In America As A Civilization (1957), published 60 years ago, Max Lerner includes a section on “The Sources of the Heritage.” “As a colonizing and imperial continent,” says Lerner, “Europe gave largely of its strength and heritage to the [American] civilization which was destined to replace it in power and vitality.”
Lerner is alluding to the imperial trajectory of Western Christendom that worked for centuries to coercively impose itself upon free nations and peoples by colonizing the hemisphere existing west of the Atlantic Ocean. The terms “colonizing” and “imperial” are two synonyms for the patterns of Christian European domination that were carried across the vast ocean in the name of human and Christian “civilization” which has resulted in the creation of a system of domination and dehumanization called “America.”
Lerner provides evidence to support this claim when he writes, “In a long section of De Tocqueville, there is a remarkable study in the contact and clash of three… ethnic cultures in the America of his own day—the Indian, the Negro, and the European.” Notice the many terms for domination in italics in the following sentence: “De Tocqueville describes the extermination of the first by the predacity of the conquerors, the degradation of the second by slavery, and the effects of both in turn on the third, who were the possessors and the pursuers.” (emphasis added)
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But Lerner skillfully employs words that keep the pattern of domination hidden in the background by never giving it that name. While he could have written “predatory conquerors,” he chose the obscure term “predacity.” He used the term “degradation” rather than dehumanization. And rather than focus attention on how extermination and enslavement resulted in the domination and dehumanization of those who were subjected to such treatment, he directs the reader’s attention to the effects of those patterns on the white dominators whom he calls “the possessors and pursuers.” Think of how much more truthful Lerner would been if he had titled that section of his book, “The Sources of the American Heritage of Domination.”
It’s striking how much of Lerner’s prose describes domination without once mentioning that specific word. Take his characterization of the Spaniards in the following examples:
treasure-hunters, conquerors, enslavers, took the land without compunction, seized the wealth of the temples and palaces, shackled the Indian, forced labor, bloody resistance and insurrection, bloodily put down
When Lerner says the “barbarism of the conquest aroused the barbarism of the conquered,” he thereby creates a false sense of equivalency between deeds of the invaders and deeds of those who were being invaded. He does not say that our nations and ancestors were being “invaded.” He only calls them “the conquered,” meaning “the defeated.” Lerner then writes about “weapons of civilization,” all which are techniques of domination and vectors of destruction and death: “gunfire and alcohol, European land systems and speculators, traders and treaty-makers, force and fraud, tuberculosis and measles.” Lerner continues by quoting what he calls an instance of De Tocqueville’s “biting irony”:
The Spanish were unable to exterminate the Indian race by those unparalleled atrocities which brand them with indelible shame, nor did [the Spanish] even succeed in wholly depriving it [the Indian race] of its rights; but the Americans of the United States have accomplished this two-fold purpose with singular felicity; tranquilly, legally, philanthropically, without shedding blood, and without violating a single great principle of morality in the eyes of the world. It is impossible to destroy men with more respect for humanity.
Given the bloody record of what happened to our ancestors, it is bizarre for De Tocqueville to say that the Americans accomplished their purpose “without shedding blood.” Yet his overall point is well put when we consider the political experiment called “America” tends to falsely portray itself as “the exceptional nation,” meaning exceptionally moral and upright.
From there, Lerner then draws a racist comparison between “the culture of the Western European conquerors” (dominators), whom he calls “a technical, rationalist, highly mobile and acquisitive society,” and the Native peoples, who he disparages as the “symbolic, nonrational, ritualistic, passive culture of the Indians.” One only has to look at 1491 by Charles C. Mann; Indian Givers by Jack Weatherford; and The Encyclopedia of the American Indian to see what a lie it is for our ancestors to be called “nonrational.” Furthermore, a look at the history of Native Nation resistance reveals that our ancestors were hardly “passive.”
Despite the drive for domination by means of colonization, enslavement, extermination and displacement, Lerner tells the reader that the “British came to America carrying with them high principles of morality.” (emphasis added) In the very same paragraph he tells us that, “The whole policy of Indian removal and reservations in the Southern territory was aimed at opening the Cotton Kingdom for the Southern slaveholder.” He continues:
Take the Puritan assurance of an inter rightness of purpose, plus the 100 per-centrism of the Yankee spirit of “go” and “get,” plus the land hunger of the pioneer and the profit hunger of the land speculator, plus the dynamism of the “westward the course of empire” and the doctrine of America’s “Manifest Destiny”—add these and you get the fateful formula of the doom of the Indian culture.
A deadly and toxic combination for Native nations to be sure, all of which point once again to the patterns of oppression that have resulted in U.S. federal Indian law and policy. Now, 60 years after Lerner wrote, we ought to ask ourselves how well we as Native nations and peoples are making the effort to identify and name the domination and dehumanization imposed on our ancestors, which are maintained today by means of institutional and metaphorical patterns of reality the dominating society still relies upon in U.S. Supreme Court precedents and present day legislative frameworks. Here’s the point I’m wanting to make: Until we learn to accurately diagnose and name the domination system we are dealing with, we will not be able to address that system in a powerful and meaningful manner.
Steven Newcomb (Shawnee, Lenape) is co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and author of Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery (Fulcrum, 2008). He is a producer of the documentary movie, The Doctrine of Discovery: Unmasking the Domination Code, directed and produced by Sheldon Wolfchild (Dakota), with narration by Buffy Sainte-Marie (Cree). The movie can be ordered from 38Plus2Productions.com