The following is the first of a multi-part series.
By far, public discourse in the United States is most frequently framed within a white-black binary. The legacy of slavery looms large for a union that consciously decided at its founding to perpetuate the so-called “peculiar institution” (as a later defender of slavery termed it). As Vine Deloria, Jr. complained fifty years ago, “Having defined a specific problem – white-black – people feel they can forever include additional groups without losing the meaning of the words they are using, and it just ain’t so” (87).
However, largely in thanks to the efforts of the Movement for Black Lives this year, a small yet significant opening has been made to address the ongoing erasure of Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. In Denver, where I reside, a Civil War statue outside the capitol will be replaced in coming months with one commemorating the genocidal Sand Creek massacre, November 29, 1864.
Public discourse is changing, but with respect to Native Americans the forum sheds light on the ignorance brought on by centuries of intentional erasure. When issues do become public, such as a recent repealing the columbus day holiday, for example, platitudinous remarks fill our courtrooms as representatives who know none of the history feign a brief historical interest by maybe checking out “a book” against massive bibliographies provided by scholars, or they play armchair archaeologist and make whimsical and romanticized remarks about ancient pasts of Indians in front of existing Native children who testify to their daily rhetorical erasure in their school curricula.
Uninformed citizens don’t get it. They conceive the issue as identity politics and fights over “political correctness.” Yet as Arlie Hochschild (among others) has described in Strangers in Their Own Land, many American citizens temporally conceive of their achievement of an “American dream” as a line, and any “minorities” need to get to the back. No cuts, no buts.
The fragility of the metaphor perhaps rests on the fact that, deep down, these people know that this is not their land. As the term “pilgrim” denotes, they are indeed foreigners, strangers. “Wait your turn,” they say to racial minorities and more recent immigrants, “we stole this first.” So normalized is such thinking that correcting historical myths is very much perceived as something being “taken” from them. Many of us (myself included) were “educated” early on in our lives via erasure to accept our entitlements as so natural that they did not appear at all.
What’s scary is how current places of higher education, where loads of good research has been done to correct political myths, continue to perpetuate them. At my own alma mater, The University of Denver, Chancellor Jeremy Haefner yesterday (November 29, 2020) embodied the typical hypocrisy so present in our public discourse in a “heartfelt” message acknowledging the Sand Creek massacre after earlier this fall quarter claiming — against Native students, the Native community in Denver, and the findings of the Evans Committee of professors whose research into the massacre elicited a formal apology from a former Governor — that the school will adamantly keep the moniker “Pioneer.”
The fact that the name “pioneer” will not sound offensive to many potential readers of this piece speaks to my point about erasure. The name, which gets its etymology from “peon” and “pawn,” reveals the fact that the University of Denver’s moniker celebrates a university identity that is, as Bob Dylan famously sang, “only a pawn in their game.” What a proud thing to celebrate.
In keeping the moniker, the school is continuing to live up to its status quo image, much to the embarrassment of some of us who did a lot of studying at DU regarding racist colonial history. When a school (and its funders) cannot trust the knowledge of its own students’ and faculty research, what does this say about its commitment to higher education?
Chancellor Haefner’s statement that the school will keep the moniker incited an oppositional response from faculty and alumni. Many of the faculty members who signed the letter helped to produce a report on the role of John Evans in the Sand Creek Massacre in 2014, commemorating the 150th anniversary of the atrocity.
Among their rationales in opposing the retention of the moniker they write,”given that, for years now, members of the DU Native community and many allies have respectfully requested to replace the Pioneer with a more appropriate and inclusive symbol, DU is in violation of its own stated values of diversity and inclusive excellence with the stubborn reassertion of the Pioneer as the only possible option of institutional representation.” They also state, “The unilateral declaration of this decision [to keep the name] as “final” without having ever convened a public forum or process for students, faculty, alumni, administration, and staff to engage in open dialogue and deliberation around this issue is insulting and contrary to the values higher education is supposed to embody.”
Platitudes of land acknowledgement and politics of recognition under these conditions are drenched with institutional hypocrisy. More than mere “political correctness,” oftentimes liberal politics of recognition perpetuate past oppression. Among DU’s “conciliatory” efforts, Haefner sent a message to the campus community on November 20 discussing alternate strategies after “dialog” with a Native American Community Advisory Board (NACAB) despite the earlier statements acknowledging the retention of “pioneer.” He wrote,
We also discussed the placement of the Northern Cheyenne, Northern Arapaho and Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho National flags in the new Community Commons building that will open in January. These flags, generously gifted to DU by the Nations and originally housed in the Driscoll Academic Commons, represent another noteworthy move that contributes to ongoing healing, education and partnership. We will work diligently with the NACAB to ensure these flags, symbols of the sovereign status of the Cheyenne and Arapaho nations, as well as a renewed sense of friendship and collaboration with the DU community, are displayed prominently, honorably and respectfully.
In making such gestures, Haefner and the school, which abides on two sides of former governor John “Evans Avenue,” is formally participating in a centuries-long process of colonial domination. The fact that this seems “normal” to many speaks to the ways they are steeped in the rhetoric of a deeply-framed civic religion underwritten by the genocide of Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. How empty is this acknowledgment of “sovereignty” of “flags” housed within the colonizer’s rhetorical space, so that as generations of future students and community members pass through it they soak in the normative denial that upholds white supremacy?
Last month, The New Polis began a public project calling for research and engagement on the legacy of the Doctrine of Christian Discovery and Domination. We will have the first of many Critical Conversations beginning December 8, 2020. In what follows, I will begin the first of multiple pieces highlighting the continued relevance of the Doctrine of Christian Domination, and effort that necessarily must trace over 500 years of persistent genocidal intent in order to see how such intent has been made normative in American civic life. I turn now to that history with specific attention the “New England.”
The arrival of African slaves to the continents now called the “Americas” was premised in part by the destruction of Indians. Part of that destruction was due to disease, which had done its part in depopulating Native communities such that when settlers arriving in what they would call “New England,” they encountered an environment that had been widely populated and sustained by Native trade networks and farming techniques that did not correspond to the enclosure and plantation systems with which they were familiar. David Stannard cites a population in North America around the time of contact at about 18 million, with significantly higher populations to the south – 25 million in Mexico alone (33).
By the time English had arrived in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, a century of genocide and expropriation had persisted in the Caribbean and South America, giving rise to the Black Legend. English hubris especially followed the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and it was just after that event that their colonizing efforts on Turtle Island picked up. An emergent international law, following papal bulls of donation or (Doctrine of Discovery / Domination), had spread throughout the European powers, and that conversation impacted maritime dealings despite the break with the Catholic Church and the formation of the Church of England.
Moreover, the religious fighting that led Protestant groups opposed to compulsory attendance in Anglican state religion pushed them to the heart of international commercial ventures in the Netherlands. It was from there — and with an explicitly commercial purpose (rather than a search for “religious freedom”) — that dissenters from the Anglican Church formed alliances and eventually received a Charter from James I to found a colony in December of 1620. The settlement was to be an asset for a growing empire, and trade was the name of the game.
To the south, earlier Virginia settlement records illustrate clear familiarity among the English for causes of “just war” that had informed the papal bulls of donation. This thinking was strategic for intentional depopulation of Indians. As Stannard relays from colonial sources,
Peace treaties were signed with every intention to violate them: when Indians “grow secure upon the treatie,” advised the Council of State in Virginia, “we shall have the better Advantage both to surprise them, & cut downe theire Corne.” And when at last the Indians retaliated strongly, killing more than three hundred settlers, the attack, writes Edmund S. Morgan, “released all restraints that the company had hitherto imposed on those who thirsted for the destruction or enslavement of the Indians.” Not that the restraints had ever been particularly confining, but from now on the only controversy was over whether it was preferable to kill all the native peoples or to enslave them. Either way, the point was to seize upon the “right of Warre [and] invade the Country and destroy them who sought to destroy us,” wrote a rejoicing Edward Waterhouse at the time, “whereby wee shall enjoy their cultivated places . . . [and] their cleared grounds in all of their villages (which are situate in the fruitfullest places of the land) shall be inhabited by us. (Stannard 106)
Significant in these remarks is the familiarity that the English display with regard to just war in international law. This had particularly nuanced significance after the mid-15th-century Valladolid debates established Indians as “free peoples” against those who claimed Indian customs established the people as subhumans whose savage traditions were crimes “against nature.” As such, enslavement had to occur as a result of “just war.” Because the emergent slave trade was good money, many Europeans took to deliberately provoking existing populations to justify slavery and “servitude,” a dramatic reenactment of the human trafficking initiated in Christopher Columbus’s first voyage.
