April 17, 2024

“Eurochristian”, Or What Are We Going To Do With White People – Revisited (Tink Tinker And Roger Green), Part 3

The following is the third of a four-part series. The first can be found here, the second here.

While judaeo-christian contexts are perhaps rightfully suspicious of “idolatry” here, the superimposing of such a value-system onto Peoples who enjoyed absolutely no commensurable aesthetics is the height of human injustice, no matter what violence or “criminality” may have existed before eurochristian invaders established their “right to rule.”

All charges of preexisting violence, unintentional spreading of disease, etc. fall flat against the arrogance of the eurochristian worldview that continues to operate at this moment, because it is that worldview which is entirely archaic and incongruent with the present world – a world that is dying because extractive impulses initiated by a eurochristian worldview have little regard for non-human life on the planet and cannot conceive of non-human life as intrinsically valuable.  Humans are considered “above” nature, or “Nature” – as Tinker says – is conceived as an all-encompassing living entity entirely alienated from human life.  Thus, eurochristians want to “escape” daily life by vacationing “in Nature” or “get close to Nature” instead of seeing themselves as part of the world.  

In any case, calling these eurochristian folk either pioneers, or settlers, or even colonial americans conveniently erases the lived experiences and enduring trauma of invaded and displaced Native Peoples and erases the crime of squatting on someone else’s Land. And it is clear that the vast majority of the descendants of those who came are quite happy to have that past shrouded in such romance, since it alleviates any need for self-evaluation or self-analysis.

It continues to function in a way that gives language to discourses ranging from religious to governmental policy to legal and philosophical thought that either erases the aboriginal presence of Native Peoples and their “rights” or comfortably explains the Native loss in seemingly (at least structurally patterned) rational and reasonable discourse, usually blaming the victims in the process.

But then these same “settlers” created a set of other discourses, including especially legal discourse, to explicitly justify their taking of Indian Land. In 1823, for instance, the supreme court of the new united states republic decided a landmark principal inventing legal ownership of American Indian Lands by eurochristian invaders in the aforementioned johnson v. m’intosh decision. Their chief justice, john marshall, wrote the opinion for a unanimous court: because they are savages and not christian, he argues, Indians have no legal right to sell their Land to anyone. Indeed, as savages they have no “ownership” in the soil but merely a “right of occupancy.”  He wrote:

While the different nations of europe respected the right of the natives as occupants, they asserted the ultimate dominion to be in themselves, and claimed and exercised, as a consequence of this ultimate dominion, a power to grant the soil while yet in possession of the natives. These grants have been understood by all to convey a title to the grantees, subject only to the Indian right of occupancy. The history of America from its discovery to the present day proves, we think, the universal recognition of these principles.[1]

Thus, squatting is conveniently converted to the euphemism of settling, legalized by the squatters’ own courts. At the same time, by this law only a christian sovereign state (e.g., the united states) had the right to take over Indian Lands (by negotiation, treaty, purchase, or outright military conquest) and disperse them as property to its euro-christian citizens, a right invested in the state according to what marshall called the “Doctrine of Discovery,” a religio-legal doctrine created by a catholic pope out of whole cloth back in 1493 to validate the euro-christian takeover of Native Lands in other countries (other than europe).[2]

To carry the descriptive process a step further, according to anthony hall, this transfer of Indian Lands to a christian government creates the legal foundation for the first time for a commodity called private property in america.[3] More to the point in marshall’s opinion, it was christianity that gave these citizens the moral and legal right to take over the continental expanse of Indian occupied Lands. And, marshall continued, Indians should be deeply grateful because they received civilization and christianity in exchange for losing their Lands. Thus, the deciding descriptor in the mind of these colonialists that differentiated Indian from european was attachment to christian values and beliefs. [we may want to cite Marshall directly on this. I don’t have that passage readily available tonight.][4]

Thus, if we take their own (legal) discourse seriously, we should call them eurochristian. Pioneer has lost its incisive (source metaphor) meaning of peons fighting for an imperial army out on the frontiers of empire in order to extend the boundaries of their lord’s sovereign territories. Immigrants migrating from one christian state to the territory of another christian state fails to capture the actualities of what is or was at stake for Native Peoples being violently displaced. And the word settler moves even beyond immigrant in concealing the violence involved, conjuring up in its place romantic and bucolic visions of homesteads, farms, gardens and warm kitchens. All these usual appellations function to dismiss or conceal the historic violence or to reduce those countless instances of violence to benign banalities.

