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Native American Lawsuit Sheds Light On Dark Aspect Of US History

Above photo: Native Americans sitting on the steps of the US Capitol. AP/Denis Paquin.

What is the legacy from which the United States draws its certainty in the righteousness of American exceptionalism?

“The doctrine of discovery refers to a principle in public international law under which, when a nation ‘discovers’ land, it directly acquires rights on that land,” according to a definition offered by Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute. “This doctrine arose when the European nations discovered non-European lands, and therefore acquired special rights.”

“​​More broadly, the doctrine of discovery can be described as an international law doctrine giving authorization to explorers to claim terra nullius [‘uninhabited’ land]… in the name of their sovereign when the land was not populated by Christians.”

It’s a theory that’s offensive to most modern ears – suggesting settlers have a right to violently confiscate territory in the name of religion – and it was acknowledged as such last year when the Catholic Church officially repudiated it. But the doctrine of discovery was cited by the United States’ highest legal authority as recently as 2005, when the US Supreme Court ruled against the indigenous Oneida Nation in a majority opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The Oneida people, the justice claimed, had no special rights in land they had inhabited for thousands of years before descendants of Europeans like Ginsberg crossed the Atlantic.

New York State’s Onondaga Nation had filed a similar lawsuit just days before seeking compensation for territory they claimed their ancestors had been forced to sell against their will. The Onondaga have since reconsidered their strategy, taking their claim to the supranational Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. US media examined their story this week as the commission is expected to rule on the Onondaga’s claim in the coming months.

“If we don’t admit that those things have happened, how do we move forward together?” asked Joe Heath, a lawyer for the Onondaga people. “The problem is that all of the land in New York, in the United States, is stolen Indian land.”

Heath’s observation raises a thorny issue. The US, for a time considered the world’s lone superpower after the Cold War drew to a close, has increasingly fashioned itself as a global arbiter and enforcer of morality. Ending genocide, toppling dictators, spreading democracy, and defeating communism are just some of the reasons offered by the United States to justify bloody interventions around the globe.

But academics often dispute the validity of America’s self-perception as an authority on human rights, noting the country is unique among others as an historic settler colonial regime.

“Settler colonialism is a form of colonization where a settler society entirely or partially replaces an indigenous people on their land,” explains the website Visualizing Palestine. Many countries trace their history back centuries or even millenia, recognizing a legacy of many historical inhabitants. Others continue a process of deliberately stamping out native influence, appropriating indigenous lands and killing their inhabitants.

The United States, Australia, Northern Ireland, and Israel are considered some of the most prominent modern-day settler colonial territories.

Some countries have made efforts to rectify the injustices of historical settler colonialism. Europe has abandoned its holdings on the African continent since the mid-twentieth century, and South Africa has restored the rights of its native population since the fall of apartheid. In Bolivia, a cabinet-level Ministry of Decolonization examines how to protect and preserve indigenous art, lifestyles, and culture.

The United States has resisted calls to view its land’s pre-colonial inhabitants as equals.

For most of its citizens, American history begins with the arrival of European explorers on the continent in 1492. Indigenous people have little to no influence over the country’s modern-day legal, political, and social systems. Their decimation, fueled by massacres, enslavement, and forced removals, represents one of the most obvious historical examples of genocide according to Raphael Lemkin, the man who coined the term.

Settler colonialism, scholars stress, is a process. It’s not a single act of violence or subjugation, but an ongoing event in which indigenous people are continually suppressed.

“The [New] York people have got almost all of our Country and for a very trifle,” observed Onondaga chiefs in 1794, already recognizing the process they were being subjected to. One can trace the animating principle behind the theft of Onondagan land right up to the present day, with Ginsberg’s opinion demonstrating the United States’ contempt for the rights and legacy of indigenous people.

Now, Onondagan land is reduced to a tract of just 11 square miles. Their historical territory is despoiled by some 24 Superfund sites where the US federal government still works to address large-scale industrial pollution. The contamination is such that the Onondaga can no longer fish in their rivers and streams.

“Defending American exceptionalism should always be above politics,” declared then presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton in 2016. And so it has been. From the legacy of African slavery, Manifest Destiny, Jim Crow and the Monroe Doctrine right up to American exceptionalism and the dictates of foreign policy neoconservatives, the United States has always insisted on enforcing its will on others.

Should a country with such history be allowed to lecture the world? Should their junior partners in the former European colonial empires be seen as much better? The modern struggle for a multipolar world promises to finally answer that question in favor of the oppressed.

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