We can see a twofold intention at work in the behavior of English colonizers. Clearly, the English had their eyes on “the fruitfullest places of the land” which were indeed “cultivated,” yet the more “savage” they could make the Indians appear, the narrower the margin was in justifying their destruction or enslavement. Francis Jennings has noted that the word “savage” went through linguistic pejoration among English colonizers in particular, who “never adopted the conception of the Noble Savage.” He writes, “The word savage thus underwent considerable alteration of meaning as different colonists pursued their varied ends. One aspect of the term remained constant, however: the savage was always inferior to civilized men” (59).
Anglo ethnocentrism, informed by a sense of superiority over the Spanish (the Black Legend), adopted and amplified dehumanizing tropes to justify their appropriation of inhabited lands and expropriation of the peoples and resources. The flip side of this trope was to simultaneously to present themselves as a civilizing force to convert (some) Indians to christianity. This would be done through an ambiguous relationship between enslavement and “servitude,” which would soon become evidenced through a heightened attention to skin color with the arrival of more African slaves toward the end of the 17th-century.
During that period, we begin to see how emergent notions of ‘whiteness’ were being formed by distinguishing Indians as savage “others” alongside the eurochristian sense of civilizational superiority. What manifests is a eurochristian poetics – “poetic” in the sense that they are rhetorically constructed – of sacrifice.
Vilified Indian “savages” were sacrificed to evidence the Providence of a eurochristian god. This was a dramatic construction, premised on self-aware performance and measurement. Measurement, as Andromeda’s Linklater’s Measuring America details, was dominant in Anglo aesthetics and politics of the period. It was a performance the English knew well.
Anglo-Protestant pride would later be repeated in the colonies. To appreciate the rhetorical significance of this emergent sense of particularly Anglo-inflected superiority, we might turn briefly to Thomas Jefferson. In The American Indian in Western Legal Thought, Robert A. Williams, Jr. covers Jefferson’s Summary View of the Rights of British America. There, Jefferson interpreted the right to revolt through a rhetoric of Anglo-Saxon’s casting off the Catholic “Norman Yoke” put in place by the 1066 invasion.
For Jefferson, Henry VIII’s break from Catholicism, following his father’s funding of the Italian merchant, John Cabot, was in the true Anglo-Saxon spirit. But it had not gone far enough.
The [English] king had never formally conquered the Indians’ America, just as the Normans had never formally received surrender of all Saxon-held lands in England. The Norman Yoke was as illegitimately applied in the New World as it had been in the Old. But unlike the situation in a corrupt England, it was not too late to throw off this yoke in America. (Williams 270)
The modern Anglo Saxon racial ideal had emerged during the 16th and 17th centuries. According to Jefferson’s 18th-century identification with the Anglo-Saxon tradition, there was imbued within his whiteness a particularly imagined character, capable of establishing a new civilization.
As Quentin Skinner notes in Liberty before Liberalism with respect to English gentry, Jefferson’s republicanism was a manifestation that romanticized the Roman Empire. But he added a particular ethnic quality from England and before. For Jefferson, the “freedom-seeking Saxons” had sojourned and founded England:
[O]ur ancestors, before their emigration to America, were the free inhabitants of the British dominions in Europe, and possessed a right which nature had given to all men, of departing from the country in which chance was not choice, has placed them, of going in quest of new habitations, and of there establishing new societies, under such laws and regulations as to them shall seem most likely to promote the public happiness. (Williams 267)
For Jefferson, lineage to a “true” Anglo-Saxon character tapped into a need to resist implicitly Catholic / Norman invaders. In the colonies, such ethnocentrism fused with “just war” conceptions in order to “justify” the reduction of Natives to slavery and servitude when not wiped out altogether. The “Anglo-Saxon” character was simultaneously fused with Anglo-Protestantism, such that non-conformist Protestant expressions –including later Enlightenment Deism — would “naturalize” white superiority to rule.
