There is a false assumption today that Native people have inherited from our ancestors an obligation to meekly accept dominating ideas and judgment.
Many years ago, I wrote about a statement made by L. C. Green in the book The Law of Nations and the New World (1989). In a section titled “claims to territory in colonial America,” Professor Green said it had become “increasingly common since the end of the Second World War for aboriginal peoples in a variety of countries, including Canada, to assert that they are the true and sovereign owners of the territories they occupy.”
In response to that assertion, Green said that “aboriginal peoples” (his terminology) tend to ignore “the fact that title to statehood depends not on local custom or morality, but on international law.” Given that the political system called “the state” is a system of domination, Green’s phrase “title to statehood” is accurately expressed as “title to dominationhood.” Because the term “sovereign” translates to “dominor” in Latin, which is “dominator” in English, Green’s phrase “the true and sovereign owners” is accurately stated as, “the true dominators” (“dominorum”).
In any case, Green overlooked the fact that the ideas he called “international law” emerged from the mind and language of the colonizing “white man.” Green seemed to be suggesting that only the mind of the colonizer shall decide whether the original nations of the continent are “the true and sovereign owners” of their traditional territories. He seems to be further suggesting that the invading colonizers already decided generations ago that the original nations of this continent are not the true and sovereign [domination] owners of their territories, and that we as Native people are now forever saddled with that decision on the part of the colonizers.
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Here’s how I read Green’s argument: When it comes to assessing the territorial rights of the original nations and peoples of this continent, such matters will never be decided based on what our own ancestors have thought and asserted. Instead, such matters shall always be decided on the basis of what the ancestors of the white man has thought and asserted. It’s as if Green was saying that the ideas of the white man shall permanently prevail as a system domination exerted over our nations and over the territories of our nations.
To be precise, Green did not use the phrase “the white man” in his writings. Instead, he said at one point, “it is necessary to look at the history of Western settlement and the legal basis of claims to territory and sovereignty in international law.” I interpret this to mean that in order to correctly answer questions about the original nations of this continent, the colonizing “white man” must look to the ideas called “international law” created by his ancestors. Green further said that “international law as we know it today” is a result of the “development of the practice of European Christian states.” Specifically, this refers to what was collectively known back then as “Christendom,” (Christendomination), or “the Christian Commonwealth.”
There is a consequence to the assumption that Native nations and peoples are obligated to abide by the ideas and judgments that Christian European white men created long ago and handed down to their descendants. That assumed obligation precludes ideas and judgments created by our ancestors, our nations and peoples. Green appears to be saying that only the ideas of the colonizers shall be used to judge whether the colonizers’ ideas from the past were valid. In other words, since the colonizers of the past assumed that their ideas, judgments, and arguments were valid, then we are now obligated to accept the view that the colonizers’ ideas, judgments, and arguments from the past are valid, and binding on us today.
If we ask on what basis our original nations are said to be obligated to quietly accept the ideas that the invading white man created in the past, the answer is rather simple: The colonizers mentally created the view that their Christian God had made the white man “superior” to us and destined to rule our lives by creating a system of domination for our containment. The colonizers then expected our ancestors to accept the idea that the imaginative mental activity of the colonizers somehow caused our ancestors to be obligated to accept and abide by the colonizers’ imaginative mental activity.
Because there is a general acceptance today of the colonizing ideas and arguments that the Christian European colonizers created centuries ago, it is now typically assumed that we as Native people have inherited from our ancestors an obligation to meekly accept the colonizers’ dominating ideas and judgments. By referring to the ideas and judgments of the colonizing white man as “the law” or as “international law,” today’s descendants of the colonizers have made it seem as if the colonizers’ system of domination is valid and unquestionable. This means it is now up to us to decide how and on what basis we are going to challenge the colonizers’ ideas and judgments. How about we begin by pointing out that there is no such thing as a right of 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.