This is the third essay in a series that explores themes and issues identified in my book, Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, 2017). The pursuit of interracial justice in the twenty-first century in the United States requires not only that we address pressing social issues of injustice, but also that we deepen our understanding of the role of American Christianity in the subjugation, exploitation, and annihilation of Native Americans. By doing so, those of us who are white Christians can recover the historic meaning of Christianity as a religion of an oppressed people seeking freedom, and contribute in positive ways to the creation of a more just and peaceful society.
In this article we focus on the Constitution as an example of Christian collusion with colonialism in shaping Constitutional apartheid in the United States. I make this strong accusation not to disparage the Constitution, which is the foundation of our democracy, but to call attention to the fact that the Constitution barred Native Americans from participation in the then newly formed government of the United States. Congress did not officially recognize Indian citizenship until 1924.
Recall that one of the grievances against King George III listed in the Declaration of Independence was taxation without representation. Then let’s ask ourselves how we interpret Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution, where we read:
"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, . . . excluding Indians not taxed."
Indians are not taxed because they have no representation in the government. They are excluded. In Article I. Section 8., we read:
"Congress shall have the Power . . . To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations, and among the several States, and with Indian Tribes."
We see again, Indians are treated as foreigners. The Constitution expresses no desire to include Indians as citizens. In fact, it is just the opposite.
The Constitution’s exclusion of Native Americans falls within Eric Yamamoto’s description of oppression as evidenced by “systemic exclusion and subjugation” (Yamamoto 1999: 86–90). He uses the word oppression as “a tool for examining interracial grievances that arise . . . from the collective operation of social organizations and institutions (1999: 86). He notes here that oppression “can be built into institutional structures” in ways that mean “tyranny by a ruling elite.” Oppressed groups are disadvantaged by “embedded norms, habits, and symbols” that are generally unquestioned.
Oppressed groups are often identified by race and culture. The latter term is defined by Yamamoto as: “the system through which . . . a social order is communicated, reproduced, experienced, and explored” (1999: 90). Thus, the Constitution is a cultural document that embraces and transmits a belief system that excludes Native Americans, and prepares the way for what may justly be called “settler colonialism.” Ward Churchill describes this type of colonialism as “a particularly virulent form of socioeconomic penetration wherein the colonizing country literally exports a sufficient proportion of its population to supplant (rather than enslave) the indigenous population of the colony” (Churchill 1993: 23).
Constitutional apartheid not only disadvantages Native Americans, it also serves to unify white people around an ideology of whiteness.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz argues that the origin of the ideology of whiteness and white supremacy can be traced to the Crusades and the papal law of limpieza de sangre—cleanliness of blood—for which the Inquisition was established. She finds that before the Inquisition, “The concept of biological race based on ‘blood’ is not known to have existed as law or taboo in Christian Europe or anywhere in the world” (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2014: 37). She notes that with the passage of time the doctrine of limpieza de sangre became popularized among white Europeans who used it to obscure class differences between landed aristocracy and land-poor peasants. Thus, the ideology of whiteness neutralized class antagonisms among whites and rationalized the exclusion and subordination of non-whites.
The ideology of whiteness was honed during the late Tudor and early Stuart monarchies, when Protestant England became an overseas colonial power. Elizabethan England imagined itself to be a chosen people founding a New Jerusalem, first in Ireland and then in America. Dunbar-Ortiz reports: “In the lead up to the formation of the United States, Protestantism uniquely refined white supremacy as part of a politico-religious ideology to the detriment of Native Americans (2014: 39). Bluntly: “The colonization of America was genocide by plan” (2014: 44).
In the twenty-first century, white people in the United States who want to pursue interracial justice must begin with these historic truths. We must understand American apartheid before we can uproot it.
But there is more to this story: There is an ongoing and lively debate about the extent to which Native Americans, and particularly the Haudenosaunee, or Iroquois Confederacy, influenced the western democratic tradition and the writing of the Constitution. Oren R. Lyons, a traditional chief of the Onondaga Nation, Iroquois Confederacy, teaches us that it was not the Europeans and Anglo-Americans who brought democratic traditions to America, but rather: “egalitarian American Indian societies stimulated the thinking of European philosophers of the Enlightenment” (Lyons 1992: 31). He writes that, “The Haudenosaunee political organization did not originate from a struggle for democratic rights. . . . The unifying ideology the Haudenosaunee embraced was that peace was an attainable objective” (1992: 33). And, “The Iroquois Great Law of Peace . . . is the earliest surviving governmental tradition in the world that we know of based on the principle of peace” (1992: 33). How ironic.
Did the Great Law of Peace and the Haudenosaunee political tradition influence or inspire the US Constitution? Charles C. Mann says that “historians’ skepticism seems merited” (Mann 2011: 384). Barbara Alice Mann, on the other hand, offers a compelling account of the Iroquois and Haudenosaunee influence on the evolution of US political philosophy and institutions (Mann 2011). This debate has implications for our understanding of US history, which I can only introduce here.
In his landmark study, Ethics of Liberation, Enrique Dussel urges us to find “new horizons of strategic and tactical ethical reasoning grounded in the metaethics of liberation” if we want to create an ethics and politics based on the affirmation of life (Dussel 2013: xviii). Specifically, he calls us to open up our thinking and discussion beyond conventional Helleno- or Eurocentric patterns. This means displacing our Eurocentric vision of the world and the idea of a primordial unity of the civilized world being defended by the “world’s only superpower,” and replacing it with an awareness that there are multiple centers of origin. Ethical reasoning grounded in this understanding of history calls us to an ethic of responsibility and respect for other human beings and for Mother Earth.
Churchill, Ward, 1993. Struggle for the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide, and Expropriation in Contemporary North America. Monroe, ME.: Common Courage Press.
Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne, 2014. An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States. Boston: Beacon Press.
Dussel, Enrique, 2013. Ethics of Liberation: In the Age of Globalization and Exclusion, translated by Camilo Pérez Bustillo, Yolanda Angulo, and Nelson Maldonado-Torres, translation edited by Alejandro A. Vallega. Durham: Duke University Press.
Oren R. Lyons, 1992. “The American Indian in the Past,” Exiled in the Land of the Free: Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution. Oren R. Lyons, John Mohawk, Vine Deloria, Jr., et. al, Santa Fe: Clear Light Publishers.
Mann, Barbara Alice, 2011. Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc.
Mann, Charles C., 2011. 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, second edition. New York: Vintage Books.
Yamamoto, Eric K, 1999. Interracial Justice: Conflict and Reconciliation in Post-Civil Rights America. New York: New York University Press.
David P. Hansen
Native Americans, the Mainline Church, and the Quest for Interracial Justice (Chalice Press, 2017).