According to Steven L. Winter, in his book “A Clearing in the Forest: Law, Life, and Mind” (2001), recent
findings in cognitive science (study of the human mind) reveal that the mind functions largely by means of
metaphors and other cognitive operations. Metaphor is thinking of one thing in terms of something else. As
Winter explains, cognitive science has revealed that all thought is innately imaginative, and metaphor is one
of the ways that human beings use the imaginative power of human thought.
But the question arises, are some metaphors and other mental processes more likely to lead to thoughts and
behavior that are dehumanizing and pathological? For example, if one group of people thinks of and
dehumanizes another group of people as “beasts,” or sub-human, isn’t this likely to lead to negative,
perhaps even heinous behavior towards the people being labeled? Is it correct to consider such negative
thoughts and behavior to be pathological?
Take the example of George Washington thinking of and referring to Indians as “savages” and “beasts.” In
1783, Washington wrote that, “the gradual extension of our settlements will as certainly cause the savage, as
the wolf, to retire.” By retire he meant, move away or be killed. Both “the savage” and “the wolf” were
described by Washington as, “beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.” This is an example of Washington
using the imaginative power of thought in a dehumanizing, and, arguably, pathological manner.
Cognitive theory posits that how we conceive (think) of something predetermines how we will behave toward
that thing. Thus, the imaginative American conception of Indians as “beasts of prey” led to very specific kinds
of pathological behavior consistent with that mental image (thought, or idea).
For example, American troops – at Washington’s instruction – carried out a scorched earth policy against the
Seneca Nation by destroying entire towns and vast food supplies. In some cases, American troops skinned
the bodies of the Seneca people who had been killed. The troops would skin the bodies “from the hips
downward to make boot tops or leggings.” Since the Seneca killed were imagined or conceived of as
“beasts,” they could, without any twinge of American conscience, be skinned like wild beasts.
Greed was a powerful motive for this kind of thought and behavior towards the Seneca and other Native
nations: Millions of acres of land and all the material wealth those lands represented. Genocide can be good
That Hitler exhibited a pathological mentality and behavior toward Jews, which was reflected in their mass
annihilation at the hands of the Nazis, is taken for granted by most people. Fewer people would be of the
opinion that the United States, over the course of its history, has exhibited a pathological mentality and
behavior toward American Indian nations and peoples. Yet who could deny that skinning human beings such
as Washington’s soldiers did to the Seneca people reflects some kind of pathology?
If a child kills cats and blows up frogs with firecrackers, is this the sign of a balanced and well-adjusted
human being? Or is such behavior indicative of deep emotional and perhaps mental pathology? Serial killers
often start out with these “small killings” and eventually begin killing other human beings. The pathology that
the future serial killer exhibits in childhood becomes fully manifested in heinous acts of murder in adulthood.
By way of analogy, during its “infancy” and “youth” the United States started out killing off Indians, while
compulsively stealing massive amounts of lands and resources from Native nations. Over the course of its
entire lifespan the United States has continued to exhibit compulsive pathological behavior toward Native
Because the people of the United States understandably desire to view their country in a positive light, they
tend to conveniently overlook or deny the U.S.’s reprehensible thought and behavior towards Native nations.
The subject of U.S. genocide against American Indians is conveniently swept under the rug, so to speak, and
in mainstream media we never see a discussion of the possibility of an American pathology towards Native
nations and peoples. Being able to avoid this uncomfortable subject makes it a lot easier on those wishing to
extol the virtues of the United States without contradiction.
When one thinks about it, it would seem that the American empire’s mental and behavioral pathology toward
Native nations has passed through different phases.
One phase was the outright killing of Indians from the Ohio Valley to the gold fields of California, and
everywhere in between. Another phase was the U.S.’s never-ending kleptomaniacal compulsion to steal
Indian lands and resources. (Recent passage of the Western Shoshone bill is evidence that this phase is still
ongoing). Yet another phase was the U.S.’s efforts to destroy the economic and political independence of
Native nations, to destroy Native languages, cultures, and to destroy our ability to live our respective spiritual
traditions in our sacred places. Is this compulsively destructive mentality and behavior toward Native peoples
evidence that the U.S. society has a deep and underlying illness (pathology)? Or is it just “the American
way,” along with apple pie and the American flag?
America’s pathological mentality and behavior toward Native nations has old cognitive roots that can be
traced back many centuries. Take for example one of Cristobal Colon’s favorite passages from the Bible: “O
clap your hands, all ye nations: shout unto God with the voice of joy, for the Lord is high, terrible: a great
king over all the earth. He hath subdued the people under us: and the nations under our feet & God shall
reign over the nations.”
From a Native perspective, one could say that applying the above way of thinking to indigenous peoples is
pathological because it led to a brutal and hierarchical structuring of the physical and social world. Core
metaphorical concepts in the above passage include the concept of “the Lord” being “high and terrible.”
Those who subscribed to this viewpoint, felt justified in conducting themselves as European “lords” who were
“high and terrible.” This attitude is exemplified by the Spaniards’ use of vicious dogs to hunt down Indians
and tear them apart, or conquistadors cutting off an Indian’s hand for not “handing” the Spaniards an
imposed quota of gold.