The other common appellation is euro-american, although Tinker argues that he has always preferred amer-european insofar as it highlights the european-ness of american folk. While these appellations might seem accurate as far as they go, they miss what was for john marshall a critical base identity, namely, the identity of these invaders in terms of their conscious self-identification in terms of their religion. And because they were christian, they classified themselves as civilized and then castigated the colonized Other as uncivilized and savage by default. In marshall’s famous opinion the underlying notion of christian supremacy becomes completely and unashamedly transparent.

Whether one continues to identify as christian or not, the cultural whole is indelibly shaped by a couple of millennia of intense christian development on the european continent and then on the american continents—along with an important sense of christian religious and cultural supremacy whose development dates back a millennium. The deep structure cannot shake off the values and core metaphors quite so easily as one can convert at the surface structure to some other religious identity.

For instance, u.s. foreign policy continues to this day to be shaped around eurochristian manichaean notions of a cosmic conflict between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil. The Self [5]] then identifies as the Good; the ever-shifting Other is always cast as the Evil—from communists; to socialists; to the muslim threat (now again but also back during the deadly christian crusades); to Native Peoples and their attachment to the Land so desired by and invaded by the eurochristian hordes, and finally to those countries of brown peoples to the south.[6]

For the first hundred years and more, we are told, the u.s. congress spent a quarter of its legislative docket each year dealing with the “Indian Problem.”[7] By 1883 a federal policy think tank was created to solve the Indian Problem once and for all by shaping governmental laws and policies, a group euphemistically known as the lake mohonk “Friends of the Indians,” which met annually over more than three decades.[8] For their part, needless to say, Indian folk were sure that the problem was a White Problem.

The usage of “Indian Problem,” however, was indeed a marker for the outstanding White Problem—marking that in turn as the Indians’ Problem. Since they were good christian people, the Whites’ problem (i.e., the Indian Problem) was how to create a corpus of discourse to legally justify the invasion of Indian Lands, rationalize the massacre of Indian communities, legalize the theft of Indian resources and Lands and leave themselves morally guilt-free.

This meant inventing a particular legal and theological language: including creating new laws; producing new academic discourses in history and the new discipline of anthropology (and, of course, in the new discipline of comparative religions[9]); inventing christian denominational policies of pacification (by conversion); and developing federal governmental policies of pacification and containment. Only then could the colonial invader finally find refuge in the underlying american mythos that “the Indians had it coming to them.”[10] But the lingering Indians’ Problem, one that continues into today, is: how will we, Indians and non-Native allies, talk about these invaders?” If this sounds confusing, it is because obfuscation was always a key ingredient in the colonialist plan.

By the 1970s the liberal academic establishment had begun to turn away from the casual use of what had become innocuous sounding but were now increasingly politically incorrect terms, like pioneers or immigrants that functioned to conceal the violence of colonialization. As the connotation of the word settler also became increasingly problematic because it too served to conceal the whole history of invasion and colonialism, some scholars moved toward talking about “settler colonialism.”

Pointing to the u.s., canada, australia and new zealand as the classic exemplars[11] helped to differentiate settler colonies from those colonies where euro-christian invaders came merely to exploit the resources of continents without attempting to displace the aboriginal population from that context; in “settler colonialism” contexts the colonizer invaded with a flood of immigrants from their own european countries, and they came to stay and build their own towns and cities on Native Lands.[12] But “settler colonialism” does its own concealing—just as the new liberal White / eurochristian usage of that era, Native Americans, offered eurochristian liberals a useful and confusing obfuscation of Native realities.

After all, said some, are not all american immigrant/settler/pioneer folk now native americans? So, others settled on calling these colonizer-invaders “euro-american” (usually with an initial capital letter on both euro and american) or amer-european. So amer-european ensures we do not forget that we are dealing with europeans and european culture no matter how much frederick jackson turner would have us believe that “american” culture [meaning, for turner, White eurochristian culture] was completely transformed by fighting Indians on the “frontiers.”[13]

We still must ask who are these so-called settlers, then? These pioneers, immigrants, etc.? The self-designation that emerged out of the 17th century, which presumed the White christian need  and inherent right to reduce kidnapped african “indentured” servants to perpetual slavery, was to call themselves White.[14] They did not yet call themselves as a group “european,” preferring to refer to each smaller grouping by the names of the european countries from which they came: english in the northeast, virginia and the carolinas; dutch in new amsterdam; spanish in the south and southwest; etc.

