There, I said it. Conservatives have sometimes been annoyed by my use of that term – dominating mentality of conquest. It is not the kind of language I like to use. It bespeaks a manner of, in this case postcolonial, academic jargon I disdain. Heidegger said that “Language is the house of being.” Jargon closes a door. Heidegger, like Hegel before him, and Wittgenstein in his aphorisms understood the revelatory nature, instead, of poetry: “The purest essence [of language] unfolds itself in poetry,” he said. “Poetry is the original language of a people.”

Still, some aspects of reality are ugly. Ugly reality, ugly words, unless one wants to make an aesthetic object of the ugly, like fetishizing power, in domination. Politically, let’s not.

The other day I wrote again about the suit to compel the Washington Redskins football team to change its name. A point I’ve made in the past on this subject is that the general American culture cannot honor Native America in mascotry. The defeated do not make mascots of their conquerors. The making of the mascot by the conqueror, even in expressed, so-called honor, is by its very nature, an act of dominance. So, too, is the appropriation of another’s cultural heritage. The inability to recognize this is a manifestation of the dominating mentality of conquest.


The other day Indian Country Today reported that “[t]he Onondaga Nation buried the remains of 180 ancestors and more than 1,000 funerary objects in a private ceremony in early September after repatriation by the New York State Museum.” The repatriation had been ordered by a 5-1 vote of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) Review Committee. That NAGPRA was passed by the Congress in 1990 is a virtue not to be ignored, though there are, of course, those who dismiss the significance of centuries old bones just as others do the symbolism of smiling Chief faces at Progressive Field in Cleveland.

The review committee had been required to review and vote on the matter because the New York State Museum had resisted turning over the remains. Museums frequently do this. In this case the New York Sate Museum claimed that the remains predated the development of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy, of which the Onondaga were the central component, and thus were culturally unaffiliated with the Onondaga.

The claim by museums and other institutions that the ancestors’ remains and other sacred objects are “unaffiliated” is almost universal, despite the fact that the remains are found in territories where known indigenous peoples have lived for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

“There seems to be an acceptable norm from a lot of major museums, including the New York State Museum, by stating that they have theories that say, for instance, the Onondaga Nation didn’t exist until contact. I guess when the Europeans named the Onondaga Nation ‘the Onondaga Nation,’ is when they became the Onondaga Nation,” O’Loughlin [Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, an attorney for the Onondagas] said.

Specifically, the museum claimed that

the Haudenosaunee Confederacy came into existence sometime between 1450 and 1500 even though the nations themselves have evidence that it was formed between 1,000 and 1,100 years ago.

The NAGPRA review committee did not credit this argument, but let’s, for the sake of argument, credit it now, as a meaningful distinction, legally and morally. And let’s turn for a moment to one of the more well-known and longer standing of such disputes – that between the government of Peru and Yale University over the artifacts and treasures excavated by Hiram Bingham from Machu Picchu in 1912 and 1914-15, under the aegis of Yale and the National Geographic Society, and with the agreement of the Peruvian government.

A signed agreement between then Peruvian President Augusto Leguía and the expedition reserved to the Peruvian Government “the right to exact from Yale University and the National Geographic Society of the United States of America the return of the unique specimens and duplicates.” Over the years, Yale has made small shows of honoring this agreement, but has mostly made varied arguments concerning its superior capacity to curate this world treasure. It was only in recent years, however – when former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo, Peru’s first president of indigenous descent, made the dispute an issue of particular personal interest – that Yale revealed what it considers its legal trump card.

Much of the disputed collection of artifacts is from the 1912 expedition. After that expedition, the Peruvian legislature changed the existing applicable laws. But it seems that applicable in 1912 was the 1852 Civil Code that permitted those who excavated such artifacts to keep them. In making this argument, Yale seems not to feel compelled to honor what others (among them the National Geographic Society) believe should be the superseding Presidential agreement.

Hiram Bingham
Hiram Bingham

Now the Machu Picchu dispute has two levels of cultural appropriation to it. One exists within the context of the North-South politics of the Western Hemisphere. The other is at the level of the relationship between the dominant European-descended culture of Peru and its indigenous peoples, in the case of Machu Picchu, the Quechua (Inca) people. I am not aware (which does not mean it is not so) of any current disputation between the Peruvian government and the Quechua regarding Machu Picchu. Our own guide when we visited was a half-blooded, fully-identified Quechua man who was quite proud of the current representation of Machu Picchu to the world.

The active, public dispute, then, is between one of the most famous universities in the world, in the most powerful nation in the world, and the intellectual culture they both represent, and a nation that in comparison long suffered in its economic and political development. Nonetheless, acknowledged by both sides, even in the disputed issue of applicable law, is the principle of the Peruvian people’s sovereign claim to the cultural and artifactual heritage of their land – even though the existing predominant ethnic group and culture of Peru is not that of the people who built Machu Picchu.

On the one hand, that circumstance duplicates in form the relationship in which the Onondaga (and other North American Tribes) stand in relationship to the United States (and Canada). On the other hand, it also clarifies that on an international level, as a matter of sovereign control and authority – and in contrast to the position so often taken toward Native Americans in the U.S. – clear, direct cultural/ethnic “affiliation” between artifacts and remains and the people claiming ownership is not a determining factor.

Sovereignty is.

Why does the Onondaga Nation not now have sovereignty over the land on which the remains were discovered, and thus, when the remains were discovered, did the Onondaga not have control of them?

Because the Onondaga, as were all Native Americans, were overwhelmed and conquered by foreign peoples.

Why does the brute force of conquest continue to prevail in matters of sovereignty, physical control, and determinations of ethnic-cultural affiliation?

In Peru – I do not know – it may simply be brute fact.

In the United States, it is the 1823 Supreme Court decision Johnson v. M’Intosh, which justified continued European-American sovereignty over the land through right of “discovery,” and in so doing declared Native peoples to be

an inferior race of people, without the privileges of citizens, and under the perpetual protection and pupilage of the government.

And the people of the United States, including its archaeologists and museum curators and athletic team owners, do not know this, or care if they do, and live as if they have an inherent, rather than a circumstantial, right to be here, without any consideration to the exceptional and invisible nature of Native American life.

That is the dominating mentality of conquest.


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