Steven Newcomb

The presumption is that by means of a legitimate conquest, the United States achieved a valid position over and above Native nations

Most Native leaders and federal Indian law attorneys are likely consider the word domination too shrill and “out there” to use in their analysis of present day problems that our nations and peoples face, and too impolite to use in their interactions with U.S. government officials, or with state officials. Yet for some reason, “conquest,” or the phrase “the conquest,” are treated as fairly typical and ordinary.

I find it curious that “conquest” is considered acceptable in discussions about U.S. federal Indian law and policy, but the word domination is not. I have a theory that this is because the word “conquest” is silently interpreted to mean that the United States have collectively achieved a victory over Native nations, and the U.S. is, therefore, a “winning” conqueror or victor. This sentiment is found throughout U.S. case law.

Conquest is a word that is treated as mainstream, acceptable, and safe. This is because the United States government doesn’t view the word conquest as a threat, and doesn’t mind the use of that word one bit. Using that word avoids framing U.S. federal Indian law and policy in terms of the domination of Native nations. (“It’s not domination, it’s ‘the law.’”)

The presumption is that by means of a legitimate conquest, the United States achieved a valid position over and above Native nations. Conquest is a word which silently assumes that the United States government exists in a higher or superior position in relation to “inferior” Native nations and peoples. Unfortunately, most of us spend zero time contradicting this view.

The same observation holds true for the way certain writers have depicted the early colonization of the Americas. Take Anthony Angie’s book The Fall of Natural Man (1987). Pagden says that “the whole debate over the justice of the conquests” turned on the Christians’ judgment about “the nature of the Indians.” If Pagden had written about “the justice of the domination of Native peoples,” his phrasing would have conceivably raised the question: “Is the domination of one person by another, or of one nation by another ever ‘just’.” How do we arrive at the ‘correct’ answer to such a question?

Re-framing our discussion about our history and our present day circumstances in terms of domination rather than “conquest,” enables us to ask: Is it “just” for one nation or people to invade another, and then force the invaded nation or people to live for generations under an imposed system of domination?” Although it is accurate to use invasion and domination to classify the manner in which the United States has treated our nations and peoples (think of the massacres at Washita, Sand Creek, and Wounded Knee, etc.), this is not the kind of vocabulary that we typically hear Native leaders and federal Indian law practitioners using in Indian country, or in their discussions with U.S. government officials.

Why is it that Native leaders and federal Indian law attorneys do not typically discuss what has been done to our nations in terms of invasion and domination despite the fact that U.S. federal Indian law and policy are premised on the Christendom’s initial claim of a right to invade and dominate our nations? In somewhat cloaked or coded language (e.g., “ascendancy” and “ultimate dominion”) the U.S.’s claimed right to dominate our nations and peoples is most clearly expressed in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. M’Intosh of 1823.

Assuming it is unjust for one nation or people to invade and dominate another nation, does an unjust invasion and ongoing domination eventually become “just” after a long passage of time? Who shall decide the correct answer to that question? The invaders? The invaded? Here’s another question: Does that which is unjust remain so no matter how much time has elapsed? How do we arrive at the correct answer to such a question? Is a U.S. Supreme Court ruling premised on the claimed right by one nation or empire to dominate many nations and hold them under a “pretension” of “conquest” (domination) a valid ruling? Whose to say?

In The Fall of Natural Man, Pagden says that European intellectuals back in the fifteenth century and sixteenth century had their own view of the “structure of the world.” Those intellectuals understood that if they were to introduce an “ill-conceived” “new element” into that structure, it could very possibly threaten the structure of the whole world. In 2017, now that we are coming up on the bi-centennial of the Johnson v. M’Intosh decision, identifying U.S. federal Indian law as a system of domination is the “new element” that creates the potential to shift the political and legal structure of our world away from mental and behavioral patterns of domination imposed by the colonizers.

There is a reason why the monarchies of Western Christendom assumed “a right of conquest” in relation to Native nations. It’s because “conquest” successfully masked a claimed right of domination. The monarchies of Christendom had the goal of stripping our nations and peoples of our free and pre-American existence. To claim a right “to acquire” (dominate) the lands and resources of our nations, while calling the end result “conquest,” has worked to make the resulting domination seem lawful, acceptable, and legitimate.

The movie The Mission (1986), directed by Roland Joffé, illustrates perfectly Indian people being treated as the property of the Christian colonizers. Because the European thinkers who debated the proper treatment of the Native people during the sixteenth century framed their discussion in terms of “conquest,” there was one question that the movie does not deal with because those engaged in that debate did not address it: Is it okay for one nation to invade and dominate another nation and then declare the resulting domination to be a lawful “conquest”?

Focusing on the prerogatives and privileges of domination that the monarchs of Spain issued to Columbus, and then adding the mandate (command) of domination that Pope Alexander VI purported to give the monarchs of Spain by certain papal letters, creates a unique possibility. It creates the possibility of discussing Christendom’s desire and intention to locate and dominate every non-Christian region of the planet, including our own when our ancestors were living free from the domination of Christendom.

Proponents of the Christian Empire used the Christian religion as a justification for their effort to triumph over “heathens,” (non-Christians) in order to overrun, profit, and fatten their economies from billions of acres of “heathen” lands and resources. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. M’Intosh emerged out of this Christian ideology and behavior of domination.

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Chief Justice Marshall expressed this idea when he wrote of the “extravagant pretension of converting the discovery of an inhabited [“heathen”] country into conquest” (i.e., domination). Here’s a bizarre point, because of the way legal precedent works, to this day our nations and peoples are still being defined in U.S. law as rightfully dominated “heathens,” “pagans,” and “barbarous savages.”

Yakama Nation Chairman JoDe Goudy is the only elected leader I know of who has raised with U.S. government officials this issue about domination, and its corollary, dehumanization. At this time, no other Native nation leader is explicitly identifying federal Indian law as a system domination despite us being able to trace its origins back to Vatican papal bulls and royal charters.

By means of Johnson v. M’Intosh and its progeny, the United States has been using such documents against our nations and peoples for generations. Other Native leaders ought to be joining Chairman Goudy in pointing out the illegitimacy of the United States’ long-standing claim of a right of domination against our nations and peoples.

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