Eventually, as a group, they became “american,” but over the long term that failed to identify those involved in invading the americas along with the concomitant killing of the Natives in order to exploit their resources and take their Lands. No, the accession of so many foreign immigrants to the title american, including eventually african folk freed from perpetual bondage, made that term less discrete when trying to reference the colonial invaders themselves. So, the designation White, even as a wholly invented category, perdured as a colonially useful signifier to distinguish european christian folk and their perceived privileging from all the other sorts of ethnicities that began to flood north America, even at first from catholic irish folk and the more “swarthy” complected southern european folk.[15]

We know that the euro-tradition of naming was intended to give the namers power over what was named. Hence the birth of rampant taxonomy in academic / intellectual thinking beginning in the period in europe that eurochristian folk call the renaissance. Likewise, the european legal tradition of naming gives control by over-determining its object, whether self or other.[16] As we have seen, academics and jurists extend those acts of over-determination to naming themselves, beginning in the mid-17th century, using the imaginary of skin color to legally distinguish euro-christian from african. And likewise, we have seen john marshall’s explicit but fictive legal rationale for the european conquest and occupation of Indian soil based on the eurochristian “superior genius” and christian identity.[17]

Then, by 1868, marshall’s christian identity/White supremacy/christian supremacy doctrine was once again operationalized as federal Indian policy. As president, ulysses grant tried to reform the Indian Service by calling on different christian denominations to appoint Indian Agents for the reservations, replacing the existing structure marked by political patronage. The idea was twofold: 1) to provide Native Peoples with the presumed higher standard model of eurochristian folk in order to “civilize” Natives; and 2) to avoid the cronyism and corruption of the political appointment system.

While it replaced cronyism with presumably more honest agents, however, these proved to be largely untrained and inept. In any case, this so-called “grant peace policy,” even as it used the language of civilizing Natives, was really an attempt to pacify Indian Peoples as much as to civilize. In reality, what french colonialism called la mission civilisatrice became a central strategy for pacification and control. And the attempt continued unabated. A decade after grant, at the federal policy think-tank on Indian issues hosted at lake mohonk, bureaucrats and politicians chimed in persistently calling for the conversion of Indian people to christianity—christianity without stipulation of denominational particularity.

The focused intent of the “friends of the American Indian” conferences was to finally supplant Indian cultures, Indian Native languages, Indian value systems, the Native notion of egalitarian community-ism, etc. with eurochristian “civilization.” That led to a comprehensive but ultimately destructive u.s. federal government policy of the child incarceration facilities, euphemistically called boarding schools, teaching english as every Indian’s primary language, teaching radical eurochristian individualism and the euro-christian religion itself,[18] and ultimately led to the radical re-distribution of remaining Native Lands to eurochristian farmers and eurochristian corporate interests.[19] 

Tink Tinker is wazhazhe, a citizen of the Osage Nation. For 33 years he was a professor of American Indian studies at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver, Colorado, where he still holds the title emeritus professor. During most of that time, Tinker also was the (non-stipendiary) director of Four Winds American Indian Council in Denver. Tinker has abandoned christianity as a colonialist and Genocidal imposition on Indian Peoples in favor of recapturing the traditional worldview of Native Peoples. Although Tinker was trained in eurochristian theology and bible, he has come to see the Native experience of the interrelationship of all life and our ideal of cosmic balance and harmony as totally incompatible with eurochristian colonialist imaginary of hierarchy, one that sees reality as a manichaean hierarchical struggle of good versus evil. He is the author of American Indian Liberation (Orbis, 2008).

Roger Green is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at Metropolitan State University of Denver.  He is the author of A Transatlantic Political Theology of Psychedelic Aesthetics: Enchanted Citizens (2019) and the recent dissertation Ayahuasca in the Wake of the Doctrine of Discovery (2020).  He has collaborated musically with Anne Waldman on Untethered I (Fast Speaking Music 2017).  He is also contributor to an edited collection by Miguel A. De La Torre, The Colonial Compromise: The Threat of the Gospel to Indigenous Worldview (2021), which celebrates Tink Tinker’s career and teaching.  He’s currently co-authoring a book with Tink Tinker on eurochristian worldview.


[1] John Marshall, Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. McIntosh, 21 U.S. 543 (1823) https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/21/543/.

[2] Newcomb, Pagans in the Promised Land.

[3] Anthony J. Hall, Earth into Property: Colonization, Decolonization, and Capitalism (McGill-Queen’s Native and Northern Series), McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2010.

[4]           572f.:  On the discovery of this immense continent, the great nations of Europe were eager to appropriate to themselves so much of it as they could respectively acquire. Its vast extent offered an *573 ample field to the ambition and enterprise of all; and the character and religion of its inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency. The potentates of the old world found no difficulty in convincing themselves that they made ample compensation to the inhabitants of the new, by bestowing on them civilization and Christianity, in exchange for unlimited independence. But, as they were all in pursuit of nearly the same object, it was necessary, in order to avoid conflicting settlements, and consequent war with each other, to establish a principle, which all should acknowledge as the law by which the right of acquisition, which they all asserted, should be regulated as between themselves. This principle was, that discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made, against all other European governments, which title might be consummated by possession.

