John Locke and Indian country

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he relied
heavily on the writings of John Locke.

One of Locke’s most famous works is
his “Second Treatise of Government,” published in 1689. In his essay “Of
the State of Nature,” Locke wrote that “all men are naturally in … a
state of perfect freedom to order their actions, and dispose of their
possessions and persons, as they think fit, within the bounds of the laws
of nature, without asking leave, or depending upon the will of any other

Jefferson, in his original draft of the Declaration of Independence, was
influenced by Locke when he wrote: “We hold these truths to be sacred &
undeniable; that all men are created equal and independent.” Benjamin
Franklin replaced “sacred and undeniable” with “self-evident,” and a
congressional committee later struck the word “independent.” Evidently,
Congress didn’t want the revolution to be too revolutionary or liberating.

Nonetheless, Locke’s focus on concepts such as “a state of liberty” can
help us focus on the fact that American Indian nations were originally free
and independent prior to the Christian European invasion of this indigenous
hemisphere west of Europe. Today, however, we as Indians are expected to
forget the original free and independent political existence that our
ancestors experienced. Who expects this of us? Why, the United States, of

A question arises: Given that the United States places such a high value on
its independence, which it obtained in 1776 or 1783 (depending upon the
date one chooses), why should our respective indigenous nations place any
less value on the historic free and independent existence of our nations?

Our ancestors experienced and lived a natural liberty, and that liberty was
expressed through our respective languages, our cultures, our spiritual
traditions and our economic systems. The United States, as a self-avowed
empire, worked hard to destroy our natural indigenous liberty, while taking
over and economically enriching itself on our ancestral lands, waters and

Instead of developing powerful arguments advocating a restoration of our
natural indigenous liberty by openly contesting and challenging the plenary
power doctrine and the doctrine of discovery, we tend to allow the
presumption to go unchallenged that we as Native peoples are obligated to
forever live our lives in subjection to whatever concepts and ideas U.S.
government officials choose to impose on us.

The most powerful weapon that the United States has used against us is the
power of the human mind, and the mental ability to produce oppressive
concepts and ideas, which have been euphemistically called “laws” and
“policies.” Rather than challenge the presumption that the United States
has the right to unilaterally impose its ideas on us without our free
consent, we tend to cave in and go along to get along. We shall continue to
do so at our own peril.

We would be well-advised to be forewarned by the experiences of our
ancestors, and by the decades-long anti-Indian trend of the U.S. Supreme
Court. No people should willingly allow themselves to be subjected to the
mental control of other people, particularly if those other people have
demonstrated a willingness and a capability of doing them great harm.

Plainly, we have no clear idea how the Roberts Supreme Court is likely to
rule on Indian issues. Given what Indian Country Today Associate Editor Jim
Adams uncovered regarding John Roberts’ willingness as an attorney to twist
and spin the words of the court in the 1886 United States v. Kagama
decision — giving words the opposite of the meaning the court clearly
intended — the future does not bode well for Indian country (“Roberts’
‘dishonesty’ concerns Indian country,” Vol. 25, Iss. 15).

Our ancestors were free and independent for thousands of years before the
United States was ever formed as a political entity. When the leadership of
the 13 British colonies declared those colonies to be “thirteen free and
independent states,” those states aspired to the free existence that our
ancestors had already experienced for countless generations.

In point of fact, our indigenous nations were already free and independent
at the time the 13 states became free and independent, entered into a
confederation and later formed an imperial republic. And when our
respective nations made treaties with the United States, they did so as
free and independent nations. Our nations did not cease to be free and
independent by making those treaties.

Thus the question arises: How did our respective nations become subject to
the mental control of U.S. government officials? One possible answer would
be that because our indigenous nations were located inside the boundaries
of the United States, our nations were therefore subject to the mental
control of U.S. government officials. This response is false, however,
because the treaties document the right of our nations to maintain their
independence, despite the territories of our nations being circumscribed
and surrounded by non-Indian held lands. The territory of every Indian
nation was naturally entitled to continue being in what John Locke called
“a state of perfect freedom,” a continuing Indian domain of independence.

Some people might feel that such talk smacks of being “secessionist.” But
this, of course, is not only sloppy thinking: it is also the wrong use of
language. The opposite of secession is accession. Political accession means
“to willingly agree to become part of, or join, a political order,” such as
when a new state is admitted into the union of the United States. An effort
by Indian nations to maintain their sacred ancestral birthright as
originally free and independent nations, against the efforts of the United
States to force them into subjection, is not “secession.” It is liberation
from, and resistance to, oppression.

That which the United States had no legitimate right to do to begin with,
it has no more right to do now simply because of the long passage of time.
Thus, because the United States had no legitimate right to force Indian
nations under its mental control in the past, it has no more legitimate
right to do so today than it did before. It is our responsibility to
vigilantly sharpen and maintain the arguments that point out and advocate
our sacred birthright of liberty, while refusing to submit ourselves to the
efforts by the United States to wear down and crush our spirit of
resistance to the designs of what George Washington’s Society of the
Cincinnati referred to as “The American Empire.”

Steven Newcomb is the Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at Kumeyaay
Community College, a research fellow of the American Indian Policy and
Media Initiative at Buffalo State College and a columnist for Indian
Country Today.