One of the most significant sections of the Johnson v. McIntosh ruling of 1823, is Chief Justice John Marshall’s assertion that the Indians’ rights to complete sovereignty as independent nations” had been ended by “Christian people” (original emphasis) becoming knowledgeable of the location of lands inhabited by Native people “who were heathens” (Marshall’s phrase). Marshall said that the independence of Native nations had been “necessarily” diminished. This claim by Marshall deserves much closer examination.
Why did Marshall use the word “necessarily?” Because conceiving of Native nations as no longer having the right to live free from domination was necessary for the political system that the United States government was developing. Native nations being acknowledged as having the right to continue living free and independent of U.S. domination, within the geo-political space being claimed by the United States, would pose a major political challenge for the United States government.
Marshall suggested that the political system of the United States made it necessary for the United States to claim that the liberty of Native nations has been ended (“diminished”) by “Christian people” identifying the location of lands “inhabited by natives, who were heathens.” In order for the United States to portray itself as possessing permanent political supremacy (a claimed right of domination) over Native nations, it was necessary for the United States to develop a presumption that the right of Native nations to remain independent of domination had been ended when Christian world became knowledgeable of the continent.
Chief Justice Marshall acknowledged in the Johnson ruling that the Native nations of the continent had been living a completely free existence before “Christian people” had identified the geographical location of those nations. He acknowledged this point with the words “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations.” However, Marshall went on to make the explicit claim that after the continent had been located by “Christian people,” Native nations no longer had the right to live free and independent of an assertion of “ultimate dominion” by the Christians.
So, the question arises: On what basis might it be claimed that the right of Native nations to live a free and independent existence had been ended, as a result of “Christian people” sailing to and identifying the geographical location of “natives, who were heathens”?
Posed differently, how could the Christian world becoming knowledgeable of the geographical location of “heathens,” result in the “heathens” being deprived of the “right” to live free and independent of the Christians’ claim of a right of domination?
As the highest court in the United States, the Supreme Court only had to put forward the mental assertion that the right of the Indians to exist as free and independent nations had been ended by the Christian European “discovery” of the continent. Then U.S. government officials could maintain an inter-generational tradition of treating that assertion as “true.”
At one point in the Johnson ruling, Marshall said that the Supreme Court had decided to adopt the assertion (“the pretension”) that “discovery” was the same as “conquest,” a word which I translate as domination. In other words, the Court was willing to pretend that Christian people identifying the geographical location of lands inhabited by natives who were heathens, was the same as a “conquest” of the heathens and their lands, thereby resulting in the assumption that the Christian people, and later on their descendants and successors, have a permanent right of domination over the “heathens.”
Once it was widely assumed that the independence of Native nations had been ended, that assumption was then made an intrinsic part of U.S. federal Indian law policy and a part of the ordinary thought process of all U.S. government officials, and later Supreme Court rulings regarding Indian issues. The point of the Johnson ruling was to establish a permanent assumption that the right of Native nations to remain independent of U.S. domination had been ended, and to make that claim the most fundamental premise of federal Indian law.
And since we as Native nations and people have failed to develop and put forward our own counter-argument to this assertion in the Johnson ruling, then, by default, the assertion has gone uncontested –Steven Newcomb