[5] Inserting a discussion of the Self would be really complex here. The “Self” is intrinsically a eurochristian ideation, a eurochristian category of cognition. For Native folk, the “Other” is always a relative! Whether the Other is a tree or a Caddo.

[6] And this remains a problem of Cold War thinking, which of course posits a zero-sum game between “the west and the rest.” Francis fukuyama and samuel huntington articulated entirely ethnocentric descriptions of “the world” in their arrogant eurochristian assessments of world politics during the 1990s based on “the end of history” or a “clash of civilizations,” george w. bush reiterated the sensibility in his famous “Axis of Evil” speech. The metaphysics of Indian-hating and empire building, as richard drinnon names it, remains constant throughout u.s. military presence and foreign policy. See richard drinnon, Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian-Hating and Empire Building (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1980); See also Winona LaDuke, The Militarization of Indian Country (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 2012).

[7] For example, politician and academic francis masa walker had been the head of the u.s. office of Indian Affairs and helped shape its hardline policies toward Indians. In that capacity, and seven years before founding MIT, he wrote the infamous (yet influential) treatise “The Indian Question”, which rationalized the forcible removal of Indian Peoples from their Lands and confining them to remote and less sustainable reservation areas.

[8] For a selection of the documents that came out of these annual lake mohonk conferences, see francis paul prucha, Americanizing the American Indians: Writing by the “Friends of the Indian,” 1880-1900 (university of nebraska press, 1973). Note particularly the german born U.S. secretary of the interior, carl schurz’s attempt to deal with the issue: schurz, “Present Aspects of the Indian Problem,” North American Review cxxxiii (July 1881): 6-24; excerpted by prucha: pp. 13-26. See also T. Tinker, “Tracing a Contour of Colonialism: American Indians and the Trajectory of Educational Imperialism,” in Ward Churchill, Kill the Indian, Save the Man: The Genocidal Impact of American Indian Residential Schools (city lights press, 2004), pp. xiii-xli.

[9] David chidester has described the development of comparative religions as a distinctly imperial project. Academic anthropology likewise excellently served the colonial power brokers wherever eurochristian colonialism spread out over Indigenous Lands. See chidester, Empire of Religion: Imperialism and Comparative Religion (Univ. of Chicago, 2014).

[10] And the longer history here has been thoroughly described by Robert A. Williams, Jr. well before European contact in Robert A. Williams, Jr., The American Indian in Western Legal Thought: The Discourse of Conquest (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990).

[11] As Robert Miller et al. have detailed, the Anglo incorporation of the Doctrine of Discovery is at the heart of the occupying governments claims to power in the u.s, canada,new zealand, and australia. Indeed, such common values remain present in the recent AUKUS alliance against China. See Robert J. Miller, Jacinta Ruru, Larissa Behrendt, and Tracey Lindberg, Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[12] Note jennifer harvey’s title for Chapter Two, “A Colonial Settler Nation and A Slaveholding One,” in her otherwise superb book, Whiteness and Morality: Pursuing Racial Justice through Reparations and Sovereignty (palgrave macmillan), pp. 51-69. And in spite of advancing a questionable cognitional categorization, this chapter is a fine description of the problematic of race, racialization, and colonization.

[13] Such was the thesis of Frederick Jackson Turner in his famous 1893 essay on the “closing of the frontier.” Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” 1893. First delivered at the american history association, meeting auspiciously in chicago at the columbian world exhibition. It was republished in several variations, and is widely available on-line. This is one location:  http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1893turner.html. Turner was an early academic racist.

[14] Although ed simon reports an earlier usage in England in 1613. See his essay: “How ‘White People” Were Invented by a Playwright in 1613,” Aeon (12 september 2017): https://aeon.co/ideas/how-white-people-were-invented-by-a-playwright-in-1613.

[15] Noel Ignatiev, How the Irish Became White (Rutledge, 1995). One should also note the on-going debate that Ignatiev’s book generated.

[16] In terms of the colonialist need to rename geographical locations with eurochristian appellations, one should certainly note Stephen Greenblatt, Marvelous Possessions: The Wonder of the New World (University of Chicago Press, 1991).

[17] I.e., Marshall reduces Native Peoples to those “…over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendency” (J. v. M’I., 573).

[18] See again the selection of primary sources in Francis Prucha, Americanizing the American Indian; and particularly the short essay by T. Tinker in Churchill, op cit.

[19] The devastating Dawes General Allotment Act (1887() came directly out of the Lake Mohonk policy deliberations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *