Rhetorical Erasure, Indian Slavery, And The Doctrine Of Discovery, Part 2 (Roger Green)

Last month I began a survey, which I continue here, regarding the rhetorical erasure of American Indians. This work is part of a larger initiative we at The New Polis have begun by calling for submissions related to the Doctrine of Discovery or Doctrine of Domination. We continue to request submissions related to the topic.

In last month’s piece, I began with attention to changes in civic religion in the United States and in particular with local issues related to Denver, Colorado, where I currently reside — traditionally Cheyenne and Arapahoe land. Following protests across the nation last year, we are seeing more rhetorical emphases placed on land acknowledgment statements (like my previous sentence). Such public claims are a starting place for correcting the rhetorical erasure of American Indians in civic life, along with the distortions constructed through centuries of what Richard Drinnon masterfully historicized forty years ago as The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire-Building.

As we enter 2021, legacies of racial oppression have taken center-stage in public debates following a brief period of “postracism” following the election of Barack Obama in 2008. According to progressivist notions of social justice, underwritten by hoary Enlightenment models, many of us in the U.S. grew up believing that things were getting better, especially following the Civil Rights initiatives and protests resonating since the 1960s. By far, most of my first-year university students display this type of thinking today. They assume things are getting better on their own.

One of the many problems with such thinking is that it situates struggles over inequity in the past, rather than the present. With respect to American Indians in much public sentiment in the U.S., the relegation of inequity to an even more distant past lends itself to heightened complacency. Many Americans learned about “manifest destiny” in elementary school with little substantive critique, and they are little-aware of how their historical narratives of this land move from east to west derive from that ideology — as if John Ghast’s portrait of American Progress were fixed in their collective unconscious.

John Ghast, American Progress, 1872

The assumption that things will “naturally” get better in terms of social justice is tacitly inflected by not only “manifest destiny,” but also earlier eurochristian civilization narratives that were “secularized.” For example, the Enlightenment narratives of Immanuel Kant’s “Perpetual Peace” and G.W.F. Hegel’s philosophy of history — both of which find earlier iterations in works such as John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), which is sometimes regarded as the first English novel. Much like Thomas Morton’s New English Canaan (1637), Bunyan’s allegory worked to naturalize an Idealized Cognitive Model (ICM) that Steven T. Newcomb (Shawnee / Lenape) names the “Conqueror Model” in his excellent book, Pagans in the Promised Land.

The ICM of the Conqueror posits a central figure, such as a king, monarch, emperor, or pope, who is considered divine or whose power is considered to come from or be derived from a divine source. The presumption of the conqueror’s divinity leads to the additional presumption that the conqueror has the “divine right” to exert control or force, which is understood as being UP, as reflected in the metaphor POWER IS UP. Conversely, those peoples whom the conqueror has subjected to his control are conceptualized as being DOWN in relation to the conqueror, as reflected in the metaphor LACK OF CONTROL IS DOWN. (24)

The Conqueror model reflects an up-down image schema that has transgenerationally framed the eurochristian worldview. To be sure, some of the Conqueror model is evident in pre-Christian sources, such as Virgil’s Aeneid. Virgil produced his unfinished masterpiece to glorify Caesar Augustus as the “rightful” inheritor to lands conquered by Aeneas of Troy. In becoming the first Roman emperor, Augustus knew very well what had happened to his uncle Julius Caesar when he seized power in a republic suspicious of kings. Augustus called himself Princeps Civitas (first citizen), yet the aesthetics surrounding him fashioned a sense that his place was divinely ordained.

With Constantine’s marriage of Christianity to Rome, the divine majesty took on an entirely new meaning by incorporating Hebrew history, which had long been suspicious of kings. In On Kings, David Graeber and Marshall Sahlins note a significant tension between divine kingship and sacred kingship. According to them, “divine kingship is the essence of sovereignty: the ability to act as if one were a god; to step outside the confines of the human, and return to rain favor, or destruction, with arbitrariness and impunity” (7). The incorporation of Jesus Christ as not simply the “anointed one” (messiah), but as genealogically connected to David indeed marks a shift away from Judaic and earlier Israelite religion.

Sacred kingship, which tempers divine kingship for Graeber and Sahlins, involves being set aside. To be sacred “is to be set apart, hedged about by customs and taboos; restrictions surrounding sacralized kings — ‘not to touch the earth, not to see the sun’ in Frazer’s famous dictum — are ways not only of recognizing the presence of unaccountable divine power, but also, crucially, of confining, controlling, and limiting it” (8). And it is precisely this notion of the sacred that was entirely foreign to American Indians at the time of contact with Europeans yet already deeply embedded int he eurochristian worldview.

It has been so deeply embedded in the eurochristian psyche that the stranger-king mystified through aspirations of empire came to impose itself on American Indians through eurochristian law in the form of the Doctrine of Discovery. Yet it was not only in law but also encultured in a foreign religiosity. The eurochristian worldview could only impose its own up-down image schema onto sachems, massasoits, “chief” (from French “chef” or “boss,” from Latin, caput “head”) and even figures such as Moctazuma some superimposed notion of kingship fueled by a eurochristian absent-presence called “sovereignty.”

Much of the way we in the U.S. currently discuss ‘religion’ publicly is embedded in already eurochristian assumptions, most often influenced by Protestant-derived notions of static-transcendence. Those same notions were present in the creation of comparative religions models of power-knowledge that arose in the late nineteenth century. There was no “Buddhism” or “Hinduism” as a codified “religion” before the colonial gazing of eurochristians. Certainly there were (and are) traditional practices, far more immanent than a wholly Other deity.

Protestant allergies toward rituals derived from their own theological disagreement with their Catholic siblings. They filtered into austere notions of “reason” during the Enlightenment. This is partly why people are so quick to make analogies between science an religion…because they tend to see ‘religion’ as a ‘system’ of ‘belief’. That belief emphasis is also Protestant-derived as an avowal of faith, a faith in a static transcendence. We often use the term ‘culture’ with the same Protestant-derived thought process, and that is partly what I and my colleague Tink Tinker (wazhazhe, Osage Nation) have been signaling with the term ‘eurochristian, not as a religion but as a social movement.

Static-transcendent concepts infuse our public discourse, our building of power-knowledge, and our legal systems. When transferred to American Indian practices, they perpetuate eurochristian colonizing and the distinctly Christian notion of civilizing. This occurs constantly with use of the word ‘sacred’ (set aside) and static-transcendent notions of God superimposed onto terms like the Lakota Wakȟáŋ Tȟáŋka. Look it up and you will find it defined as ‘sacred’ or ‘divine’ — a Great Spirit that is so easily conflated with the Conqueror ICM.

It is all a somewhat intentional mistranslation. It does the Christian work of turning the Other into the Same, the conversion work of gospel evangelizing. This is the extractive process embedded in the similarly Protestant-derived notion of capital (and corresponding “invisible hand”), as Philip Godchild has helpfully analyzed in his Theology of Money. This deep framing by eurochristian thought processes perpetuates colonization in ways that are often unconscious today, and that is what I mean by rhetorical erasure with respect to American Indians.

The particularly eurochristian character is fused in Constantine’s embrace of an earlier will-to-power present in Matthew 22:21, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.” The absent-presence of the death, resurrection, and the awaiting of the parousia or Second coming of Jesus fuses divine kingship with a stranger-king who is sacred and set apart. And even in the very etymology of the notion of Europe, we find a movement from east to west, toward the setting sun, a wind that would propel Aeneas and Dido from Phoenicia to Carthage and Rome.

