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Editor’s Note: The following has been minimally edited for readability.
Steven Newcomb: Pagans in the Promised Land
Rights of Mother Earth Intl Indigenous Conference, 5 Apr 2012
video, mp3 (37:05)
Rights of Mother Earth: Restoring Indigenous Life Ways of Responsibility and Respect. International Indigenous Conference April 4-6, 2012 at Haskell Indian Nations University, Lawrence Kansas. Tom B.K. Goldtooth Indigenous Environment Network, Dr. Daniel Wildcat Haskell Indian Nation University.
Original Instructions
Doctrines of Domination
Protocol of Domination Vocabulary
Supreme Court Rulings Reality
Concluding Remarks

Hey. Ho’ka’hey. Welcome to the afternoon session. We have a very dynamic speaker coming from the Shawnee Lenape Nation, Founder and Co-Director of the Indigenous Law Institute. Some of you may have purchased his latest publication called Pagans in the Promised Land [Fulcrum 2008, Chicago Review Press]. I’d like to introduce Steve Newcomb.


Miloak onkùntëwakàn,
wëli nipali,
wëli nipalaok.
Wanìshi, Kishelëmienk.

It’s a short prayer in our Lenape language. I want to thank the organizers of this event and Haskell University for hosting it, Dan Wildcat. I think it’s strange in a way that I’m here. Yesterday was my birthday and it was really interesting that I was coming here because my Great-Grandfather Solomon Newcomb and my Grandpa Bushyhead Spybook Newcomb both attended Haskell back in the boarding school days. There’s a lot of interesting family history there obviously, good and bad.

When my Grandpa ran away from Haskell at the age of 15, they put AWOL on his packet, on his file, because it was a military academy and of course it was designed to—the schools and those days were designed off that model, started by Colonel Pratt—to “Kill the Indian, Save the Man”. To destroy our languages, cultures, and spiritual traditions.

But I’m happy to say that it didn’t succeed. As far as the Christian part of the acculturation process, my Grandma told me that my Grandpa used to love—he was a man that loved to hunt and fish and he would love to be out, way out in nature. They eventually moved to the Pacific Northwest where I was born. And she said when he was out there as far out as he could be, all alone, that’s when he was in his church. That’s what he said. So you can never take that spirituality out of our people, I hope.

But I’m not really here to talk about all that. I’m here to talk about the theme of this conference which is the Rights of Mother Earth as its referred to. I have my own ideas about that. And I will also talk about the Doctrines of Discovery and Domination.


I want to start out by acknowledging my friend and mentor, spiritual leader of the Oglala. He was not the leader but he’s an important spiritual figure of the Oglala Lakota Nation, Birgil Kills Straight. He was one of the principal organizers of the Chief Bigfoot Memorial Ride in honor of the ancestors of the Oglala people, others that were the Hunkpapa and so forth, that were killed at—massacred at Wounded Knee. So I wanted to acknowledge him and all the other spiritual people that have been influential in my life.

Birgil Kills Straight (middle) - Wounded Knee Memorial Ride, 1986

I’ve been very fortunate from the age of 16 to have been able to spend a lot of time with elders and spiritual people. That’s been most important to me and has been influential in the way that I have been able to understand the historical record. I also should acknowledge Vine Deloria Jr. because if it hadn’t been for his book, God Is Red, I would not have known about the [Inter Caetera] Papal Bull of 1493 which he wrote about in that book which called for the subjugation of barbarous nations.

Then when I studied federal Indian law under Charles Wilkinson—I took a semester of federal Indian law from him at the University of Oregon School of Law and we read Johnson versus McIntosh, a case from 1823. In that case I noticed that it talked about the Charters of England and the idea that the Christian people had discovered lands of natives who are heathens. And Christian people—those two words were italicized by the Supreme Court. Then in my mind’s eye I immediately linked that to what I had read in Vine Deloria Jr. That got me very curious about that connection. Eventually I decided against the idea of going to law school because I thought if that’s the foundation of that particular system, it would make little sense for me to pursue that. If that’s their premise, it’s also going to be their conclusion.

Original Instructions    

[What] I want to emphasize is that it’s important, in as far as my way of thinking, to not start with the European history but, as Dr. Robert Yazzie mentioned, and others have mentioned here today, to go back to the oral history and the oral traditions and have that understanding that goes all the way back to the beginning of time and the creation stories. Because that’s really where we originate within the spirit world. And then our connection to go through those various phases where we get to this point in our lives as two-leggeds and all that that entails.

