Today, July 4, the United States of America celebrates its Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. Thomas Jefferson put pen to paper in Philadelphia to express in clear form a number of ideas that are still considered by many to be foundational to the United States as a political experiment. The document that he drafted, slightly modified by John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and the rest of the drafting committee, was approved on July 4, 1776.
In my view, July 4 is a good opportunity for us to reflect on the original free and independent existence of our American Indian ancestors and the original independence of our nations and peoples. It is important to remain mindful of the fact that we have an amazing spiritual and political legacy: Our original existence, independent and free of any Christian European claims of dominance or “plenary power” over us.
The 13 British colonies declared themselves to be “states” and then joined themselves together in a league or common confederation. They had no original free and independent existence that they could invoke for themselves. As colonies they were a product of empire and monarchy. With no original free existence to point to, they had to claim that they had a “right” to “dissolve the political bands” which connected them to the British crown, based on the rationale that they were being abused by “the tyranny” of the crown.
Jefferson’s “Original Rough Draft of the Declaration” reads in part: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, & to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independent [sic] station to which the laws of nature & of nature’s god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the change.”
According to Jefferson’s wording, the thirteen colonies were declaring that they had the right as colonies “to assume among the powers of the earth the equal & independant [sic] station to which the laws of nature & nature’s god entitle them….” (Emphasis added.) The final version of the Declaration of Independence reads:
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
Interesting, that our thousands of years of original free and independent existence as nations and peoples are not recognized or acknowledged by the society of the United States on the 4th of July? Yet ours is the original independence of Turtle Island.
So, what does the United States government claim happened to the original free and independent existence of our nations? According to the United States, Christian European discovery is what happened to the original free and independent existence of Indian nations.
In the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh, Chief Justice John Marshall said of the Indians: “Their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished by the original fundamental principle that discovery gave title to those who made it [the discovery].” In this context and in the previous sentence, the term “title” means “title of dominion” or, to be more precise, a claimed right to and a claimed title to domination.
To claim that the original sovereignty and independence of our nations was “diminished” by Christian European “discovery” posits that our original independence “ended” as a result of Christian European claims of “discovery.”
In relation to what were our Indian nations considered by the U.S. Supreme Court to have become “less than” completely sovereign and independent? The answer is, in relation to the presumption of territorial dominance of the United States government within the boundaries that the United States claimed. For the United States this traces back to, among other founding documents, the Declaration of Independence.
Thus, July 4 is a good day for us to reflect on a cruel irony: While it celebrates its independence, the United States government considers our originally free nations and peoples to have no right to rise from the subordinated position that the U.S. now claims that we occupy based on Christian European claimed rights to discovery and dominance.
Steven Newcomb (Shawneee/Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008), and the Indigenous and Kumeyaay Research Coordinator for the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation.