Some years ago, I was studying both the Latin and English versions of the Vatican document Inter Caetera, dated May 4, 1493, and came across the following sentence: “We trust in Him from whom empires, and governments, and all good things proceed.” In Latin it reads: “…in Illo a quo imperia et dominationes ac bona cuncta procedunt confidentes…”
The spelling of the pronoun “Him” with a capital ‘H’ (and Illo with a capital ‘I’) tells us that the sentence is signifying a Being that is not named in the sentence. In that context, the word “proceed” means “to issue from.” Thus, I saw that the sentence talks of “empires and governments” issuing forth from, or moving out from, the unnamed Being.
When I compared the Latin and English terminology, I found that the Latin word for ‘governments’ is ‘dominationes,’ or, in English, ‘dominations.’ Thus, the Latin word for a single ‘government’ is ‘domination.’ It is instructional and interesting that, the words “government” and “domination” are synonyms.
Based on the above information, we may accurately refer to “the federal government” as “the federal domination.” Federal Indian law and policy is an outgrowth of a conceptual and behavioral system of federal domination or dominance.
The Vatican document Inter Caetera and other such documents reveal that domination is the core problem that Indigenous nations and peoples have been dealing with for centuries. Once we have identified this, the possibility arises of calling the domination framework into question and of proposing a meaningful and beneficial alternative. Once we have thus accurately identified the nature of the problem, new paths for ending domination begin to open up.
The issue of domination gives rise to questions of legitimacy. For example, is it legitimate for the United States—as the American empire—to dominate the existence of American Indian nations? And from whose perspective shall we answer the question; from the perspective of the United States, or from the perspective of Indigenous nations and peoples?
A system of authority ought to be predicated on a belief that there is a meaningful and legitimate basis for the exercise of that authority. This does not hold true, however, when it comes to one people or nation exercising dominating authority over another people or nation. Thus, here’s a rhetorical question: Is there ever a legitimate basis for the domination of one people by another?
Referring to a structure of domination and subordination as ‘the law,’ as in ‘federal Indian law,’ makes it seem as if that structure is a legitimate basis for relations between the United States and Indian nations and peoples. Calling it ‘law’ makes it that much more difficult to call it into question and challenge it.
The same is true of applying the word ‘trust’ to the domination/subordination relationship, which has been euphemistically termed a “guardian-ward” relationship between the United States and Indian nations. The word ‘trust’ makes it seem as if such a top/down relationship is legitimate and beneficial.
Apparently, we as Indian people are supposed to ‘trust’ that the so-called ‘guardian’ will do the right thing by us because we are told that the relationship was established on a ‘trust’ basis for our benefit as Indian ‘wards.’ However, the lie that underlies this mythology is revealed as soon as we acknowledge that domination never works to the benefit of those who are being dominated or subordinated.
The judicial decisions that make up a significant part of federal Indian law are an integral part of European and Euro-American myth-making and storytelling. European and Euro-American stories about their explorations and ‘discoveries’ of the past revolve around one central theme: ‘How Christian European superiority and dominance came to occupy such and such place in the world.’
The overall body of U.S. federal Indian ‘law’ leads to another question: If we as Indian people fail to question ritualized claims by Christian European that they had a right, on the basis of Christianity, of domination over our lands, territories, and resources, then how are we ever going begin fundamentally transforming the basis of the relationship between the United States and Indian nations?
My former professor C. A. Bowers correctly points out that taking on the thoughts and ideas of one’s opponent is the worst thing you can possibly do in a conflict. Yet this is precisely what we do every time we as Indian people accept the domination/subordination structure of the ideas called “federal Indian law” as if they were legitimate.
Steven Newcomb is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery, international research coordinator for the American Indian Law Alliance, and a columnist for Indian Country Today Media Network.