Indian nations have been dealing politically with the imperial momentum of the United States ever since the 13 British colonies along the Atlantic Seaboard of North America declared themselves to be free and independent states in the late eighteenth century. Our original free existence as nations predates the American empire and its colonial system, and that point ought to be the central focus when it comes to advocating for our rights.
Evidence of the colonial system of the United States is found in our traditional Lenape territory in Ohio. In the late 1930s, a stone column was erected on Front Street in Marietta, Ohio. The column stands across the street from “Pioneer Park” on the north bank of the Muskingum River. An inscription on the column reads: “Here with the founding of this Nation’s first colony and establishment of the first American civil government west of the thirteen states, began the march of the United States of America across a continent to the Western sea.” The stone column was erected to commemorate the sesquicentennial (150 years) since the colonial founding of Marietta in April 1788.
That was the year 48 colonists, organized as the Ohio Company of Associates sailed down the Ohio River and made landfall where the Ohio and Muskingum Rivers merge. They were led by Rufus Putnam from Massachusetts, who had become a Brigadier General under General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. In 1783, Washington and Putnam became two of the founding members of the Society of the Cincinnati, which was created by Continental Army officers to work for “the future dignity of the American Empire,” modeled after the Roman Empire.
Marietta (named after Marie Antoinette) was considered to be the American Empire’s very first colonial toehold in the Northwest Territory. The Ohio Company of Associates began their trek in Massachusetts. From there they made their way through the Alleghany Mountains, and then sailed down the Ohio River in a flatboat that they had named “the Mayflower” in memory of their forefathers, the Pilgrims who had landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620.
Recalling those events, Congress in 1935 passed H.R. 208, in preparation for the sesquicentennial of the Northwest Ordinance (1787), by which Congress organized the Northwest Territory. That resolution described the Northwest Ordinance as a “complete change in the method of governing new communities formed by colonization.” (Statutes At Large, Vol. XLIX, Part I, p. 511)
In 1937, the Northwest Territory Celebration Commission published a book written by the Federal Writer’s Project. A map in the publication describes the Northwest Territory (out of which Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota were formed) as “The first Colony of the United States.” The book states: “Here with America’s start westward to the other sea, was born a colonial policy unique in all the world; one of America’s contributions to Governmental progress.”
In 1884, an eminent historian named George Bancroft, in his History of the Formation of the Constitution of the United States, devoted chapter six to “The Colonial System of the United States.” The Northwest Ordinance is the only content in that chapter. Bancroft explained that by the terms of that ordinance “the colonization of all the territory then in the possession of the United States was to proceed.” This of course led to the colonization of the lands and territories of our Indian nations. George Washington acknowledged that pattern of colonization when he said of Marietta and the Northwest Territory: “No colony in America was ever settled under such favorable auspices as that which has just commenced at the Muskingum.”
As “the Builders” of Empire, the Freemasons played a major role in the history of American colonization. The Society of the Cincinnati, named after the Roman general Cincinnatus, was founded by Freemasons such as George Washington, Arthur St. Clair, Josiah Harmar, Mad Anthony Wayne, Rufus Putnam, and many others. In 1938, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a Freemason, gave an address to an estimated 100,000 people in Pioneer Park in Marietta, Ohio in honor of that history of colonization.
Also in 1938 in Marietta, Freemason Gutzon Borglum (who was also a KKK member) erected the statue “Memorial to the Start Westward.” The statue has also been associated with the mural of Manifest Destiny, “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way.” Borglum erected the statue in honor of Rufus Putnam and the Ohio Company of Associates founding Marietta. (Borglum went on to carve Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills, sacred to Titonwan and other Oceti Sakowin Nations, along with their allied Nations).
When U.S. government officials say that the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples is to be implemented in a manner “consistent with domestic U.S. law,” they ought to acknowledge that U.S. federal Indian law and policy is an outgrowth of the imperial and colonial system of the United States. When we are advocating in the United Nations and elsewhere on behalf of the original nations that are located within the geo-political boundaries claimed by the United States, we ought to point out what makes such rights advocacy work necessary. It is the legacy of the American Empire’s imperial/colonial system, and the colonization of the traditional lands and territories of our nations.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, 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.