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What is the Doctrine of Discovery?
The Doctrine of Discovery, a legal framework that justified European imperial ventures around the world, including the colonization of North America, has its roots in a series of Papal statements dating back to the 15th century. For example, read the Papal Bull Inter caetera of 1493 on the Encyclopedia Virginia website.
Given the passage of time, and the shifting of religious affiliation, you might think that it is an archaic principle, with little bearing in contemporary law and society.
Yet the Doctrine of Discovery, which asserted that lands belonged to the Christian powers that “discovered” them (and the related concept of Terra Nullius, which held that those on the land prior to European arrival merely occupied it without any right or title), continues to reverberate in the 21st century. As the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) noted in its final report, the Doctrine of Discovery has been cited in decisions of the Supreme Court of Canada as recently as the 1990s.
Why is it still relevant?
The Doctrine of Discovery has profoundly affected the way that Indigenous peoples have been perceived by non-Indigenous peoples. The TRC’s final report observed that it rested upon the belief that “the colonizers were bringing civilization to savage people who would never civilize themselves” [Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part I: Origins to 1939, p. 18]. That perception, in turn, defined our relationship, culminating in the establishment of residential schools and the legacy that continues to play out today.
[/callout]The Doctrine of Discovery has profoundly affected the way that Indigenous peoples have been perceived by non-Indigenous peoples. Succinctly put, beginning with papal decrees as early as the 15th century – around the time European explorers were landing in the Americas – Western cultures have pressed Western practices upon the people already residing here and actively worked to eradicate the cultures of the first peoples.
The seventh Winter Talk event to explore these issues is set for Feb. 3-5, 2020, at Phillips Theological Seminary in Tulsa. This event has its roots in the 2013 General Assembly item for reflection and research – GA 1324 Balancing Theology, Polity and the Indigenous Voice.
Winter Talk is an important time for American Indiana and non-Indians, to gather and eat, learn, and talk about the impact of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery. This is a space of accountability to American Indians where the Indian voice is the principle voice in an exploration of the past, an understanding of the present, and a visioning of the future. Keynoter for 2020 is Jon Ghahate, (Laguna & Zuni) is the museum educator at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.
The Northwest Region (now Northern Lights) held a regional Winter Talk in early 2019. Participant Rev. Gary Shoemaker said, “Having grown up in Northwest Montana (between two historic Reservations) and having lived for a time on the Flathead Indian Reservation (Salish and Kootenai tribes), the issues of tribal rights and justice have always been close to my heart. I believe that the Doctrine of Discovery has been a blight on the history of Christianity (particularly in the U.S.) and it’s beyond time to address and make reparations for this sad history… You can’t unlearn this part of our history once you’ve heard it told in such powerful ways.”
In 2017, the assembly voted to repudiate the doctrine (GA 1722 Repudiation of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery: A Call to Education and Action, and Support for Indigenous Voices in the Witness of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)). The Center for Indigenous Ministries was also instituted at that time.
The linked video trailer from the Anglican Church in Canada prepared for the National Council of Churches offers an 8-minute introduction to the kinds of issues tied up in the Christian Doctrine of Discovery. More resources are linked from the Yakama Christian Mission website.