In a 2009 interview with Al Arabiya Television in Dubai, soon after his first inauguration, President Barack Obama affirmed that the US government could be an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, saying: “We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power.”
One has to query the president: How did the United States begin with thirteen small colonies/states hugging the Atlantic seaboard and end up in the mid-twentieth century with fifty states over much of North America, and a number of island colonies in the Pacific and the Caribbean? Apparently, it was Manifest Destiny at work.
According to the centuries-old Doctrine of Discovery, European nations acquired title to the lands they “discovered,” and Indigenous inhabitants lost their natural right to that land after Europeans had arrived and claimed it. Under this legal cover for theft, European wars of conquest, domination, and in some cases – such as the United States – settler-colonial states, devastated Indigenous nations and communities, ripping their territories away from them and transforming the land into private property, real estate. Most of the land appropriated by the United States ended up in the hands of land speculators and agribusiness operators, many of which, up to the mid-nineteenth century, were plantations worked by another form of private property, enslaved Africans. Arcane as it may seem, the Doctrine of Discovery remains the basis for US laws still in effect that control Indigenous peoples’ lives and destinies, even their histories by distorting them.
From the mid-fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century, most of the non-European world was colonised under the Doctrine of Discovery, one of the first principles of international law. Christian European monarchies promulgated it to legitimise investigating, mapping, and claiming lands belonging to peoples outside Europe. It originated in a papal bull issued in 1455 that permitted the Portuguese monarchy to seize West Africa. Following Columbus’s infamous exploratory voyage in 1492, sponsored by the King and Queen of the infant Spanish state, another papal bull extended similar permission to Spain. Disputes between the Portuguese and Spanish monarchies led to the papal-initiated Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which, besides dividing the globe equally between the two Iberian empires, clarified that only non-Christian lands fell under the Doctrine of Discovery.
This doctrine, on which all European states and the United States relied, thus originated with the arbitrary and unilateral establishment of the Iberian monarchies’ exclusive rights under Christian canon law to colonise foreign peoples, and this right was later seized by other European monarchical colonising projects. The French Republic used this legalistic instrument for its nineteenth and twentieth century settler-colonialist projects, as did the newly independent United States when it continued the colonisation of North America begun by the British.
In 1792, not long after the US founding, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson claimed that the Doctrine of Discovery developed by European states was international law applicable to the new US government as well. In 1823 the US Supreme Court issued its decision in Johnson v. McIntosh. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice John Marshall held that the Doctrine of Discovery had been an established principle of European law and of English law in effect in Britain’s North American colonies and was also the law of the United States. The Court defined the exclusive property rights that a European country acquired by dint of discovery: “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.” Therefore, European and Euro-American “discoverers” had gained real-property rights in the lands of Indigenous peoples by merely planting a flag. Indigenous rights were, in the Court’s words, “in no instance, entirely disregarded; but were necessarily, to a considerable extent, impaired.” The Court further held that Indigenous “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished.” Indigenous people could continue to live on the land, but title resided with the discovering power, the United States. The decision concluded that Native nations were “domestic, dependent nations.”
In fact, Indigenous peoples were not allowed to continue living on their land under Andrew Jackson’s presidency; with the Indian Removal Act that he pushed through Congress, all the Indigenous nations east of the Mississippi were dissolved and their citizens were forcibly relocated to “Indian Territory,” which itself was later dissolved to become a part of the state of Oklahoma.
The Doctrine of Discovery is so taken for granted that it is rarely mentioned in historical or legal texts published in the United States.
In the era of global decolonisation of the second half of the 20th century, Native American nations remained colonised. Native American nations and communities are involved in decolonisation projects, including the development of international human rights law to gain their right to self-determination as Indigenous Peoples, having gained the United Nations’ 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. This was a project initiated by the Indigenous militants who occupied Wounded Knee in 1973, demanding self-determination. Indigenous North American resistance to colonialism has never stopped since the first British settler-colonies were established.
It’s time for US American social justice movements to educate themselves about the colonial past (and present) of the United States and to make a commitment to work in solidarity with Native American decolonisation efforts. How can the United States be decolonised? How can US society come to terms with its past? How can it acknowledge responsibility? The late Native historian Jack Forbes always stressed that while living persons are not responsible for what their ancestors did, they are responsible for the society they live in, which is a product of that past. Assuming this responsibility provides a means of survival and liberation. Everyone and everything in the world is affected, for the most part negatively, by US dominance and intervention, often violently through direct military means or through proxies. It is an urgent concern.
Indigenous peoples offer possibilities for life after empire, possibilities that neither erase the crimes of colonialism nor require the disappearance of the original peoples colonised under the guise of including them as individuals (assimilation). That process rightfully starts by honoring the treaties the United States made with Indigenous nations, by restoring all sacred sites, starting with the Black Hills and including most federally held parks and land, and all stolen sacred items and body parts, and by payment of sufficient reparations for the reconstruction and expansion of Native nations. These are the demands of Native resistance movements, and they must be the demands of all US social movements. In the process, not only consciousness, but the continent itself will be radically reconfigured, physically and psychologically. For the future to be realised, it will require extensive educational programmes and the full support and active participation of the descendants of settlers, enslaved Africans, and colonised Mexicans, as well as immigrant populations.
The affirmation of democracy requires the denial of colonialism, but denying it does not make it go away. Only decolonisation of the United States can do that.
By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, author of An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States | @rdunbaro