Christianity under Constantine reveals that for the eurochristian worldview, the embrace of their savior saturates the notion of the Basileia or “kingdom” with imperium in a way that exceeds and preserves what Kantorowicz analyzed with respect to medieval Europe as The King’s Two Bodies. As Steven Newcomb explains,

Furthermore, the conqueror is presumed to have the the divine right not just to rule, but also to spread or expand his reign of domination outward by extending his rule to “new” lands by means of war or force of arms. This conception is found in the term imperium, or “a dominion, state or sovereignty, that would expand in population and territory, and increase in strength and power” [Van Alstyne, American Empire 1]. In order to “discover” additional lands that the conqueror can subdue, he must send representatives forth to search out, discover, and find new lands to conquer and subdue. (24)

Thus, the westward-gazing eurochristians met the Patuxet Wampanoag people of the “Dawnland,” the local name for what the invaders called “New England.” One did not need to be a conquistador to exemplify the Conqueror model. Indeed, the eurochristian pilgrim / peon / pioneer made manifest his or her own Christianity by subduing American Indians. As I explained in my previous post, the greater the savagery, the greater the glory for the enslaver who would use Indian enslavement as evidence of eurochristenDOMination.

This was no mere ideology. It was the binding of religion itself, and ‘religion’, like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘stranger-kingship and ‘slavery’, were entirely foreign concepts to American Indians. As Margaret Ellen Newell notes, a combination of “just war” rhetoric and “civilizing” motives came to underwrite the colonizers’ enslaving of Indians. Indians had to be reduced to poverty so that “Poor laws” could be applied to their state of “wretchedness” (Newell 10-11).

The civilizing rhetoric employed by the English was itself underwritten by the Black Legend with respect to Spain. In John Lewis Gaddis’s recent celebration of American Empire, On Grand Strategy — which thoroughly enacts the rhetorical erasure of American Indians — he does correctly characterize the alternate styles of Queen Elizabeth of England and King Phillip II according to Isaiah Berlin’s use of the ancient “hedgehog” and “fox” distinction. Gaddis notes Phillip’s over-reliance on God’s will to his Empire’s success. Elizabeth’s craftiness and tolerance of emergent forms of Christian worship evidenced a statecraft that Machiavelli himself would have admired.

Americans tend to narrate religious dissent and intolerance in England as a motivating factor for the colonization of New England, yet the pilgrim’s were tolerated enough to gain the New England Charter analyzed in my previous post. Important to the ways civilizational rhetoric was employed in in New England drew on the necessity to found a Christian empire different from the Holy Roman Empire. International law in terms of the rights of Discovery could justify the King’s sovereignty, but the colonizers would have to induce “just war” in order to justify stealing the land from and enslaving what would otherwise be the King’s subjects, hence the vicious pejoration of the term “savage” in New England as covered by Francis Jennings (23).

The tension between heathen and Christian subjects would eventually escalate into the Revolutionary War, an act to usurp the King’s rights to Discovery and realize George Washington’s long-held desire for land in Ohio. The 17th and 18th centuries brewed a metaphysics of Indian-hating as another way of expressing the Conqueror ICM. We must understand that impulses toward “revolution” are entirely eurochristian as well — they are extractive impulses to overturn soil and cultivate a new territory, and that’s exactly why Russell Means (Oglala Lakota) distanced the American Indian Movement from marxian-derived notions in 1980.

We can look back to the circumstances leading up to the American Revolution here. What was at stake for the British in the Ohio valley during the early to mid 1700s — as both Indian and African slavery and servitude became more formalized — was  not only the question of reaching as far west as possible and thus keeping back the French, who had busy posting placards of discovery up and down the Mississippi river. It was coupled with the fact that there had simultaneously been increasing private negotiations between various individual British men and Indian groups for “land sales.”  Strictly speaking, according to rights of Discovery, such sales were not lawful and fraught with scheming, as Claudio Saunt notes in West of the Revolution.

American peons were greedy for land that they could convert into property. Then as now, property could be an investiture passed down to future generations. It could be a source of income and security. Its fruits in all Lockean fantasies of plantation desires would signify one’s civilized status. That status would be gendered masculine, reasonable, cultivated, morally upright so far that the true gentleman could transcend morality itself. Thus the utilitarian liberalism described by John Stuart Mill could see the eurochristian civilizing process as evidence of an evolved and”natural” superiority.