It is important to note that modern conceptions of race according to skin color derived from this religio-ethnic political theology. The more savage the savage, the greater the achievement of colonizer salvation. The violence of colonizing efforts embodied Providence and later conceptions of the “Invisible Hand.” All of this was part of a eurochristian poetics of redemptive “sacrifice” rhetorically directed at naturalizing ChristenDOMination.
By the 18th century’s “tea party,” well-worn mimetic importations of eurochristian religious poetics incorporated ideas of Indian “savagery” to re-enact the (Roman) Christianization of pagan peoples of Europe through rituals of “playing Indian.” With respect to “New England,” Philip Deloria has eloquently articulated the politics of Indigenous-identity-appropriation. In May-Day carnivals that brought performances of class reversals to Turtle Island, “white [settler] Indians” came to signify their “natural” Americanness by forming “St. Tammany” societies, supposedly in reverence to “Tammenend, a Delaware leader who had granted William Penn access to the river and woods” (13).
On May Day, “King Tammany” was burned by white colonizers dressed as Indians: “The rituals worked in countervailing ways. Tammany’s death was a metaphor for the ‘disappearance’ of Indian people from the land, the destruction of the old cycle, the dawning of another era in which successor Americans would enjoy their new world” (18). Sacrificial poetics are undeniable here.
The romance of the dying or “extinct” Indian today must be constantly rejected by Indigenous People against centuries of “playing Indian” and entitled cultural appropriation presented as “tribute.” The perpetuation of a “pioneer” mentality and identity rests on the implicit genocide of previously existing people while benefiting from a hoary colonial romance that implicitly needs its “savage.”
Reality tells us a different story than the romance. For example, at least one part of the rhetoric of “savagery” in its expression of the eurochristian drama of “redemptive” sacrifice is a complete denial that Indigenous diets were far more based on the careful cultivation of plants. As cultivators (and here the etymology of my own language betrays its metaphorical allegiance to vertical, romanized conceptions of hierarchical power), Indian land use had to be erased to further justify their “savageness” in all their sylvan barbarity.
Denying the Indians’ farming abilities helped to vilify them in the eyes of potential funders in England, who were the true audience to the performance of the eurochristian poetics of sacrifice that I am describing. Denying the Indians custom and culture justified the ransacking of their graves in search of “treasure.” It fueled “progressive” attempts to “educate” and “civilize” (Harvard, Dartmouth, etc.) non-christian savages in support of the newly formed “companies” in New England.
The perception of success back in England was necessary for continued support. Meanwhile, colonizers moved into desolated towns, took over existing crops, and gradually forced remaining Natives to be more reliant on hunting and fishing for subsistence (Jennings 63). Access to hunting grounds then became more necessary to displaced Indians, whose crops had either been taken or destroyed by settlers (peons / pawns).
To the north of Virginia, as Philip Deloria and David Silverman note, Wampanoag sources remember the first encounters with the Plimouth settlers as a treaty based on mutual aid for defense against invaders rather than the romanticized accounts developed in settler Thanksgiving mythology.
Nor did the Pilgrims extend a warm invitation to their Indian neighbors. Rather, the Wampanoags showed up unbidden. And it was not simply four or five of them at the table, as we often imagine. Ousamequin, the Massasoit, arrived with perhaps ninety men—more than the entire population of Plymouth. Wampanoag tradition suggests that the group was in fact an army, honoring a mutual-defense pact negotiated the previous spring. They came not to enjoy a multicultural feast but to aid the Pilgrims: hearing repeated gunfire, they assumed that the settlers were under attack. After a long moment of suspicion (the Pilgrims misread almost everything that Indians did as potential aggression), the two peoples recognized one another, in some uneasy way, and spent the next three days together.
As Deloria writes, “No centuries-long continuity emerged from that 1621 meet-up. New Englanders certainly celebrated Thanksgivings—often in both fall and spring—but they were of the fasting-and-prayer variety. Notable examples took place in 1637 and 1676, following bloody victories over Native people.”