The metaphors in the above passage resulted in thinking of indigenous peoples as destined to be “subdued”
because “the Lord … hath subdued” them. Once they were viewed as destined to be “subdued,” the
indigenous peoples were then also viewed as destined to exist forever “under” the representatives of “the
Lord.” The Christian Europeans then viewed the indigenous peoples as existing “under” their “feet,”
meaning, subject to Christian European authority. Many similar conceptual patterns form the basis of
America’s present day pathological mentality and behavior towards Native nations and peoples. A “reality”
constructed on the basis of such cognitive patterns is a “reality” of domination.
America’s mental and behavioral patterns of pathology toward Native nations generally remain at an
unconscious level of awareness in society. This means that although these patterns do exist, the average
person is usually oblivious to this fact. It is up to us to identify these cognitive and behavioral patterns of
domination, and suggest what ought to be done about them.
If we accept that there is such a thing as an American pathology toward Native nations and peoples, it stands
to reason that we ought to search for ways to heal this pathology. Such a task is extremely difficult because
of the extent to which America’s cognitive and behavioral patterns of domination toward Native nations and
peoples seem to be inextricably woven into the social, legal, political, and economic fabric and institutions of
the United States. The pathology then becomes manifested through largely taken for granted and seemingly
“normal” everyday activities, such as federal legislation and policy decisions, Supreme Court and other court
rulings, state legislation and policy decisions, National Labor Relations Board decisions and so forth.
Ironically, history suggests that for centuries the cultures and cognitive systems of indigenous peoples
contain transformative and healing alternatives to the American pathology. Although we must be cautious to
refrain from romanticizing Native cultures, it is fair to say that the traditional worldviews and conceptual
systems of indigenous nations and peoples contain healing metaphors and values that stand in stark
contrast to the Euro-American system of thought and behavior.
One clear example of how indigenous societies have influenced the world in the political realm is the extent
to which the model of the Iroquois Confederacy influenced many of the founders of the United States such as
Benjamin Franklin. “From America have emerged the cornerstones of the political philosophy that has
transformed the world,” wrote German Arciniegas in his book “America in Europe” (1980). The indigenous
worlds – concepts, technologies, medicines, foodstuffs, etc., – of the Americas had a transforming effect on
the dank and oppressive medieval culture of Christendom. Seeing examples of indigenous democracies of
North America, eventually led European intellectuals to envision the possibility of a different kind of political
order based on “liberty,” without monarchy.
The French thinker La Boetie related the following: “If by chance different people are born today, who are
not accustomed to servitude nor fear liberty, and they are bidden to choose between being slaves or living in
freedom … there is not doubt that they will be more inclined to obey reason than to serve other men.” Such
ideas flew in the face of the rigid hierarchical structuring of European society; and such ideas became a
catalyst that transformed the world by giving voice to a concept unknown in medieval Christendom: “to be
Indigenous representatives have consistently provided insightful commentary on the taken for granted norms
of European societies. Early on, such commentaries influenced European political philosophers and other
Enlightenment intellectuals. What was normative for the Christo-European world was generally seen as
pathological from an indigenous perspective. That this is so is reflected in a story related by the French
essayist Montaigne about a time when King Charles of France thought that the splendor of his court might
have greatly impressed some visiting Indians. When the king asked them for their opinion, the Indians made
two key observations.
As German Arciniegas tells the story: “… they found it strange that so many older men, bearded and well
armed, like the ones who make up his Majesty’s entourage, rendered obedience to the monarch, who is a
child, and that they should not choose instead the eldest among them to command them. Secondly, that
among the people there should be a privileged half that enjoyed every luxury and comfort, while the other
half were beggars who implored at the doors, wasting away from hunger and poverty. It seemed strange to
them that this half that suffered such great injustice should not fly at the rich one’s throats and set fire to
their houses.” Was this prescient of the French Revolution?
The American empire’s pathological mentality and behavior toward Native nations is predicated upon very
old deep-seated metaphorical concepts transplanted from Europe, such as lordship, monarchy, dominion,
domination, subjugation, subduing, exploiting, and the desire to profit as much as possible from all aspects
of life. Native commentators have long noted that greed and lust for power lie at the heart of American
pathology. Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce remarked: “My father was the first to see through the schemes of
the white man, and he warned his tribe to be careful about trading with them. He had suspicion of men whom
seemed anxious to make money.”
Indigenous knowledge systems contain thousands of years of accumulated ecological wisdom, and the
political heritage of a free and independent existence. Perhaps these indigenous conceptual and behavioral
systems are able to provide a healing alternative to American and Western pathology. If given a chance,
perhaps indigenous knowledge and wisdom will be able to teach human beings how essential it is for us to
harmonize our thoughts and our behaviors with the natural rhythms and ecological systems of Mother Earth,
for the benefit of our future generations and all living things.
Steven Newcomb is the Indigenous Law research coordinator at Kumeyaay Community College (located on
the reservation of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation), co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous
Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.
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