Returning to the eighteenth-century and the so-called Seven Years’ War (which for Indians never ended), there were two “fronts” to interactions on the “frontier.”  On the eastern side of the Six Nations’ territory, it was about using trade alliances to make normative relationships while more and more settlers moved in, which inevitably became a push from the east.  In The Tainted Gift, Barbara Alice Mann notes how the British capitalized on the indigenous gift economy by “paying tribute” to Indians with smallpox-infested blankets, handkerchiefs, and bottles of booze (12). The strategy would either eliminate or severely impoverish the Indians whose enslavement would then become a part of a christianizing evangelical process. 

Like the logic of “the more savage the savage, the greater the conquest,” another logic was at work — “the more destitute, drunk, and impoverished the Indian, the more innately civilized and superior the eurochristian.” But where was this notion of poverty rooted? As Jace Weaver in The Red Atlantic and Cole Thrush in Indigenous London have detailed, Indians who went on diplomatic trips to Europe were appalled at the sight of so much visible destitution in cities. For them, even their enemies would not merit such neglect of basic living conditions. Thus, even this notion of poverty is rooted in eurochristian neglect for humanity.

On the western front (Ohio) during the Seven Years’ War, there were various interested parties.  Shawnee and Lenape (who had been pushed out of “New Jersey”), along with Miami and Seneca who were encouraged to align with the British against the French. This created a front with the French and their alliances with various peoples from the western Great Lakes. Racist historical gazes on the incidents see Indians as being “used” by colonizer forces instead of defending their homes from invaders and making temporary alliances with hostiles when necessary.

As I’ve said, the French had been posting lead placards, claiming Discovery from the Great Lakes down to New Orleans.  In context then, what is significant about the “private” transactions among individual British (and later American, i.e., George Washington) elites is a disregard for international agreements determined through Discovery Doctrine and the Utrecht decisions in the wake of the Spanish War[s] of Succession.  Increasing individualized claims to property would collide sympathetically with sentiments of “religious freedom” long-stewing in Boston, though that colony was established and “legitimated” by a Charter that had directly employed Discovery Doctrine.  The emergent tension was between those who sought to become landholders and their sovereign. 

American religiosity importantly needed to rehabilitate its own form of sovereignty that would outdo the English monarchy. In doing so, Americans imagined a host of ethnic and religious aesthetics infused by a Conqueror ICM that would, like Virgil’s narrative of Aeneas, illustrate a divinely-ordained justification for their presence. However, the explicitly eurochristian imagination meant that even the lowliest individual could justify himself through the claiming of land and subduing of Indians. The metaphysics of Indian-hating was emotionally fused with eurochristian worldview, becoming “my land, my property”…just like the current ‘Make My Day’ laws.

British nationalism converted to a broader Anglo-superiority complex was also key, because the break from the Catholic Church had localized religious conflict with the Anglican Church.  ‘Religious freedom’ was therefore territorialized through the adoption of aspirations to Empire and colonization transferred from England to the colonies, and along with that was a claim to true “Saxon” racial Origins.  This racialized formation would become increasingly important both as a way for colonists to claim that they inherited the “best” of Anglo stock and as resistance to the “Norman yoke,” which had supposedly plagued British sovereigns since the 1066 invasion (Williams discusses the yoke specifically with respect to Jefferson in The American Indian in Western Legal Thought, see my previous article).  

It was important for new American nationalism to claim its Anglo-Saxon roots against both the French and the British, and that Anglo-Saxon identity would be necessarily tied to ideas of “religious freedom” in the First Amendment. Contextually, however, this drama was completely eurochristian and white supremacist. While later lore would situate an American narrative in the religious exceptionalism of New England, Britain tried unsuccessfully to claim it in the War of 1812.

It would not be until the Treaty of Ghent that international relations among European powers would ease with respect to U.S. sovereignty. It is important in understanding U.S. aspirations to empire to remember that James Monroe, then Secretary of State, headed-up U.S. negotiations. The British had been worried over the United States’ relationship with France following the Louisiana Purchase, which helped fund Napoleon’s efforts across the channel. Those tensions eased with Napoleon’s defeat and abdication a few years later.