Those original instructions, those original laws—given to us which are the original laws of this land, wherever you go throughout this whole continent throughout the whole hemisphere—those original laws were put in place and the Creator gave those to us as guidelines, as ways of understanding how to sustain and perpetuate life. With those understandings, life is able to become healthy and there’s a sense of well-being and an understanding of the purpose, the right relationship with the earth and all creation through those understandings, those concepts which are alive, as Robert Yazzie pointed out, through the knowledge of their elders and their wisdom that they’ve carried.

If we understand time in a different conception, that it goes back to those originating events in the elements and the origins of creation, then you see all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom that has occurred. When the colonizers arrived, with their idea that they had a right to discover and conquer or to discover and dominate all non-christian lands that they came upon—and I’ll get a little bit more into that in a moment—but when they arrived and they set up everything—all the patterns of destruction that they put into place and all the patterns of desecration and so forth, they deprive themselves. It’s impossible to dehumanize others without dehumanizing yourself and it’s impossible to destroy those traditions without also preventing themselves from learning from those wisdom traditions.

That’s where we are. We’re at this crossroads that finally it’s getting to the point where it’s so bad, that everything has become so insane, basically, that now people are going to begin to wake up and say, Maybe those people really had something going on after all. Then hopefully, there will be a receptivity that hasn’t been existing there previously.

Doctrines of Domination    

But to back up a bit to go further into the Doctrines of Domination and the Conceptual System of Domination, it’s important to understand those documents that were issued by the Holy See—the word see, means seat. It’s the holy seat of the Pope which goes back to the tradition of the Roman Empire. In the 15th century, and even earlier, the Popes were issuing various documents called papal bulls. They’re called bulls because of a little lead ball that was hung by a red silken thread which is attached to wax. The Pope put his imprint of his ring on that wax and that showed that it was an official document.

In those documents we can read the language. There’s a book called European Treaties Bearing on the History of the United States and its Dependencies to 1648. All you have to do is go to search on “european treaties bearing on” and hit enter and there it is in latin and english. I recommend it.

What I’ve done since 1989 or ’90 when I was able to obtain copies of those of those documents through the kind help of a librarian at the Catholic University in Washington DC—called them and asked them where to find it and they told me—I was being able to look at the Latin in the English. What I found is that there’s a specific vocabulary in those documents. and in many other documents, such as the Charters of England, and all of the words actually are synonyms for the exact same thing. That exact same thing is domination.

So I’ve developed a concept recently which contrasts with the idea of the spiritual and cultural protocols of our nations and peoples and it’s called a Protocol of Domination. What kind of words are we talking about? For example, in one of the papal bulls from 1493 [The Bull Inter Caetera (Alexander VI.). May 3, 1493] there’s a sentence and it sayssub dominio actuali temporali aliquorum dominorum Christianorum constitute non sint”. What that means is not under the domination of any Christian dominator. That word dominorum and the word dominium, they go back to a root in Latin called domo. That root has seven meanings, basically (probably more)—but seven primary meanings. Which is interesting because of the Seven Laws [Woope Sakowin] that I was taught through Birgil Kills Straight which is an exact contrast to that.

But those seven laws of domo, as we might call them, laws, which are patterns of thought, paths of behavior, are:
  1. subjugate
  2. subdue
  3. subservience
  4. tame
  5. domesticate (domestic, dependent nations)
  6. cultivate
  7. to till

Cultivate in Latin is colere which means to colonize and to design. The root of colonization is colon which is the digestive tract of the body politic, to extend that metaphor. But colo in Latin is to filter out impurities in the process of mining. So the background context is the mining and that means mining everything for profit, for wealth and so forth—power. The root impetus to the entire thing is greed, the will to domination; the will to be enriched in order to gain more power. So it’s the cycle. But domination has specific effects and we’ll go into some of those in just a moment.

First I want to talk about the difference in terms of physical understanding of truth or “reality” and a metaphorical understanding of reality. There are so many ways in which metaphorical understandings of truth or reality get treated as if they are physically true. For example, if someone is standing near a tree, I could say to a person, That that man or that woman is standing in front of the tree. But does a tree have a front or a back without us projecting our own bodily front or back onto that tree? No. Those are our conceptions, those are human conceptions projected on to others or to other things.

Even thinking of various processes as things—many of these complicated metaphorical conceptions just need to have more detail placed on to them. For example we talk about the foundation. The analogy there is a foundation of a house or a building, some kind of a physical foundation. But if we’re talking about the foundation of a system, we’re not talking about something that’s physical. We’re talking about something that’s conceptual. It is concepts put together into patterns which lead to behavior. So we’re talking about examining those conceptual foundations of various systems and What do they reveal?

