The book America: Imagine the World Without Her (2014), by Dinesh D’Souza, is an effort to attack U.S. President Barack Obama. D’Souza is upset with what he considers Obama’s “anti colonialism.” D’Souza, an immigrant who was born in India, equates the ideology of “anti-colonialism” with “liberals,” who, he says, now “call themselves progressives.”
“Theft,” says D’Souza, is one of the main indictments that “progressives” make against the United States. In other words, the charge, as he characterizes it, is that “America was founded in an original act of piracy: the early settlers came from abroad and stole the country from the native Indians.” Additionally: “Then America was built by theft: white Americans stole the labor of African Americans by enslaving them for 250 years.”
D’Souza evidently envisions himself as something of a savior for the stereotypical history of “America” that has been tarnished by historians such as Howard Zinn, author A People’s History of the United States.” D’Souza claims that “the ‘theft’ indictment of America has never been comprehensively answered,” and he purports to do so. For reasons of space, I will leave the slavery argument aside and focus my remarks on some of what D’Souza has said in his book about American Indians.
In Chapter Six “The Red Man’s Burden,” (an obvious play on Rudyard Kipling’s nineteenth century poem about British colonialism in India), D’Souza opens with a discussion of Mount Rushmore, a monument to various U.S. presidents that was carved in the Black Hills of the Great Sioux Nation by Gutzon Borglum, who was a member of the Klu Klux Klan.
D’Souza interviews Charmaine White Face, an Oglala Lakota woman whom he incorrectly characterizes as “a spokesperson for the tribe’s national council.” She is a spokesperson for the Black Hills Treaty Council.
According to D’Souza’s account: “I reminded White Face that before the Sioux, there were Cheyenne Indians and other tribes on that land. So if America stole the land from the Sioux, didn’t the Sioux steal the land from the Cheyenne and other tribes?”
He writes that “White Face looked flustered. She said that, long before the white man came, American Indians had certain ‘dominant’ tribes, and the Sioux happened to be one of them. Some tribes were in charge and that’s all there was to that.”
When I contacted Charmaine to ask about her D’Souza interview, she said that he mischaracterized her remarks and took them out of context. She said that she told D’Souza that many nations have gone to the Black Hills traditionally to perform ceremonies and to gather medicines. She told him that her people lived according to natural law, and in that context the Great Sioux Nation was the dominant organism in its territory.
A biologist by training, Ms. White Face said she told D’Souza that, just as you’ll find certain grasses in the prairies that are “dominant,” that in the traditional territory of the Great Sioux Nation, her people were, in her view, the ‘dominant’ nation, yet existing in symbiotic relationship with other nations. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary lists symbiosis as: “mutual cooperation between persons and groups in a society, esp. when ecological interdependence is involved.” This was the more nuanced answer Ms. White Face attempted to get D’Souza to understand, but to no avail.
My Oglala Lakota friend and mentor Birgil Kills Straight, who is a spiritual leader and a descendent of Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, has taught me a key point that D’Souza needs to learn. The word “Lakota” means allies, and, as Allied Nations, the Lakota, the Cheyenne, and Arapaho, all share a cultural and spiritual connection with the sacred Black Hills. The Oglala Origin Story that Birgil learned from his grandparents, elders, and spiritual leaders places them in the Spirit World originally, and then as the physical earth, the Sacred Life Giver, was formed, the Oglala people moved through different forms of evolution, with the Black Hills at the center of their Origin Story.
D’Souza doesn’t let his ignorance of traditional Native culture, spirituality, or history get in the way of his writing. He grabbed hold of Ms. White Face’s use of the word “dominant,” and took it out of her context so it would work in favor of his argument. He wanted to rid himself of the argument that we are the Original Nations and Peoples of the continent, and he endeavored to do so by this false line of thinking: “so the Sioux indeed got land in the typical way that Indians got land—by defeating and displacing the previous inhabitants.”
Another argument D’Souza makes in Chapter Six is that American Indians never developed what he calls “the white man’s” doctrine of “the origin of property rights.” “It would be nice,” he wrote, “to turn to an American Indian source for a doctrine of the origin of property rights,” he writes, “but no such source exists.”
What doctrine was he referring to? The doctrine that the “white man who displaced the Indians also brought with him…” Thus, D’Souza implies that because our free and independent ancestors did not develop what he terms “the white man’s idea of the origin of property” one ought to therefore conclude that our ancestors also did not develop their own unique and distinctive ideas of property or national territoriality. This error of logic is called a non sequitor (‘it does not follow’).
If D’Souza were correct, we would find no evidence of Indian leaders invoking their own independent countries, separate from the United States, such as the following quote of the great Hunkpapa leader Sitting Bull: “I wish all to know that I do not propose to sell any part of my country, nor will I have the whites cutting our timber along the rivers, more especially the oak. I am particularly fond of the little grove of oak trees.”
The Oglala leader Crazy Horse also communicated this idea when he said: “We did not ask you white men to come here. The Great Spirit gave us this country as a home. You had yours. We did not interfere with you. The Great Spirit gave us plenty of land to live on, and buffalo, deer, antelope and other game.”
D’Souza ignores such evidence of Indian nations and Indian nation territoriality, and instead forms his arguments on the basis of ancient European notions of property. By presuming the right to define us and our existence in limiting terms, such as by using the phrase “the Indian,” he deflects attention away from our nations, and the fact that we are the original independent nations and peoples of this continent.
Using a quote from the Roman rhetorician Cicero, D’Souza likens the relationship of “the Indian” to the lands of the continent of North American as analogous to people who are seated in a theatre with limited seating. “The ancients also assumed,” says D’Souza, “that the amount of land, like the number of seats in a theatre, is generally fixed, so it’s not right to take up more land than you need.”
D’Souza then proceeds to “the Indian” the property ideas of the eighteenth century English political philosopher John Locke. He uses Locke’s ideas in an effort to argue that “the Indian” didn’t have property rights on the continent because “he” didn’t mix “his” labor with the land. “So where do property rights come from?” D’Souza asks. He answers: “Locke argues that that when we ‘mix’ our labor with land, we come to own the land as well.” Why? Because land is abundant, and nature by itself is almost worthless.”
Worthless, that is, from the viewpoint of John Locke, but not from the viewpoint of our Original Nations and Peoples. Ohiyesa, a Dakota philosopher said it well: “Whenever, in the course of the daily hunt the red hunter comes upon a scene that is strikingly beautiful or sublime—a black thundercloud with the rainbow’s glowing arch above the mountain, a white waterfall in the heart of a green gorge; a vast prairie tinged with the blood-red of sunset—he pauses for an instant in the attitude of worship. He sees no need for setting apart one day in seven as a holy day, since to him all days are God’s.”
D’Sousa takes ideas developed by white men in the past—such as Cicero, John Locke and Alex d’Toqueville, which the Europeans brought invasively to our part of the world, and uses those European ideas to judge us and our Original Nations according to the white man’s way of thinking. He thereby falsely presumes that our nations and peoples became rightfully subject to the white man’s ideas as soon as he showed up on our shores. How strange for an immigrant Christian activist from India to be a pro-colonial and pro-imperial thinker on behalf of the self-described American empire.
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 has been studying U.S. federal Indian law and policy and international law since the early 1980s.