The significance of the 1637 “thanksgiving” followed upon the massacre of some 700 Pequots in another rhetorically manufactured “just war.” As Margaret Ellen Newell details extensively in Brethren By Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery, the implementation of the war served a dual purpose of land acquisition and enslavement of Indians to form a much-needed labor-force. Captives of “just wars” could be enslaved in perpetuity, again following the Doctrine of Discovery and the emergence of chattel slavery, which is partially makes by the intergenerational enslavement of offspring.
The first racialized laws in the colonies legalizing slavery appear following the Pequot War. As Newell writes,
in 1641 Massachussetts Bay passed the first slave law in the English Atlantic world — in large part because authorities wanted to define the legal status of hundreds of Pequot Indians captives they had incorporated into their households. Indian servants also prompted one of the signature transatlantic Puritan activities of the seventeenth century — the push to evangelize New England Indians. Capitves taught John Eliot the Wampanoag language and served as interpreters and translators for his catechisms, and in turn captives were the initial targets of his evangelical project. (6)
Making slaves into Christians was rhetorically presented as being for the “benefit” of the “savages,” but it simultaneously solidified the construction that the English were both inherently superior and that their (and their King’s) laws were sovereign. Remember DU Chancellor Haefner’s empty acknowledgment of Cheyenne and Arapahoe “sovereignty” above?
‘Sovereignty’ here must be situated within its eurochristian context, and it was from that context that racialized forms of dominance based on skin color would derive as a process of extraction and conversion of both land and peoples into legally baptized forms of property. This must be understood within the continued reliance of the Doctrine of Discovery / Domination.
For example, the eurochristian phantasy structure of the Doctrine of Discovery is built directly into the fabric of the 1620 Charter of New England, a deal brokered with James I for the joint stock company known as the Council for New England (later Massachusetts Bay in varying iterations).
The document is dated November 3, 1620, but the Mayflower had set sail September 6, 1620 for the Virginia colony, landing at Cape Cod instead. The agreement that came to be known as the Mayflower Compact (November 11, 1620) agreed to remain loyal subjects of James I and to based their society on Christian faith. Christian faith provided solidarity to a commercial project.
Despite James and the non-conforming colonizers’ (peons’) various Protestant-derived religious identities, on the open seas and in the “new world,” international law remained very much within the conception of the Doctrine of Discovery and the “natural rights” expressed soon afterward. In this more competitive sphere outside of papal bulls of donation, fierce competition developed. “New England” was thus intentionally designed to prohibit the success of a “New Netherlands” or “New Denmark.”
Direct references appear in the Charter of New England to the 14th-century papal bulls of donation making up the Doctrine of Discovery, which I have highlighted in bold. (See my recent video discussing the bulls here).
And for asmuch as We have been certainly given to understand by divers of our good Subjects, that have for these many Years past frequented those Coasts and Territoryes, between the Degrees of Fourty and Fourty-Eight, that there is noe other the Subjects of any Christian King or State, by any Authority from their Soveraignes, Lords, or Princes, actually in Possession of any of the said Lands or Precincts, whereby any Right, Claim, Interest, or Title, may, might, or ought by that Meanes accrue, belong, or appertaine unto them, or any of them.
The Doctrine of Discovery granted the right for subjects of any Christian Prince to claim for Christendom. This was a transnational articulation of eurochristian religious poetics that transcended the various Protestant fractures and even the notion of the Sovereign. Sovereignty, in this conception, is entirely eurochristian. Absent a Christian sovereign, under international law the land was deemed terra nullius, or “nobody’s land.” It goes on,
And also for that We have been further given certainly to knowe, that within these late Yeares there hath by God’s Visitation reigned a wonderfull Plague, together with many horrible Slaugthers, and Murthers, committed amoungst the Sauages and brutish People there, heertofore inhabiting, in a Manner to the utter Destruction, Deuastacion, and Depopulacion of that whole Territorye, so that there is not left for many Leagues together in a Manner, any that doe claime or challenge any Kind of Interests therein, nor any other Superiour Lord or Souveraigne to make Claime “hereunto, whereby We in our Judgment are persuaded and satisfied that the appointed Time is come in which Almighty God in his great Goodness and Bountie towards Us and our People, hath thought fitt and determined, that those large and goodly Territoryes, deserted as it were by their naturall Inhabitants, should be possessed and enjoyed by such of our Subjects and People as heertofore have and hereafter shall by his Mercie and Favour, and by his Powerfull Arme, be directed and conducted thither.“
People who want to minimize the genocide of Indigenous Peoples often make the claim that disease did much of the killing, as if that somehow counterbalances the atrocities of direct, physical violence and enslavement to depopulate lands occupied by Indigenous Peoples. In this passage we see that, building on the claims to territories unclaimed by a Christian sovereign, the colonizers imagined in a foreshadowing of Manifest Destiny that God was intentionally clearing the path for colonization by wreaking a plague upon the “savages.”