Protocol of Domination Vocabulary    

When we delve deep into the way in which these conceptions of domination all fit together, we come up with a list. I probably won’t read the whole list but it’s pretty interesting because you can take this list of the Protocol of Domination and realize that when you read certain documents, especially with regard to Indigenous history or Indian history, you’re going to find these throughout all kinds of documents. And these are from the papal bulls.

For example, the papal bull of 1452 [Dum Diversas 18 June, 1452; English quotations; Latin original] issued by Pope Nicholas V to King Alphonso of Portugal, instructs or authorizes the King to “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ ... to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery ... and to take away all their possessions and property and to convert their possessions and properties.” Now convert in that context means to unlawfully or wrongfully take or appropriate that which belongs to another. Then the Pope in the next sentence declares it to be just and lawful because he has to account for him—for them doing stuff that’s unlawful. But conceptually, metaphorically they can just say voila!, and its lawful.

Here’s the list:

The word “governments” appears in the papal bull of 1493 [The Bull Inter Caetera (Alexander VI.), May 4, 1493]. There’s a sentence that says, “We trust in Him”—capital H on him so we know who that’s talking about or we think we do but there’s no name, it’s just a Him so maybe we don’t—“from whom empires and dominations”—dominationes in Latin—“and all good things proceed”.

Think about that for a moment. I asked the Vatican Ambassador—the new Vatican Ambassador from the Holy See to the United Nations—I asked him last year what does dominorum Christianorum mean? I didn’t know he was the ambassador by the way. But I had the opportunity so I asked. He said, Well, it probably means lords, probably master, probably mister. Yes, mister. And I said, So in other words, lands not possessed by any mister Christian? He said, It’s best not to translate it into English because it would not fit. But I had the ironic opportunity the next day, or maybe it was even that evening, to ask a Latin scholar the very same question. Without pausing for one second he said, Christian dominator. In that papal bull from 1493 it says We trust in Him, as I said, from whom empires, dominations, all good things proceed. But the English version doesn’t say dominations. It says governments. So dominaciones and governments are synonyms, translated from Latin to English. That’s how we know that singular “domination” is also “government” and they’re parallel there.

There is another set of words that are used for dehumanizing and dominating purposes and you’ll recognize I’m sure all of these:

The word roaming—you’ll see that constantly in the legal literature, the Supreme Court cases: these are wandering, roaming people so therefore they have a certain kind of title that goes with wandering, roaming people that are temporarily on the soil. That is until they can take it away.

And so forth. Now aborigine is very interesting because aboriginal is the adjective form of aborigine. Then you have to go to that word and look it up. It means, according to the dictionary, a native of a particular place as distinguished from an invading colonizing society. So an aboriginal title then is a title as distinguished from an invading colonizing society. And what is the title, metaphorically speaking, that was created by the United States government with regard to Indigenous Nations and People’s or Indian Nations? It’s called occupancy, the aboriginal title or original title.

Now what is aboriginal title? Is it the actual spiritual, culture relationship with the land for thousands and thousands of years going back to the beginning of time such as what Robert Yazzie mentioned and Mona mentioned? No. It’s a non-Indian concept metaphorically created and projected onto our lands, our territories and then they tell us, Oh by the way, your aboriginal—your—aboriginal title has been extinguished. Well what have they succeeded in extinguishing? Simply their non-Indian idea about your relationship to your land. Not your actual cultural, spiritual relationship with your land. But why don’t we point that out to them?

We need to be coming up with alternative ways of framing and thinking about all of these important issues. I am coming to the theme of the Rights of Mother Earth in a little bit. There’s a book published in 1949 called The Sociology of Colonies by Rene Maunier. It’s an amazing book. It’s actually two volumes and there’s an entire chapter on Domination. It’s quite, it’s just astounding these two books. Let’s see, there’s so much I could go ahead and read you a couple of lines here:

From the authoritarian standpoint, it would seem that the imperialist doctrine as professed by the Anglo-Saxons is a judicial system ; it is claimed that the “chosen peoples” have the right and the duty of dominating ; that certain other peoples are necessarily the subjects of the chosen peoples ; that imperial races are bound in duty to exercise their superiority. In this spirit an apology for slavery was even quite recently formulated ... (p. 30)

This is written in 1949. Then further down he talks about how:

According to the Anglo-Saxon doctrine, the conception of the State is therefore active and expansive. The function of the state is ... the domination of “inferior” or “backward” peoples. The aim of the collective organism which we call Empire is to ensure this domination by the people designed by God, over the peoples destined to submit to its power.

