It remains a cause of wonder to me that people express surprise at how powerful conservative Christianity is in the United States. Do they not remember who it was that sailed on board the Mayflower that put ashore at Plymouth Rock?
The history that's taught to American school children says that the folk who celebrated America's first Thanksgiving were fleeing religious persecution in England. Technically I suppose that it's true they weren't being allowed the freedom to practice their brand of Christianity back home, but did anyone bother to find out what exactly they weren't being allowed to do that so impinged upon their liberty?
One doesn't need to look much further than the reign of Oliver Cromwell to understand why they weren't being allowed to do what they wanted back home. Cromwell led a Puritan revolution that saw the overthrow, and execution of King Charles 1 of England. During his reign of terror Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed any form of worship that wasn't in compliance with their strictures, closed all the theatres as sinful, and invaded Ireland and razed it to the ground for being Catholic. Saying that the Puritans were fleeing persecution because they weren't allowed to do what they wanted is sort of like saying denying the Klan the right to hold a lynching impinges on their civil rights.
Of course in 16th and 17 century, nearly anyone crossing an ocean anywhere and travelling to a "new world" was a Christian of some sort or another. Portuguese and Spanish sailors were circling the globe and "discovering" South America. The French and the British were dividing up North America between them as everybody was trying to find an easy way to get to the East. It was the great era of Christian exploration and conquest. According to a new book by Native American author Steven T. Newcomb, Pagans In The Promised Land, published by Fulcrum Publishing, it's here we need to look to find the roots of American policy towards the indigenous people of the North American continent.
Steven Newcomb is a columnist for Indian Country Today and co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute(ILI). In his work for ILI he works to support indigenous nations and peoples to protect their sacred and ancestral homelands, restore and revitalize traditions and to heal from the past five hundred years of colonization. A good deal of that kind of work involves finding the means to advocate for various nations in courtrooms across the United States, which in turn means he's had to make a study of the rationale behind Judicial rulings that have found both for and against Native Americans in the past.
In Pagans In The Promised Land he has distilled some of that information to offer proof of his theory that American government policy towards Native Americans has been justified by concepts of Christianity. He also categorizes the relationship of American governments towards Native Americans as one that follows an empire-domination model based on an inherent right of Christian rule by discovery.
While he offers various examples throughout the book substantiating his theory through the history of America, three concrete examples, or proofs, form the core of his argument. In 1493 Pope Alexander VI issued a Papal Bull known as Inter Caetera in response to a request from King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to justify their claiming any lands that Christopher Columbus discovered or may discover in the future. The only codicil that the Pope added was that no Christian King could claim any land already claimed by another. The Pope saw this as being a way of spreading a Christian Empire, fulfilling his desire to subjugate non-Christian nations, by whatever means necessary, and making them all Christian.
Those landing at Plymouth Rock claimed the land in the name of the Puritan Christian God. They may not have exercised the letter of Alexander's Papal Bull, as they weren't Catholic, but they sure followed its spirit through their treatment of the local indigenous population. Yet, according to Newcomb, while the Inter Caetera may have defined their relationship with Native Americans, it has been American governments likening themselves to the Israelites of the Old Testament in Exodus and America as "The Promised Land" that has had the farthest reaching consequences.
The Puritans saw themselves as the Chosen People and the new world as their promised land where they would be able to live as they wanted, but it didn't stop with them. Benjamin Franklin suggested to the Continental Congress that Moses leading the Israelites across the Red Sea should appear on the Great Seal of the United States, while Thomas Jefferson said it should depict the Israelites crossing into the Promised Land guided by clouds and fire. Both images were designed to reinforce the image of Americans as The Chosen People and America as the Promised Land.
Of course, as in the Old Testament, in America there were Canaanites who needed to be smitten before the Chosen People could move into their Promised Lands, and smitten they have been. According to various proofs offered by Newcomb throughout the book this mindset has permeated the attitude taken by America during their expansion across America and their treatment of Indigenous people's everywhere.
One of the key arguments in his book in support of his theory that the relationship between the American government and the Native population is based on the rule of Christian discovery is a legal case from the 1820s - Johnson v. McIntosh. Chief Justice John Marshall actually based his ruling in part upon the Papal Bull of 1493. In the case he said that the discovery of "heathens" by Christian people gave the Christians "ultimate dominion" over the "discovered Indian". This decision has never been overturned and remains the legal foundation for all American government dealings with the Native populations of the Americans.
Steven Newcomb has studied judicial history, and has in some ways approached this work like a lawyer proving his case in court. Fortunately, he refrains from using legal terminology, whenever possible, and has formulated his case in a way that all lay people can understand. The other thing to realize is that this book has been written for a native audience to help them understand the situation they face.
One of the parts I found wonderful about this book was how he offers cognitive counsel for Native people to help them overcome the mindset of feeling like they are a conquered people. He reminds them that governments can not control how they think, what they imagine, how they use their language, or where they direct their attention. As long as they remember that, and continue to work on keeping their languages, traditions, and cultures alive, no matter what constraints the government puts on them they will still be free.
Pagans In The Promised Land is a must read for anybody wishing to understand what truly motivates American policy towards the Indigenous people's within in its borders. While at times it can make for a depressing and angering read, the author ends with a message of hope that is applicable for people anywhere in the world struggling to maintain their identity in the face of what seems to be overwhelming odds.
(Originally posted April 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.