The Colonial Doctrine of Discovery and Idle No More

Steven Newcomb
January 04, 2013

As we approach the 200th year since the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh was killed in battle, by American forces on the River Thames in North America, on October 5, 1813, a tremendous wave of activism by the Original Nations and Peoples of Turtle Island has suddenly swept across the geographical region now commonly known as Canada.

The powerful activism we are seeing exhibited is a continent-wide campaign known as “Idle No More.” It is most significantly highlighted by the courageous hunger strike by Chief Theresa Spence of Attiwapiskat. As of the time of this writing, she is on her 22nd day of fasting, and getting much weaker now.

Chief Spence’s hunger strike is part of her demand to meet personally with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and with “His Excellency the Right Honorable David Johnson, the United Kingdom’s Governor General of Canada.” She wants to meet with these two men, as government representatives, to discuss pressing issues for her people and for other Original Nations and Peoples of the continent, such as treaty and inherent rights.

Obviously, there are many issues that the Original Nations and Peoples of Turtle Island in that region of the continent are attempting to address with the Canadian government. These range from the hundreds of murdered and missing Aboriginal women in British Columbia, and the Keystone XL Pipeline, as well as the exploitation of Indigenous peoples and territories, not to mention the extinguishment process that is being wrongly called a “treaty process” in British Columbia, the thousands of Indian children who continue to be put into the culturally assimilating milieu of non-Indian foster care.

In my view, however, all these pressing issues are the direct result of the history of dehumanization that the Original Nations and Peoples of Turtle Island have been subjected to for many centuries. I am fascinated with the conceptual roots of the existing idea-system that has been and continues to be used against the Original Nations and Peoples of the vast geographical region now called Canada.

That a leader of one of the Original Peoples of Turtle Island feels it necessary to go on a hunger strike for twenty days in an effort to win a meeting with Canada’s Prime Minister is, in my view, evidence of the phenomenon of dehumanization and disrespect.

A book entitled “Aboriginal Law: Cases, Materials and Commentary” (2009), by Thomas Isaac, spells out the law system and case law of Canada in its dealings with the Original Nations and Peoples of the continent. The first two major documents published in the book are the 1763 Royal Proclamation issued by Britain’s King George, and the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh, written by Chief Justice John Marshall. Strangely, that decision is also a key part of Canada’s federal Indian law system. This is because the thirteen original colonies that became the United States began as English colonies created under authority of the crown.

At the opening of the Johnson v. M’Intosh ruling, the chief justice wrote that “The creator of all things” had “impressed on the mind of his creature man” certain “principles of abstract justice.” The “rights of civilized nations,” declared Marshall, were to be determined by the Court on the basis of those same principles of “abstract justice.”

By placing “civilized nations,” “principles of abstract justice,” and “man,” into the same category, the Supreme Court was, by reverse implication, simultaneously placing those original peoples the Court deemed to be “fierce savages” into a non-human or sub-human category.

The U.S. Supreme Court also said in Johnson that it acknowledged “civilized nations” to possess “perfect independence.” By implication the opposite holds true: The Court refused to acknowledge nations or peoples it considered to be “savages” and “heathens” to possess “perfect independence.” To make this point explicit, Chief Justice Marshall wrongfully said of the Indians: “their 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].”

“While the different nations of Europe respected the right of the natives, as occupants,” wrote the Court, “they asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves; and claimed and exercised, as a consequence of this ultimate dominion, a power to grant the soil, while yet in possession of the natives.”

Why is such language highly significant? Because it shows how patterns of racist and dehumanizing reasoning from the distant past continue to colonize and dominate the present. Idle No More also needs to be a protest against the underlying causes of the grievances that the Original Nations and Peoples are experiencing today, causes that are conceptually rooted in the distant past of Western Christendom and the so-called Age of Discovery. 

The conceptual patterns mentioned above have been enshrined in the federal Indian law system of the Canadian government. As a result, the endemic dehumanization, disrespect, and dishonor exhibited against the originally free and independent nations and peoples of the continent will continue unabated until we figure out how to create a more fully informed dialogue about the roots of the problems we face.

We need to create a detailed dialogue and debate about the colonial history and origin of Canada and the United States, and the origin of the idea-system of domination and subordination still being used against our nations and peoples by those two governments. This is a basis upon which we can come together in a continent-wide alliance of originally free nations, as envisioned by Tecumseh two centuries ago, and by Pontiac before him.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, located in the Kumeyaay territory.



'Idle no More' is, for me, a movement inspired to protect people's rights, the enviroment, accountability and making everyone more aware how changes being made overall do not benefit the majority. I support it and hope it makes change without compromise.

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