by: Steven Newcomb / Indigenous Law Institute
Once in a while, a book comes along that holds your attention so well that you cannot put it down. ”Unlearning the Language of Conquest: Scholars Expose Anti-Indianism in America,” edited by Four Arrows (Don Trent Jacobs), is such a book. A tertiary subtitle reads: ”Deceptions that influence war and peace, civil liberties, public education, religion and spirituality, democratic ideals, the environment, law, literature, film, and happiness.” The book, published by the University of Texas Press, exposes in a mere 280 pages such deceptions while delivering much-needed illumination on many issues dealing with indigenous liberation and decolonization.
The dedication reads: ”In the memory of Vine Deloria, Jr. (1935-2005). May his courage, spirit, and wisdom be remembered, and may his belief that we can and must unlearn the language of conquest – for the sake of all our futures – be realized in time.”
Deloria’s contribution to the book is found in Chapter 5, ”Conquest Masquerading as Law,” in which he deftly explains the connection between the ”doctrine of discovery” and federal Indian law, tracing the language of conquest back to the infamous papal bulls of 1493 and the 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh decision.
The prologue, by Four Arrows, deals with the difficult, tragic and heart-wrenching topic of the school shootings at Columbine, Colo., and the Red Lake Reservation in Minnesota. The chapter compares and contrasts the two tragedies, partly by addressing the anomie that afflicts much of today’s youth in the United States. Four Arrows also discusses how differently the two events were dealt with by the media and by society at large. In the introduction, he explains what is meant by ”the language of conquest” while providing an insightful overview of the worldviews of what he terms ”Indigenous People,” and the various kinds of colonizing and genocidal assaults experienced by Native nations and peoples.
Another chapter was written by Chet Bowers, who was once a professor of mine at the University of Oregon and who considerably influenced my own thinking. He is an expert in such fields as the sociology of knowledge, philosophy, education, metaphorical
thinking, ecological systems and the current ecological crisis. As a non-Indian scholar who deeply appreciates the wisdom and understanding embedded in the ”inter-generational” indigenous knowledge systems, Bowers makes a valuable contribution to the book. In ”The Language of Conquest,” Bowers explains why the overexploitation of the world’s resources and the appropriation of ”the commons” – land, air, water and heirloom seeds – by the well-coordinated efforts of governments and corporate powers, pose a grave threat to all the peoples of Mother Earth.
Bruce E. Johansen, in a chapter titled ”Adventures in Denial: Ideological Resistance to the Idea that the Iroquois Helped Shape American Democracy,” explores how the orthodox gatekeepers of the academy in the United States have, over the past 30 years, refused to acknowledge that the Haudenosaunee Confederacy ”helped shape the political beliefs and institutions of the United States (and through it democracy worldwide).” Johansen documents the extent to which historians and mainstream commentators on ”the Right” have ridiculed and summarily dismissed this idea without having had the courtesy to take the time to read the historical evidence.
In brilliant fashion, Gregory Cajete, Tewa Pueblo, provides a summary of thousands of years of indigenous science grounded in indigenous worldviews. In Chapter 16, ”Western Science and the Loss of Natural Creativity,” he writes in a profoundly poetic manner: ”Native science is a reflection of the metaphoric mind and is embedded in creative participation with nature. It reflects the sensual capacities of humans. It is tied to the spirit, and is both ecological and integrative.” In my view, Cajete does an amazing job of articulating the existence of an indigenous science paradigm that provides the cognitive and behavioral basis for a way of life that suggests an ecologically meaningful alternative to the death-dealing, empire-domination model that can be traced back to Western Christendom, which continues to afflict the planet today.
The book recognizes Lee Klinger as ”one of the world’s leading scholars in earth science systems.” Klinger contributes ”Ecological Evidence of Large-Scale Silviculture by California Indians,” in which he provides an unusual look at the forests of California. He observes, ”I conclude that the California Indians of the Sierra Nevada and Coast Ranges were not simple hunter-gatherers, but, instead, were sophisticated farmers who practiced sustained silviculture [forest cultivation] that involved the cultivation of oaks, buckeyes, bays, pines, and other nut-bearing trees in vast orchards.” Part of the evidence that he points to includes the intentional strategies that indigenous peoples of California employed in relation to ”the mighty coast redwoods and giant sequoias, the largest trees in the world, which were apparently planted many thousands of years ago and have been carefully tended ever since.”
Barbara Alice Mann, Seneca, contributed Chapter 7, ”Where Are Your Women?: Missing In Action.” She argues that ”women are missing in action in nearly all studies of Native America, whether historical, social, or anthropological.” Mann points out: ”This being the twenty-first century, it is well past time for scholars to stop treating Native American history as though only men saw, thought, acted, and spoke. Women saw, thought, acted, and spoke too.” Mann says that ”it is incumbent upon (especially Native American!) scholars to rectify the Western obliteration of women from the record, surely the most unconscionable of the many misrepresentations that have been foisted on Native America by Euro-America.”
Additional chapters include: ”Overcoming Hegemony in Native Studies Programs” by Devon A. Mihesuah, Oklahoma Choctaw; ”Preserving the Whole: Principles of Sustainability in Mi’KMaw Forms of Communication” by Trudy Sable; ”Traditional Native Justice: Restoration and Balance, Not ‘Punishment”’ by Rudy Al James (ThlauGooYailthThlee – the First and Oldest Raven), lead judge of the Kuiu Thlingit Nation of Alaska; and a number of other great pieces.
”Unlearning the Language of Conquest” is a must-read. It provides a deep appreciation for how the collective wisdom of indigenous knowledge systems is able to make a meaningful contribution to the world while providing a much-needed means of challenging the destructive hegemony of Western thought.
Steven Newcomb is Indigenous Law Research Coordinator for Kumeyaay Community College and the Sycuan Education Department, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, a research fellow with the American Indian Policy and Media Initiative at Buffalo State College in New York, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.
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