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Episode 02: The Doctrine Of Christian Discovery As An Ideological And Legal Framework

Our hosts (Philip P. Arnold & Sandy Bigtree) speak with Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) who is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute.

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Introduction

We begin this episode with a land acknowledgement. Our hosts Prof. Philip P. Arnold and Sandy Bigtree (Mohawk Nation) begin by introducing our guest, Steven T. Newcomb. He is the co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute which he founded with Birgil Kills Straight who is an Oglala Lakota headman and ceremonial person. Additionally he is the author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and co-producer of the documentary film, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota). He is one of the leading experts on the Doctrine of Discovery and you can learn more at his website Original Free Nations: Cutting Edge Research for Indigenous People’s Liberation.

The land acknowledgement leads Newcomb to ask what work are land acknowledgements doing and what are they not doing? After a short exchange about land acknowledgements Newcomb begins to define the Doctrine of Discovery. He defines it as:

“I would emphasize that when we're talking about a doctrine, we're talking about a kind of teaching, or a set of teachings, and a number of principles or basic concepts that go with those teachings. The idea was, when you look at history, they will say that there was a belief by the people in Western Europe, which was then called Western Christendom, there was a belief that they had the right to sail across the ocean and identify as the Christian world any and all lands that were inhabited by non-Christians, which were at that time called heathens, pagans, infidels, savages, that sort of thing. Very negative terminology… Once identifying those types of lands where non-Christians were living, they were assuming unto themselves the right to claim those lands. But the way I state that is they were claiming a right of domination. In other words, there was the assumption that they had the right to claim the right of domination wherever they went. This is revealed in the historical record of various documents from popes and Rome or at the Vatican and monarchs and various kingdoms throughout Europe and the sea faring nations of Europe as they might call them today.”

Domination as an Ideological Framework

Newcomb emphasizes that what undergirds the Doctrine of Discovery is a Christian theological logic of domination and dehumanization. This theological rationale creates a system of domination. In order to understand this theory of domination and dehumanization Newcomb argues it is insufficient to look only at the law and theological dimensions we must also look at the rhetorical and cognitive dimensions of this system of domination. Some of the earliest people to appreciate Newcomb’s work was Birgil Kills Straight who is an Oglala Lakota headman and ceremonial person and the founder of the American Indian Law Alliance, Tonya Gonella Frichner of the Onondaga Nation, along with Tupac Enrique Acosta who is Izkaloteka Mexica Azteca).

The word domination is so important for Newcomb because cognitively words help to shape reality. Newcomb says:

“But there's a way in which the word domination is naming the entire system that has been used against our nations and peoples for centuries, I should say, plural, for centuries. There is a way in which once we name it correctly, we have a better means of dealing with it and coming to terms with it and challenging it and then proposing an alternative form of reality”

As our hosts Bigtree and Arnold note once you understand the locative function of a concept like domination then one can begin to understand how the U.S. and other settler-colonial governments attempt to place Indigenous peoples under their “guardianship” and undermine Indigenous sovereignty. Looking the influential and often not well-known Justice Joseph Story, Newcomb makes the point that what Story envisioned for the law was a framework of domination built upon plenary power. Justices like Story and Chief Justice John Marshall make reference to Latin and theological-legal concepts like “plenary power” as way to obscure meaning. Obscuring the system of domination is part of what allows the system to continue to operate and unfold in the open and in public.

After a brief break the conversation shifts towards interrogating the religious and theological elements of the framework of domination. For Newcomb the legacy of Johnson v. M’Intosh and of the Supreme Court in general is a putatively secular institution making resource to a Christian theological and legal system and then enshrining it in law as the Doctrine of Discovery or more accurately the Doctrine of Christian Discovery. This is but one example of how Christianity, law, culture, and politics become interwoven in the United States.

Arnold responds, “what's fascinating to me from the point of view of the academic study of religion, not necessarily theology, but just in terms of looking at the history of the development of religion is that Marshall and Store and other people on that Supreme Court that you mentioned during the Johnson V. M'Intosh decision, they're utilizing these Christian ideas and Christian language and the papal bulls from the Catholic church.” Arnold is fascinated by how a very Protestant Supreme Court under Chief Justice Marshall can make resource to Roman Catholic law and theology to enshrine the Doctrine of Christian Discovery in U.S. Law. He continues, “Here, you have these Protestant nation builders borrowing this Catholic idea, what was Catholic at the time. Protestants and Catholics were warring with each other for generations, for hundreds of years. Yet, they saw eye-to-eye when it came to these domination ideas, these ideas of conquest.”

In the Johnson v. M’Intosh decision’s interweaving of religion, law, politics, and culture Arnold finds a profound moment for religion scholars and students to interrogate the ways in which the Doctrine of Discovery challenges the framework of the separation of church and state and the framework of religious freedom in the United States.

After a discussion of history and how our personal histories shape and inform our orientation towards the topic our hosts turn the conversation back towards the conceptual framework of domination which has undergirded the whole conversation. Because of the powerful pull of the theological and legal framework of domination there must be a detailed and direct engagement with it as a foundational framework. One cannot look away. Far too often people want to move towards reconciliation however there can be no reconciliation until there is conciliation. For example as Indigenous activists continue to uncover mass graves at “Native American Residential Schools” it is yet another reminder of the legacy of harm and genocide done by the framework of domination which one can find within the Doctrine of Discovery. Newcomb puts it clearly, “The whole system is premised upon this basic idea that these are not really human beings that they're encountering. They are, in some weird sense, but then in another, in terms of the way they're using language, they're not.”

Newcomb concludes the podcast episode turning our attention to the Apache sacred site Chi’ Chil Bildagoteel also called “Oak Flat” which is in danger of being turned into an open-air copper mine. He asks for listeners to turn their attention towards taking action to support the Apache as they struggle to keep their sacred site.

Keywords

  • Doctrine of Discovery
  • Domination
  • Plenary power

Places

  • Onondaga Lake
  • Chíchʼil Bił Dagoteel (Oak Flat)

People

Resources

Homework

  • Learn about the Apache sacred site Chi’ Chil Bildagoteel also called “Oak Flat” and the struggle to keep it from becoming a copper mine.

Credits

  • Music: Onondaga Social Dance songs performed by Orris Edwards and Regis Cook
  • Producers: Jordan Loewen-Colón and Adam DJ Brett
  • Show notes: Adam DJ Brett

Citation

Philip P. Arnold and Sandra Bigtree, "Episode 02 - The Doctrine Of Christian Discovery As An Ideological And Legal Framework With Steven T. Newcomb," Mapping the Doctrine of Discovery (Podcast), June 14, 2022. https://podcast.doctrineofdiscovery.org/episodes/episode-02/.