The Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act

July 7, 2004

Bush Lets Freedom Reign

Steven Newcomb

On July 7th, Bush signed into law H.R. 884, "The Western Shoshone Claims Distribution Act." By doing so, he clearly demonstrated the "freedom of imperial power," despite the fact that the Western Shoshone National Council and a majority of Western Shoshone IRA governments (6 out of 9) opposed the bill.

Bush used his pen as a "scepter of imperial freedom" to violate the fundamental and ancestral rights of the Western Shoshone Nation. "Imperial freedom" refers to the American empire's claim of "freedom" to do whatever it wants, whenever it wants, even against the will of those damaged by the action done.

President Bush recently made the remark, "Let freedom reign," to which New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd responded with the rhetorical question: "Couldn't Karl Rove and his minions at least get that "ad-lib" right about freedom ringing?"

Although the idea of freedom "ringing" matches the iconic image of the Liberty Bell, Bush's comment about freedom reigning contains a deeper and little known truth about the word "freedom" in the context of feudalism, that helps explain the situation in which the Western Shoshones now find themselves.

According to the nineteenth century political philosopher Francis Lieber, the word "Freithum (literally freedom) means, in some portions of Germany, as estate of a Freiherr (baron)." In other words, according to this meaning, "a freedom" is, "a baron's estate." Just as the king reigned as Lord and dread sovereign of the entire kingdom, the baron reigned as lord and sovereign of a free domain.

Although a baron is a "lord," he is also a feudal vassal who holds his lands under a direct grant from the king. As a noble, the baron is "free" on his estate, beneath the monarch. For example, Lord Thomas Fairfax, a friend of George Washington and Chief Justice John Marshall, was a baron with an estate of more than 5 million acres of (Indian) lands in Virginia.

Importantly, the landless poor people were not "free" in the same sense as the noble landed class. As feudal tenants, the landless people were obligated to pay rents and homage (obedience and a percentage of their crops as taxes) to the landholding baron class. If they were to live at all, the landless serfs had to eek out a living by working for the aristocratic land owning class.

The English lords who came to North America were offended by the Indians' "haughty" and independent attitude. According to historian James Axtell, the English nobles that came to North America were also deeply offended by the vast amount of land the Indians possessed. It greatly offended the English nobles to see obviously "inferior" and "uncivilized heathen" Indians possessed of sufficient lands to live a privileged life of leisure that only those of noble birth were supposed to live, and engaged in such pleasurable experiences as hunting and fishing. From the viewpoint of the English nobles, it was only "natural" and destined by "God" that the Indians should be reduced to a position of "civilized" humility in keeping with their "inferiority," and that Indian lands ought to end up in English hands.

A rare publication titled, "Documents and Proceedings Relating to the Formation of a Board in the City of New York, for the Emigration, Preservation, and Improvement of the Aborigines of America, July 22, 1829," provides further insight. In an anonymous "Address" the unnamed commentator says that certain obstacles stood in the way of the Indians being reduced to "civilization" along European lines.

What were these obstacles? For one thing, the Indians had remained "uncivilized" because they possessed too much land. They held "an almost boundless extent of the forest" that "furnished the Indians with an easy means of subsistence, such as the plentiful game that abounded there." They had an understanding of their own power and independence. Their vast land holdings gave them the wealth and the power to remain free in the manner of their ancestors before them. So long as the Indians remained free and independent the Europeans would not consider them to have been reduced to "civilization and Christianity."

The unnamed commentator celebrated the process of these "obstacles" to Indian "civilization" being gradually removed: "The forests...and their game are gone. The Indian can no longer bury himself in the one, nor subsist in the other. He has now become a creature of necessity-he must labour, or starve. But not only are the forests and the game gone, but with these has disappeared also, that feeling of independence which made the native as uncontrollable, as he was invincible. Long and nobly did he struggle to maintain this."

True, as a charismatic leader, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh (1868?-1813) tried to maintain the spirit of independence by uniting all Indian nations against the invading United States. Of Tecumseh's death the commentator said: "His life paid the forfeit of the gallant enterprise [to unify the Indian nations]; and with it vanished all hope of all allied to him, of ever again becoming lords of their domain." Tecumseh's death near the River Thames was characterized by the commentator as movement along the path toward "Indian improvement."

Of the forefathers of his own race the commentator remarked: "They doubtless said...when this empire shall have become established, and the scepter of freedom be swayed over its teeming population, then surely, will that which is now literally a wilderness to [for] the Indian, be made to blossom as the rose...No longer able to bury himself in his forests, or subsist on their game, or measure strength with the white man, he [the Indian] will yield to necessity, resort to the [cultivation of the] earth for his support, and practice gladly, those lessons which are at present lost upon him."

President Bush's remark, "Let freedom reign," relates perfectly to the commentator's phrase, "scepter of freedom." A scepter is a rod or wand symbolic of "a royal or imperial power or authority, sovereignty." Hence, Bush using his pen as a "scepter of imperial freedom" to sign H.R. 884 is an example of him "letting freedom reign."

Like the colonizing English nobles of the past, Senator Harry Reid and Congressman Jim Gibbons of Nevada were no doubt offended by and jealous of the amount of Western Shoshone land pursuant to the Treaty of Ruby Valley. The traditional Western Shoshone in particular have an deep and spiritual understanding of their own power and rightful independence, which undoubtedly further offends Rep. Gibbons and Sen. Reid.

It is ironic in the extreme that at the same time Congress unanimously passed H.R. 884 between June 21-24, Senator Brownback's resolution to "apologize" to American Indians was being considered for passage. Sen. Brownback's resolution ought to include an apology for the United States' reprehensible, dishonorable, and disrespectful treatment of the Western Shoshones.

In the "apology resolution," Martin Luther King, Jr. is quoted as once having said, "The end is reconciliation, the end is redemption, the end is the creation of the beloved community." Very moving words I'm sure, but as Tecumseh once said, "they come to us with lips smoother than oil, and words sweeter than honey, but beware of them! The venomous wasp is in their heart!" Congress's passage of and President Bush's signature on H.R. 884, simply underscores Tecumseh's insightful words of defiance.

Informant: Carrie Dann


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