Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Quakers and Indians

Quakers have a long history of greater sympathy with Indian tribes than most other white settler groups. So it is not surprising that the standing committee on Indian Affairs of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting, first appointed in 1795, has endorsed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and persuaded the Annual Meeting as a whole to adopt it as well. It is furthermore not surprising that over a hundred nations within the U.N. have also adopted the Declaration. What is disconcerting is that the United States, Canada, and New Zealand have declined to endorse it. What's this all about?

The first thing to notice is that this document was not created as a Quaker statement, but is merely someone else's proposal, now supported by Quakers. The indications are that it may have begun with the assembly of Bishops of the Episcopal Church. Furthermore, any statement urging fair treatment for Indians could surely be constructed with greater brevity and succinctness than 46 paragraphs of prose that is embarrassingly repetitious, and in part, vague. Since the United Nations staff must have many lawyers who could clarify and streamline a statement which becomes U.N. policy, the document as it now stands gives the appearance of an amateur rush job, endorsed by voters who may not have adequately considered or debated it. Furthermore, this sort of product seems to be fairly typical of the demands for human rights. The European Parliament is currently considering a Bill of Rights for their proposed constitution, which runs well over fifty pages long. And even in the case of the American Constitution's Bill of Rights, over a hundred amendments were originally considered, but the Congressional committee chaired by James Madison soon cut it all down to ten amendments of marvelous precision and simplicity. The United Nations discredits its opinion when it shows such evident lack of attention to the nuances of such a sweeping proposal of enormous potential importance. Actually transformed into national laws, this declaration would trigger endless lawsuits and acrimony; one is tempted to suspect that few of the signers have any intention of actually implementing the proposals. This is not the way to soothe relations between hostile parties, and it is quite uncharacteristic of Quaker efforts at conflict resolution.

Furthermore, no sovereign nation can be expected to give away large chunks of territory to groups who define themselves as indigenous and then ask for the land. Every title to every property in the nation would be clouded to some degree. To permit separate systems of law to be created within one set of boundaries without any provision for coordination with the existing legal system is quite an unworkable proposal. Getting such details worked out is hard work, and failure to conciliate the obvious complexities is unnecessarily offensive to non-indigents who would be affected by them. The burden of investigation, like the burden of proof, rests with the proposer.

Having scolded the proposers for lack of preparation, and the Quakers for lack of their characteristic sure-footedness, it must be said this is an interesting and important issue, with an extensive history. More than five hundred years ago, Portuguese sailors first mastered the techniques necessary to sail against the trade winds of East Africa and discovered vast areas of uninhabited, or at least unchristianized territory. Appealing to Pope Nicholas V for guidance, the outcome in 1455 was a Papal order giving Portugal permission to 'invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.' When Spain later began explorations, a so-called Doctrine of Discovery emerged, giving ownership to whichever nation first discovered an undiscovered heathen land. This judgment was intended to divide the discoveries between Spain and Portugal, but it seemed a sound enough basis for a general principle. After the Crusades and the Moorish invasion of Iberia, the Catholic Church can perhaps be forgiven for regarding everything which was not Catholic as fair game.

{John Cabot}
John Cabot

The concept of paganism was even extended to Protestant sects. Henry VII of England was given ownership rights to the rest of the undiscovered Western Hemisphere when John Cabot explored the coast of North America. Although matters were clouded somewhat when Henry VIII separated England from the Catholic Church, the principle of conferring undiscovered land to the first discoverer was continued under Protestant rule, and continued to include the proviso that there must be no Christian settlement if the land was to be claimed by a discoverer. This was a central element of the dispute between Lord Baltimore and William Penn over the ownership of what is now the State of Delaware. Penn acquired title to this area from the Duke of York, who had taken it from the Dutch. The argument went on for years as to whether wandering Dutch fur traders counted as Christian settlers, and therefore whether the Duke of York's title took precedence over the earlier grant of land south of the 40th parallel, given to the first Lord Baltimore by the first King Charles. What all these silly wrangles seem to prove is that ownership of land has always been a difficult and vague concept, filled with unfairness and judicial experience. The change from feudal, nomadic culture to a fixed agricultural one required that rules of ownership must be devised and held to, even though the logic and justice of them was rather easily challenged. One of the main functions of the modern state is to minimize and permanently settle boundary disputes, often with no sensible basis to work with.

{Chief Justice John Marshall}
Chief Justice John Marshall

In the United States, the creation of an entirely new nation by the forcible defeat of the previous British owners became a settled matter at the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The United States owned the land within its boundaries and was within its rights to redefine or reassign property as it pleased. The fine details of relations with the native tribes were settled in 1823 by the decision of Chief Justice John Marshall in Johnson v. M'Intosh. Marshall made the clear pronouncement that the tribes lost their sovereignty at the moment of discovery. However, his meaning is less clear when he went on to say the tribes had a right of occupancy, but not a right of ownership. The passage of two hundred years under this legal concept has created a legal situation of stare decisis and a practical problem that judicial questioning of the authenticity of millions of land titles after this long interval would bring the nation close to armed rebellion.

There is also a problem pointed out by the historian Edmond Morris, that after all these years we may not entirely understand the problem we are dealing with. Although there are individual exceptions, particularly in the Quaker states and Oklahoma, there are no documented instances of any Indian tribe being assimilated. There are literally hundreds of Indian languages, reflecting tribal differences as wide as between the Aztecs and the Esquimos. And attempts to assimilate have been as varied as the Spanish attempting slavery, the French favoring intermarriage, the English trying boarding schools for Indian children. But in five hundred years of colonization, the amount of assimilation has been trivial. Even the discovery of oil and the establishment of gambling casinos have created pockets of real wealth among the native Americans without any great sign of a willingness to assimilate. Looking backward, it would appear that five hundred years of experience were based on the assumption that the Indians would surely see the superiority of our culture, and wish to adopt it. For reasons no one understands, that premise does not seem to be correct and is certainly an arrogant one. But North America is now largely settled from ocean to ocean; to go back to dual existence, dual cultures in the school system, dual legal systems intermingled -- and dual sovereignty -- does not have the sound of a practical, peaceful solution to what is clearly a mixture of injustice and blundering.

Originally published: Sunday, February 21, 2010; most-recently modified: Monday, June 03, 2019