If we were to do a rhetorical analysis of this and look for our vocabulary from the Protocols of Domination we would obviously find that throughout. There’s another important book called Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law [2004] by Professor Antony Anghie who has an SJD from Harvard and who now teaches at a law school in Utah. In the Foreword to that book, James Crawford, another professor of international law, talks about the way in which the structure “of domination and subordination” has operated in international law and that’s what he says Professor Anghie has very well documented, very capably documented.

Interestingly enough, Professor Anghie at a certain point refers to the “protocol of conquest” which is exactly the same as is the Protocol of Domination, just using a different word; obviously conquest and domination being synonyms. And he said that in reference to a book by a professor named Patricia Seed talking about Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World, 1492-1640. There’s an article from 1938 which is actually called “Creation of Rights of Sovereignty Through Symbolic Acts” [Henry R. Wagner, Pacific Historical Review (1938) 7 (4): 297-326]. The idea there is that they could come to a distant shore of non-Christian lands, wave a sword, pile up some stones, sprinkle some water, throw some soil, tear up some grass, break some branch, any of these various rituals and claim on that basis—and it didn’t have to be all of them, could be any—based on those ideas of ritual acts, metaphorical acts, to say that they had created sovereignty because there was no sovereignty existing there, despite the presence of Indigenous Nations and Peoples already being there, but that they had created sovereignties just by virtue of doing that.

We have the opportunity in our generation to say, Nonsense. To delve deep into the historical record of what has taken place. Now coming to the theme of the Rights of Mother Earth, it’s my view that just as human rights, a discussion of human rights is a result of dehumanization and an effort to overcome the effects and patterns of dehumanization, that in the same way speaking of Mother Earth as having rights is a result of what I call Domination Law and the patterns of domination, the systems that have been put in place on that basis. If we leave the context of Domination Law untouched, if we don’t discuss that and identify domination as having deadly, lethal effects on peoples, on waters, on lands, on all the different vocabulary we might come up with, then we haven’t done much.

Because we, as Indigenous Nations and Peoples, are to be the ones that have the responsibility to speak for the plants and the animals and what’s called nature; to speak for Mother Earth because we were given that spiritual and cultural responsibility. I would provide that reference point and everything that I’ve spoken to....

Supreme Court Rulings Reality    

It’s interesting to look at the Supreme Court rulings that have been written on the basis of what I call the Protocol of Domination. Look at the way in which, for example, in the 1823 decision, Johnson versus McIntosh, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that, “their rights”—meaning the Indians—“rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished ... by the original, fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.” Meaning made the discovery. And what did he base that on? He based it on Charters of England which said things like, “seek out, discover and find whatsoever isles, countries, regions of the heathen and infidel, which before this time have been unknown to all Christian people.

There’s a tendency among federal Indian law scholars to do something that’s very damaging to the telling of history. They’ll tell you that the Doctrine of Discovery is actually the idea that the first Europeans to discover non-European lands, that those Europeans have a right to those lands and so forth. Okay? But the actual documents, when you go back to them you can’t find the word European in there at all. You’re not going to find the word “European” in any of those papal bulls. That was a different time. It was a medieval world of Christendom and at that time you had something called the international law of Christendom as revealed by Henry Wheaton in his Elements of International Law textbook first written in 1836.

The idea that it was Europeans discovering non-European lands is actually a rewriting of history. It’s inaccurate and it’s preventing people from understanding that there’s a religious dimension to this entire process of domination and destruction that’s been going on for more than five centuries.

In 1954 there was a case that went before the Supreme Court called Tee-Hit-Ton Indians versus United States and it had to do with whether or not the Tee-Hit-Ton Indians in Alaska were deserving of monetary compensation for a federal taking of timberlands, quite a large area of timberlands. The US government had to submit a legal brief to the US Supreme Court. I didn’t know about this legal brief until after I wrote my book, after it came out.

My friend Peter d’Errico who’s just an amazing friend of mine, we’ve known each other for 20 years now; he and I worked real well together. He’s a professor emeritus from UMass Amherst. He and I were talking one day about an unusual case that had all kinds of information about papal bulls in it, a case called Cornett versus Winton from the Supreme Court of Tennessee. He said, Let me do a search to see how many times Cornett versus Winton has ever been sighted. He went ahead and did that search and what came up was the Tee-Hit-Ton decision.

