Mark Charles: 'We the People' - the three most misunderstood words in US history

Steven Newcomb: We the people of the dominated Native nations

Mark Charles Calls for Assimilating Native People into “We the [American] People”
By Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape)

During a recent TED Talk, a man named Mark Charles, who is of Navajo and Dutch ancestry, and who identifies as a Calvinist Christian, gave a passionate talk about the American theme, '“We the people.” He took strong issue with the fact that historically, women, Native Americans, and slaves (enumerated as 3/5’s of a human being), were not included in the category “We the people.”

Charles also talked a great deal about what is commonly called “the doctrine of discovery,” which I decided many years ago to call “the doctrine of Christian discovery and domination.” That doctrine, which I’ve been researching and writing about since the early 1980s, dates back to the time of Columbus and the Vatican papal decrees of the fifteenth century.

What Charles failed to say in his talk is that the doctrine of discovery is premised on the claim by Christian nations that they had located (“discovered”) the lands of “heathens” and “infidels,” for the benefit and profit of the Christian world. That way of thinking is premised on the idea that Christian nations supposedly had the right to establish a system of domination over any non-Christian lands on the planet and over the non-Christians living there.

Charles condemned the doctrine of discovery as racist rather than a Christian religious phenomenon. The strangest aspect of Charles’ presentation was his emphasis on inclusion of Native Peoples in the U.S. system. His repeated encouragement to broaden the category “we the people” to include Native Peoples is actually a plan for assimilation that the U.S. government has been working on for generations.

Steve Newcomb - Doctrine of Discovery, the Domination Code

That U.S. process involves the planned destruction of Native nations by working to weave Native individuals into the political fabric of the United States as “American citizens,” as an integral part of “we the people.” This U.S. policy of individual Native assimilation dates back to the era of the Boarding Schools of domination, starting with Carlisle Indian Industrial School, which was founded by Colonel Richard Henry Pratt in the 1870s. Pratt’s infamous program to “kill the Indian and save the man” aimed at exactly the individual assimilation Charles encourages.

Charles’ argument in favor of American Indian assimilation is in keeping with the very doctrine of discovery he claims to oppose. In other words, Charles ends up speaking in favor of the outcome of the doctrine he opposes. His way of speaking indicates the extent to which he identifies with the society of the United States rather than with Native nations: He repeatedly says, “Our founding fathers,” “our founding documents,” “our constitution.”

When he talks that way he is not speaking as a citizen of the Navajo Nation, he is speaking as a U.S. citizen. He is disgruntled because our Native ancestors were not included in the American political community; he forgets that this political community was entirely foreign to, and invasive of, our own original nations of this Great Turtle Island continent commonly called “North America.”

Charles says nothing about Vine Deloria, Jr., who was the first person to call out “the Christian doctrine of discovery,” and from whom I learned of “the doctrine.” He says nothing about those of us who have been working on publicizing this issue for decades, such as Birgil Kills Straight (Oglala Lakota), Oren Lyons (Onondaga Faith Keeper), Tonya Gonnella Frichner (Onondaga), Tupac Enrique Acosta, and Peter d’Errico. I gave one of my first talks on the doctrine at the Land, Air, Water, Environmental Law Conference, 1992, at the University of Oregon School of Law, a talk I titled, “American Indians as Infidels in U.S. Law.”

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When I began researching and writing about the Doctrine of Discovery in the early 1980s, I did so because I believed in advocating for the right of Native nations to live free from oppression, so that someday our nations could live an existence free and independent of U.S. domination. I read the Mohawk newspaper “Akwesasne Notes,” which was published by Native intellectuals such as John Mohawk, Mike Meyers, Ray Cook, and Jose Barreiro.

“Akwesasne Notes” was “the official publication of the Mohawk Nation,” which is part of the Haudenosaunee, otherwise known as the Six Nations Confederacy. Reading this publication and other materials, I was thinking about the issues facing our Native nations and peoples as a result of colonization. This is when I began my first decade of research into the history of federal Indian law and policy.

During the 1980s, I placed a great deal of my focus on the 1823 Supreme Court ruling Johnson v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543. I noticed Chief Justice Marshall’s distinction between “Christian people” and what he called “natives, who were heathens.” That decision is where the U.S. supreme court formally adopted the doctrine of Christian Discovery. It is a claim that the U.S. owns Native lands; it says that Native Nations are “mere occupants” in their homelands. Johnson v. McIntosh is still used as a precedent in federal Indian law today.

The TED Talk given by Mark Charles fails to explain that Chief Justice John Marshall used a Christian religious framework of domination as the basis for the Supreme Court’s reasoning process in Johnson v. McIntosh. The doctrine was premised on the idea that any Christian people, nation, or state had a right of domination over the “discovered” lands and lives of non-Christians.

That framework of religious bigotry is made evident by the Supreme Court’s language in Johnson distinguishing between Christians and “heathens.” According to the court, “heathens” only have “occupancy”; “title” and “ultimate dominion” belongs to the Christian Europeans and their successor the United States.

Unfortunately, during his talk Charles ignores the Christian religious (biblical) basis of the Johnson ruling, while claiming that racism and White Supremacy pose the central problem for Native people in the United States. He mixes up “minority rights” with Native rights. He implies that the central problem, as he defines it, will be solved by Native individuals becoming fully accepted into the body politic called “we the people” of the United States.

In other words, Charles fails to show the way to a path for Native nations to liberate themselves from the U.S.’s claim of a right of oppression over them. Instead, Charles advocates that Native individuals become fully integrated into the very same U.S. society that is dominating Native nations in the name of a “plenary power” of Congress premised on the claimed right of Christian discovery and domination.

This kind of deep confusion does more to damage Native efforts than to help them.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is a legal scholar and one of the world’s foremost authorities on the doctrine of Christian discovery. In 2008 Fulcrum published his book Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. In 1992, he and Birgil Kills Straight (Oglala Lakota Nation) co-founded the Indigenous Law Institute. Newcomb has been studying and writing about U.S. federal Indian law and policy since the early 1980s. In 2015, Newcomb and Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota) completed a documentary movie based on Pagans in the Promised Land. It’s titled “The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code” (2015).

Note: Thumbnail photo of the U.S. Constitution by Steven Nichols.

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