root ownership of their homelands, and full independent sovereign nations status and rights.....Father Hennepin believed in Pope Alexandra VI’s 15th century papal bull (Inter Caetera), or this pope’s moral directive to “subjugate the barbaric peoples (natives) and bring them to the faith.”.....Hennepin came to the Dakota’s Minnesota homeland to prepare the way for European immigrants to take possession (steal and occupy) their homelands, including their sacred Mille Lacs homeland, and to also put an end to their traditional religion in the Mille Lacs area, by forceful means if necessary.....Christopher Columbus was a devout Catholic and in his journal he wrote: “The Taino people were very friendly,” “an inoffensive people,” “they could be much more easily converted to our holy faith by gentle means than by force,” “weapons they have none,” and that “with weapons and 50 men I could enslave the entire population.” He later enslaved the entire population. We often honor villains to justify our own present-day injustices. We need to give the aboriginal native people’s natural resources and homelands back to them.....What Hennepin prepared the way for actually occurred. Euro-Americans (and a band of Ojibwe, who Europeans tricked and used to force the Dakota from their Mille Lacs homeland) are now occupying the Dakota’s Mille Lacs homeland and their traditional religion is no longer being practiced in the Mille Lacs area. And added on to this despicable situation, there is a Mille Lacs area state park named Father Hennepin State Park.....On a Father Hennepin State Park interpretive sign titled “History of Mille Lacs Lake,” there are deceptive words that whitewash the history of this area, so that Euro-Americans (and other people) who read it and who do not know the true history of the area will believe that the European explorers and Christian missionaries did not have anything to do with the Dakota being forced from their sacred Mille Lacs homeland that they had lived in for hundreds of years. The deceptive words on the interpretive sign read: “In the mid 1700s people of the Ojibwe Nation began moving into the area, competing with the Dakota for the rich variety of natural resources. As the Dakota moved south and west, the Ojibwe became established in the area.”.....An invading and trespassing band of Ojibwe were stealing the Dakotas natural resources not “competing” for them. And the Dakota did not “move,” they were forced from their Mille Lacs homeland. This occurred after Europeans gave the Ojibwe guns and (as stated on our state’s DNR website) “The French instigated fights between the Ojibwe and Dakota so as to ally themselves with the Ojibwe.” Europeans and a band of Ojibwe forced the Dakota from their Mille Lacs homeland, and it has not yet been given back to them. I believe that the Dakota people are coming back to regain their sacred Mille Lacs homeland, and I am preparing the way for them to return and regain it....by Thomas Ivan Dahlheimer