I’ve read that before but he sent me the link. What’s interesting about the internet, now when you go to the link you not only receive the actual ruling but you receive the briefs that were filed. So here was the actual US legal brief filed in that case. I open it up start reading it and I’m shocked because it actually cites a papal bull referring to the Canary Islands, with reference to the Canary Islands issued in 1344—I think was actually 1346 but they said 1344. But it referred to the Charters of England. It referred to the Johnson versus McIntosh decision. It actually referenced Genesis 1:28 and part of Psalms. And it distinguished—by the way this is in the section of the ruling under the big heading argument so that means everything that falls under it is the main argument of United States government.

Underneath this it talks about the Christian nations of Europe discovering the lands of heathens and infidels. This is the government—United States government writing this—all right—and they argued it before the Supreme Court. Now I wish that we had audio of that because there are audio tapes available of arguments before the Supreme Court but unfortunately they didn’t start the audio until the following year after Tee-Hit-Ton. But we do have the actual legal brief.

I wrote a column on this—I do write columns for Indian Country Today media network—called The Smoking Gun showing that—I mean if the United States government is making the argument or has made the argument explicitly—and you cannot find any reference to that type of language in the actual ruling except the one little clue where the majority of decision written by Justice Stanley Read, from Kentucky, I think he was. But in any case they reference Wheaton’s Elements of International Law. And Wheaton’s Elements of International Law, in the chapter on Rights of Property, Chapter 4, actually lays out the exact same pattern. It italicized the word Christian [page 241: ‘Thus the bull of Pope Alexander VI. reserved from the grant to Spain all lands which had been previously occupied by any other Christian nation; and the patent granted by Henry VII. of England to John Cabot and his sons, authorized them “to seek out and discover all islands, regions, and provinces whatsoever, that may belong to heathens and infidels ;” and “to subdue, occupy, and possess these territories, as, his vassals and lieutenants.” ’] just like Marshall did on behalf of the entire Supreme Court—italicized Christian people in Johnson V McIntosh.

It’s all right there. But I’m still waiting for any practitioner or scholar of federal Indian law to actually acknowledge that the United States government made that argument in 1954 and that it was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1955 the following year (the year I was born, actually).

Concluding Remarks    

To come to a conclusion here, I think that it’s excellent that people are talking about these issues. I think they need to be discussed far and wide. I would like to see a trend happen where we begin to see the non-Indian society acknowledge the traditional territories. For example, I’m working with a person from the Unitarian Universalist Church and he’s preparing a statement for his Congregation’s Church to acknowledge the traditional territory of the people where their church is located and to pay honor and respect to the people of that territory.

For example when people ask me, Where do you live? I say I live in the Kumeyaay territory, now commonly called San Diego and it still is the traditional territory of the Kumeyaay. When we were at Niagara Falls for the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus meeting in preparation for the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues where, by the way, the theme for the entire Permanent Forum will be the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination, the North American Indigenous Peoples Caucus report stated very clearly that that’s on Haudenosaunne territory.

To the extent that we were able to do that and create that shift, then people can begin to also learn, What are the laws? What are the original laws of the people of this territory that go, that run with the land? The fundamental, the foundational laws and concepts that go with that. That can lead to a shift in consciousness and shift in behavior.

These are just some of the things that one little idea is a suggestion, that maybe is significant. I will say I want to acknowledge the World Council of Churches and also the Episcopal Church where they have actually passed resolutions condemning, then renouncing the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Dominion or Domination.

I will say lastly that we started a campaign, Birgil and I started a campaign, along with several others and that was picked up by Chief Oren Lyons and the Traditional Circle of Elders and the 13 Grandmothers actually picked it up as well—to go ahead and call upon the Pope and the Holy See and so forth to formally revoke the Papal Bull of 1493 as a way of helping people to become educated about these issues. So now it is on the world stage to the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and we want to keep the issue alive and well and create that transformational shift that will actually be beneficial to Mother Earth and all living things.

It’s happening but we’re in dire straits. The radiation from Fukushima is not going to stop. It’s going to keep moving toward North America. My heart goes out to the people of Japan who are suffering from that and to the peoples that are suffering everywhere from effects of domination. Whether it’s the tar sands or the people to the south. Everywhere in the world people are being impacted. But it’s not just Indigenous Peoples. It’s everyone on the planet at this point. At a time when the US government has now said it’s lawful for them to assassinate US citizens and to round up and detain anyone, anytime, anywhere on the planet under the [2011] National Defense Authorization Act. At a time like that, we’re in dire straits. It’s a crazy time we live in but we have to stay spiritually centered. We have to stay grounded, ceremonially and go forward with no fear and with no hesitation.

So thank you very much.


From the contents of the 1954 Brief for the United States in the Supreme Court case Tee-Hit-Ton Indians v. United States, 348 U.S. 272 (1955), explicit references are made to:
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