Dismantling Christendom in Federal Indian Law in Steven T. Newcomb’s Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery

Pagans in the Promised Land

Pagans in the Promised Land

Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery by Steven T. Newcomb sets as its goal the decoding of hidden biblical meanings in United States Federal Indian Law/Policy, but specifically the 1823 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh, which helped bolster the cognitive mental processes necessary to formulate the legal argument that Indigenous nations and their lands are subject to dominion by Christian Europeans as a result of the Doctrine of Discovery. Newcomb’s central thesis is that federal Indian law is a conceptual system that, truth be told, is based on political, legal and religious fraud.

Pagans in the Promised Land is divided into ten (10) chapters with an introduction and conclusion:

  • Introduction
  • A Primer on Cognitive Theory
  • Metaphorical Experience and Federal Indian Law
  • The Conqueror Model
  • Colonizing the Promised Land
  • The Chosen People-Promised Land Model
  • The Dominating Mentality of Christendom
  • Johnson v. M’Intosh
  • Converting Christian Discovery into Heathen Conquest
  • The Mental Process of Negation
  • Christian Nations Theory: Hidden in Plain Sight
  • Conclusion: A Sacred Regard for All Living Things

Racial relations in the United States are structured within Black and White archetypes that completely omit the historical marker of 1492 as well as the experiences of Indigenous peoples in what is now the Western hemisphere. To imagine Indigenous peoples having been free and independent of Christian Europeans is difficult to conceive in the present era when one has come to internalize the machinations of American Exceptionalism.

Yet Newcomb argues that Indigenous peoples continue to remain free and independent, especially in those areas where Indigenous peoples exercise their right to self-determination (130). Newcomb combines an Indigenous perspective along with the colonizer’s own language and way of thinking, namely through cognitive theory, to examine the power of the human mind as a weapon used against Indigenous peoples (xxviii). This is, of course, a radical and revolutionary approach to challenging many of our own ideals that have largely gone unquestioned, such as those having to do with our religious beliefs.

The religious backdrop from which the American Empire was founded on and continues to be maintained seems to be taken for granted, yet it is incumbent upon Chicanas/os to begin interrogating its unique relationship with the Catholic Church similar to what Católicos Por La Raza (CPLR) did during its brief existence. Although CPLR demanded that the Catholic Church be more conscious in meeting the needs of the poor, it did not dispute the Doctrine of Discovery nor its step-child Manifest Destiny upon which the Mexican nation lost half its land to the United States in 1848.

Newcomb’s treatment of Christian dogma is relevant to Chicanas/os in that various papal bulls were used to enforce the conquest and colonization of Mesoamerica (45). The legacy of what Newcomb calls “image-schemas” continue to inform Chicana/o mental processes in how it views itself within the American Empire and the Catholic Church. With the recent canonization of Padre Junipero Serra by the Catholic Church in his official visit to the United States was a reminder that the Catholic Church continues to affirm the Doctrine of Discovery as an unspoken, yet official policy that drives the discourse of Eurocentric cultures vis-à-vis its relationship with Indigenous peoples throughout the world. In particular, a cultural war of position continues to drive the political, social, and economic platform of Euroamerican policies.

It is blasphemous to speak of a Chosen People-Promised Land and Christian Nations Theory of Domination as well as to demand that the United States argue its case as to how Indigenous peoples became subject to Empire (115-124). Nonetheless, complicating the Old Testament and its impact in manufacturing the subjugation of Indigenous peoples is one of many colonial layers that must be ultimately removed. How one goes about it is the bigger question.

Although Newcomb’s focus is the Johnson & Graham’s Lessee v. M’Intosh case, it is an instructive review because it demonstrates the power of precedent in American jurisprudence. Pagans in the Promised Land is pertinent not just for our understanding of the past but for better assessing the present, as well as gauging our response to the American Empire’s ever shifting posture to defend what it believes to be its “right to rule” (133-134). As right-wing think tanks continue to proliferate and promote the view that Indigenous peoples and namely non-Christians must be subdued at all costs, Newcomb makes it evident that a new paradigm shift is necessary to transform Indigenous communities to one that sustains Mother Earth for future generations (136). In other words, humanity must return to its Indigenous ancestral roots for survival.

The multiple colonial layers must be discarded. Newcomb speaks of a process of mental negation that is conceptualized historically and idealized as a model of what people are and what they are not. This is mostly a legacy of Greco-Roman systems which advocated subduing “empty lands” and were thus brought over to the “Americas” as strategies of conquest and colonization. Newcomb also makes the connection between the Roman system of nullius and the Catholic Church’s concept of nullius. At the heart of both, however, is this idea that “heathens” must be apprehended and their lands declared vacant and open for the taking.

To interrogate history and more recent institutionalized racist systems, including police violence as an extension of 1492 is relevant to making race in America see beyond a Black and White paradigm to one which must be centered through the Doctrine of Discovery. There can never be an honest dialogue of race if 1492 is not discussed at the table. And, of course, there is a reason why the erasure of Indigenous peoples has occurred and why 1492 has been forgotten. Imagine, if you will, the power structure having to acknowledge a stolen continent, the rape of a people, the pillage of land, destruction of an ecosystem, and in essence genocide? This alone would invalidate the Eurocentric project in this hemisphere.

It is in this sense, then, that Pagans in the Promised Land is important. Its a scholarly work that frames the Doctrine of Discovery within the legal framework of the United States. It is only then that you begin to realize the falsity behind the American judicial system, yet also realize its power in the imagination of a people. In the larger scheme of things, Newcomb centers the Catholic Church as part and parcel of colonization and domination as entrenched in the very structures of society, which are believed to be non-denominational. Pagans in the Promised Land is a reminder that Indigenous peoples have the power to question and even insert themselves in the question of race. This is a great book for Chicana/o Studies.


Cultural Sovereignty


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