Moreover, in the passage Indigenous Peoples are depicted as “brutish” “murderers” who, fighting amongst one another, are represented as having killed each other off. Again, Francis Jennings notes that as early as 1588, speculators of colonization noticed that Natives began to “die very fast” after contact with English people (23). Stannard notes that the population around Virginia had halved due to imported disease between the 1580s and the Jamestown settlement but that “[b]y the end of 1623 the Indians acknowledged that in the past year alone as many of their number had been killed as had died since the first arrival of the British a decade and a half earlier.” Nor did this observation give pause to the colonists who slaughtered “800 defenseless” Indians in 1624 (107).
Jennings also points to the lawyer, Richard Hakluyt’s clearly stated intentions for the Virginia colony in 1585: “The ends of this voyage are these: 1, to plant the Christian religion; 2, To trafficke; 3, To conquer; Or, to doe all three” (76). This is the poetics of euorchristian sacrifice doing its rhetorical work. The intent to vilify the “savage” was directly part of a propaganda strategy to portray them as incapable of cultivating land while moving into their villages and depriving them of their food sources.
It was also dramatic, a self-conscious performance in all its Elizabethan splendor that is quite far from platitudes that would claim that the historical context somehow “naturalized” genocidal intent toward non-Christians. That move would be an ahistorical superimposing of what has become for many eurochristians today “natural” — that is, the rhetorical erasure of Native Americans.
What is especially telling about the passage from The Charter of New England above is the obvious recognition among the English of Indians living there, while at the same time declaring that God himself had reduced them. English speculators had already noticed the decline of populations after contact, and this could also be tied into religious rhetoric for their right to occupy the territory.
Notice also that, much like Christopher Columbus, the English colonizers denied that the Natives could be “Subjects and People.” Remember that Queen Isabella had been angry at Columbus for his ill-treatment of her new “subjects,” but his dehumanization of the Natives was employed to justify the human trafficking of slavery to make money when he did not find the gold he desired. The English colonizers were doing much of the same in their reencactment of selling severely reduced populations of Indigenous Peoples into slavery in order to expropriate and clear the land. Again, the rhetoric of “savagery” was employed as a device to begin clearing more powerful Natives as the colonizers encroached inland.
Genocidal intent pervades The New England Charter (and just to be clear, Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term ‘genocide’ in the 1940s, was explicit that although a neologism it denoted an ancient crime). James I states,
In Contemplacion and serious Consideracion whereof, Wee have thougt it fitt according to our Kingly Duty, soe much as in Us lyeth, to second and followe God’s sacred Will, rendering reverend Thanks to his Divine Majestie for his gracious favour in laying open and revealing the same unto us, before any other Christian Prince or State, by which Meanes without Offence, and as We trust to his Glory, Wee may with Boldness goe on to the settling of soe hopefull a Work, which tendeth to the reducing and Conversion of such Sauages as remaine wandering in Desolacion and Distress, to Civil Societie and Christian Religion, to the Inlargement of our own Dominions, and the Aduancement of the Fortunes of such of our good Subjects as shall willingly intresse themselves in the said Imployment, to whom We cannot but give singular Commendations for their soe worthy Intention and Enterprize.
Here the language of “reduction” again echoes fifteenth century papal bulls. Jennings, among others, notes that actual conversions were rare (251). During this period, the rhetoric of conversion and “civilizing” the “savages” had more to do with appealing to monetary support among English churchgoers for the support of the new English companies who desired to profit from colonization. Commerce and profit, the “advancement of fortunes,” were also tied to the early conception of “liberty.” Enslavement and servitude were means to achieve these ends. The document continues,
Wee therefore, of our especiall Grace, mere Motion, and certaine Knowledge, by the Aduice of the Lords and others of our Priuy Councell have for Us, our Heyrs and Successors, graunted, ordained, and established, and in and by these Presents, Do for Us, our Heirs and Successors, grant, ordaine and establish, that all that Circuit, Continent, Precincts, and Limitts in America, lying and being in Breadth from Fourty Degrees of Northerly Latitude, from the Equnoctiall Line, to Fourty-eight Degrees of the said Northerly Latitude, and in length by all the Breadth aforesaid throughout the Maine Land, from Sea to Sea, with all the Seas, Rivers, Islands, Creekes, Inletts, Ports, and Havens, within the Degrees, Precincts and Limitts of the said Latitude and Longitude, shall be the Limitts; and Bounds, and Precints of the second Collony: And to the End that the said Territoryes may forever hereafter be more particularly and certainly known and distinguished, our Will and Pleasure is, that the same shall from henceforth be nominated, termed, and called by the Name of New-England, in America; and by that Name of New-England in America, the said Circuit, Precinct, Limitt, Continent, Islands, and Places in America, aforesaid, We do by these Presents, for Us, our Heyrs and Successors, name, call, erect, found and establish, and by that Name to have Continuance for ever.
Here we once again have the baptismal renaming of the land within an eurochristian sovereignty. Recall Chancellor Haefner’s pretensions to ceremonial “acknowledgments” of American Indians so long as they remain dominated by the moniker of pioneer pawns. While I will not belabor a close-reading of the entire text of The New England Charter here (I sense I’ve made my point), it is helpful to note the language at the end of the document granting the charter.
And lastly, because the principall Effect which we can desire or expect of this Action, is the Conversion and Reduction of the People in those Parts unto the true Worship of God and Christian Religion, in which Respect, Wee would be loath that any Person should be permitted to pass that Wee suspected to affect the Superstition of the Church of Rome, Wee do hereby declare that it is our Will and Pleasure that none be permitted to pass, in any Voyage from time to time to be made into the said Country, but such as shall first have taken the Oathe of Supremacy; for which Purpose, Wee do by these Presents give full Power and Authority to the President of the said Councill, to tender and exhibit the said Oath to all such Persons as shall at any time be sent and imployed in the said Voyage.
[. . .]
And Wee also do by these Presents, ratifye and confirm unto the said Councill and their Successors, all Priveliges, Franchises, Liberties, Immunities granted in our said former Letters-patents, and not in these our Letters-patents revoked, altered, changed or abridged, altho’ Expressed, Mentioned, &c.
“Liberty” here is tied to religious freedom insofar as it is Protestant and uses Protestant governance to deny any “Superstition” tied to the “Church of Rome.” Such charters granting colonizing rights to English companies reveal the eurochristian religious poetics at work well before the 1694 establishment of the Bank of England, following the Glorious Revolution. This all followed King Phillip’s War in the 1670s, which was an amplification of provoked aggression tactics employed in the earlier Pequot War.
The period between the two wars is especially important for tracking the emergence of racialized slavery in the colonies. While it is true that English settlers continued to arrive (about 600,000 by 1700) while Indian populations decreased, there were ebbs and flows. During the 1630s, settler population boomed and with it various conflicts over religious enthusiasm. The famous Antinomian controversy of 1636-1638 paralleled the Pequot War. Roger Williams, who had been cast out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and founded the Providence Plantation is too often remembered for friendly sentiments toward Indians.
As Margaret Ellen Newell’s book details, Williams’s “friendliness” toward Indians ought to be coupled with his role as an Indian slave trader. He frequently caught and returned escaping Indian slaves. His insistence on Christianizing Indians in servitude against the deportation of Indian slaves into the transatlantic system was bound to millenarian theological notions about converting souls to bring about the Second Coming. Newell’s work details that “servitude” and “slavery” were used so ambiguously in 17th-century laws that slippage between the two states could easily be employed by slave masters.
Terms of indenture came, more and more, to delineate on the basis of skin color a difference between colonizer-servants (peons). This shift in identity-perspective aligned with aspirations to land, which to English peons was a symbol of upward mobility. Another form of it occurred later in Reconstruction distinctions between poor whites and newly freed slaves. The white-black binary would be more exacerbated by “one drop” rules, pseudoscience about blood quantum, and Plessy v. Ferguson.
Yet as David Roediger writes in The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class,
The term white arose as a designation for European explorers, traders and settlers who came into contact with Africans and indigenous people of the Americas. As such it appeared even before permanent British settlement in North America. Its early usages in America served as much to distinguish European settlers from Native Americans as to distinguish Africans from Europeans. Thus, the prehistory of the white worker begins in the settlers’ images of Native Americans. (21)
So, let me return briefly to the 16th century. Captured Pequots in the late 1630s, following a “just war” with victory celebrated as “thanksgiving,” were reduced to “perpetual slavery,” meaning their children would be slaves for life as well. Terms of “servitude” or indenture could include offspring at times for longer than the adult’s initial indenture, terms of servitude for 99 years were dealt, hardly a real significance for the person deemed a “servant” and not a “slave.”
The significance of the trumped-up Pequot “just war” and the early 1640s race-based laws that followed partially reflect a downturn in immigrant “servants” with the English Civil War. Those who would otherwise consider fleeing to Puritan New England could now simply stay in Puritan-controlled England. New England settlers were constantly having to justify their existence, income, and superiority. The slave trade became increasingly popular as a way to remove (often male) Indians too prone to running away.
African slaves were imported to take the place of Indians, and with them “interracial” offspring could produce darker complexions. It is also true, however, that “interracial” children of whites and Indians could also easily be subject to arbitrary servitude and enslavement (Newell 15). Newell notes that the English inherited Roman slave codes, which informed their Poor Laws during the 16th century.
Roman law codified — and therefore sanctioned — an elaborately, including the enslavement of war captives. So, there was non explicit English legislation defining slavery for colonial regimes to draw upon. This did not stop the English in America from creating robust slave codes, but it did enable some regional differences.
In fact, despite being the first to legalize slavery in 1641 in the wake of the Pequot War, thereafter New England governments consciously avoided additional legislation that delimited slave status that clearly delimited what slavery was, how and whether heredity conferred it, and who was eligible to be enslaved. (13)
To sum it up briefly, “The English colonists showed an increasing consciousness of race after 1700, and race became a key category for determining status, legal rights, social position, and citizenship” (15). But lost in the ambiguity is the legacy — especially in New England — of Indian labor in the accumulation of capital in the emergent economy. Instead, a romanticized notion of Indian “savagery” swept across Turtle Island with the eastern wind’s arrival of the eurochristian storm god. It continues to wreak the havoc of a Nor’easter in its rhetorical hold with which eurochristian exceptionalism plagues the land.
As Tink Tinker (wazhazhe, Osage), who was among those who signed the letter of opposition to DU’s retention of the “pioneer” moniker, ” has written in his New Polis article, “What Are We Going To Do With White People?” we employ the term ‘eurochristian’ to designate a social movement, not a religion. The term is more accurate than “white” because it does not imbricate itself in 19-century pseudoscience about race and instead historically situates that horrendous concept within the deeply-framed political theology (“ideology,” is too cartoonish here) of idealized Anglo-Saxon aspirations to supremacy.
Ongoing ceremonial violence performed by a eurochristian poetics of sacrifice pervade even seemingly “secular” acts such as monikers and monuments. Barbara Mann (Onondawaga / Seneca) has termed the wavelike patterns of eurochristian violence against American Indians as “fractal genocide.” So many eurochristians’ civic identities are framed within the windy energy of a desert storm god. As she details in a forthcoming book chapter titled “Imposter God,” YHWH fused with the invader Odin perpetuates “desert medicine” across “running-water Hahnunah (Turtle Island)” (115).
Part of the glamour-gift of such desert medicine is embodied in deeply-framed eurochristian comportment, a grammar of monotheist conduct. Ongoing violence is made normative through acts of erasure, denial, and minimization of a real past. As the amnesia concerning Indian slavery in New England masks the accumulation of material wealth, eurochristian poetics in civic religion, public education, and churches are complicit in the violence — as are any pawn-like pioneers.
To be continued…
Roger Green is general editor of The New Polis and a Senior Lecturer in the English Department at Metropolitan State University of Denver. He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens.