Law | Opinion

Steven Newcomb: Dehumanizing 'Indians' to take their lands

A ranch house in Warner Rancher in California. Photo from Library of Congress

Steven Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Institute discusses the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Barker v. Harvey:
The case involved a tract of land known as Warner Ranch, in Southern California. The Court was called upon to decide whether the Native people, the Cupeños, who had a long standing traditional relationship with that area had a right to remain on the land despite two Mexican land grants. “The land in question,” said the Court, “is within the limits of the territory ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, February 2, 1848.” The Barker’s were asserting a title to the Warner Ranch property based on a land patent issued to John J. Warner on January 16, 1880. That land patent to Warner confirmed two land grants to the property that had been made by the Mexican government in 1840 and 1844.

As to the Harvey defendants, the Supreme Court said “the defendants do not claim a fee in the premises, but only a right of permanent occupancy by virtue of the alleged fact that they are mission Indians, so called, and had been in occupation of the premises long before the Mexican grants.” The Court said that the Indians’ claimed that their “occupation of the premises” was ongoing “before any dominion acquired by this government [the United States] over the territory.” The Indians, said the Court, argued that “the government of Mexico had always recognized the lawfulness and permanence of their occupancy, and that such right of occupancy was protected by the terms of the treaty [of Guadalupe Hidalgo] and [by] the rules of international law.”

The Supreme Court’s use of dehumanization toward the “Indians” to arrive at its decision in Barker v. Harvey makes the case particularly interesting. The Court tacitly acknowledged that those being categorized as “Indians” did exist and did engage in physical actions, including efforts to drive the Mexican grantees off lands the Indians regarded as traditionally belonging to them.

Get the Story:
Steven Newcomb: Warner Springs Ranch and the Pattern of Dehumanization (Indian Country Today 8/5)

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