Date of this Version
Published in Great Plains Research 19.2 (Fall 2009): 248-49.
In 1793, the Indians of the Northwest Territory declared themselves “free to make any bargain or cession of lands, whenever & to whomsoever we please.” Three decades later, however, the United States Supreme Court held in Johnson v. M’Intosh that the original inhabitants of America “are to be considered merely as occupants, to be protected, indeed, while in peace, in the possession of their lands, but to be deemed incapable of transferring the absolute title to others.” Chief Justice John Marshall concluded that the rights of Indians “to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, were necessarily diminished . . . by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.” This “doctrine of discovery” has never been repudiated by the United States and remains a basic principle of federal Indian law.
In Pagans in the Promised Land, Steven Newcomb endeavors “to decode the hidden biblical, or, more specifically, Old Testament, background of the Johnson ruling.” He argues that Indian law scholars fail to appreciate the religious dimensions of Marshall’s decision, and contends that “it is accurate to refer to the main conception that runs through the Johnson ruling as Christian discovery rather than simply discovery or European discovery.” Newcomb, who is Shawnee/ Lenape, also breaks new ground by making use of “the tools and methods of cognitive theory” in order to expose—and challenge—the “negative, oppressive, and dominating concepts that have been mentally and, from an indigenous perspective, illegitimately imposed on our existence.”