It’s easy enough to imagine the younger James Monroe’s international scope informing what would become the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the same year that John Marshall would explicitly incorporate the Doctrine of Discovery into U.S. law. In negotiations for the treaty of Ghent, the Americans argued against British plans to create an Indian state. Part of their rationale was that there was “no precedent” for including Indians in international treaty relations. By “restoring” Indian land occupational status to pre-1811 conditions, the Americans were one step closer to what Marshall would later term “domestic dependent nations.”

At the same time, blocking the creation of a British occupied Indian state would continue to allow westward expansion and Indian removal. This was part of a two-pronged strategy thematized by Jeffersonian republicanism and Madisonian federalism. Jeffersonian republicanism would become “proletarianized” under Andrew Jackson, whose reputation was sealed by his recent success at the Battle of New Orleans. He would exemplify the pioneering work of eurochristian soldiering.

As a localized counterpart to Monroe’s international gaze, Jackson’s work was a kind of recapitulation of Washington’s aspirations to acquire land in Ohio from the 1750s onward. This was a homegrown sense of freedom embodied through aspirations to religious freedom that would manifest with suspicion of a federal government. Simultaneously, the acquisition of land was fueled by visions of patrician Rome that would emerge as an archetypal “southern gentleman.

The ways U.S. citizens continue to valorize property, freedom, and religion are thoroughly underwritten by eurochristian, white supremacy. Freedom of religion as framed in the two clauses of the First Amendment especially significant in embedding American Revolutionary sensibilities in their drama with their sovereign and their desire to rehabilitate to their own domestic desires of conquest.

In the early nineteenth-century, Andrew Jackson’s military successes allowed him to envision the removal of not only the Cherokee from Georgia but also various other Indian Nations throughout the Deep South. Of course, he would famously be in tension with John Marshall in Worcester v. Georgia. Indian erasure would involve the outright genocidal tactics of warfare and displacement from land, as well as the rhetorical erasure through “benevolent” attempts to “civilize” Indians. In both cases, a eurochristian white supremacy was emboldened and justified through both violence toward Indians and assimilation of “Indigeneity,” because the eurochristians had to replace the Indians just as Aeneas and his Trojans replaced and assimilated the Latins — such is a formation of what I have been calling a eurochristian poetics of sacrifice.

What emerged as U.S. federal law was not nearly as secular as it has been represented through valuing a separation of church and state. In context, the First Amendment spoke to aspirations to Protestant Christian denominational freedom against the Anglican Church. But without a State religion, the excess signification necessary to found sovereignty needed to find a different form of expression than monarchy. Democracy was the answer, but it was a eurochristian political theology, which included a racialized nostalgia for Roman republicanism, that did the mystical work of sovereignty.

Racial hierarchy evidenced a kind of “natural” order that was justified by the sacrifice of the Indian. Thus, by the 1820s we can see the romanticism of folklife in Washington Irving and the “noble savage” in James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans. Full-blown American Romanticism would embrace its own exceptionalism of “nature” that could be traced through Jefferson’s musings in Notes on the State of Virginia and even as far back as Jonathan Edwards’s “Spider Letter.”

What I am suggesting, however, is that this aesthetic excess does the euorchristian work of replacing the mystical properties of the king’s two bodies in a hallowed notion of democracy. Rather than a secularization of Christianity, I read it as an extension of the Basileia. Indian “religion,” we should remember, was effectively outlawed until the 1930s. The idea of “religious freedom” could not apply to Indians. We may indeed call this a kind of “civic religion” after Rousseau’s concepts, but it is nevertheless eurochristian civic religion.

I will continue this discussion next month with an analysis of John Marshall’s work in establishing the prominence of the U.S. Supreme Court in the years before Johnson v. M’Intosh, where he in calculated fashion explicitly embedded the Doctrine of Discovery within American law. I will show that in doing do, his own federalist tendencies display the groundwork to reoccupy the eurochristian Conqueror ICM within the sanctity of law.

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.

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