Indigenous delegates ask Pope to repudiate Doctrine of Discovery
By Gale Courey Toensing
Story Published: Dec 21, 2009
MELBOURNE, Australia – While indigenous delegates from around the world were sidelined at the 15th United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Copenhagen, the collective voice of indigenous peoples at the 2009 Parliament of the World’s Religions was heard calling on the Pope to repudiate the Christian Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine, a fundamentally racist philosophy from the 15th century, continues to allow powerful nation-states to dehumanize people and devastate the living earth in their endless search for resources and markets, the delegation said.

Indigenous peoples from around the world, including a Haudenosaunee delegation, attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Australia Dec. 3 – 9.

The Parliament is an interfaith organization formed in 1893 “to cultivate harmony among the world’s religious and spiritual communities and foster their engagement with the world and its guiding institutions in order to achieve a just, peaceful and sustainable world.” It meets every five years.

While the delegates came from diverse geographies and cultures, they easily unified around the intersecting themes of the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and climate change. The delegates articulated their concerns in a document called “An Indigenous Peoples’ Statement to the World Delivered at The Parliament of the World’s Religions Convened at Melbourne, Australia on the Traditional Lands of the Wurundjeri People of the Kulin Nation December 9, 2009.”

The seven point statement calls for immediate action on climate change; the protection of earth-based religions and sacred sites both within and outside their territories; strengthening and protecting indigenous cultures and languages, repatriation of the ancestors’ remains and sacred items, and the support and implementation of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The final item is “To call upon Pope Benedict XVI and the Vatican to publicly acknowledge and repudiate the papal decrees that legitimized the original activities that have evolved into the dehumanizing Doctrine of Christian Discovery and dominion in laws and policies.”

“Overall the trip was very successful in bringing forward the idea of rescinding the papal bulls,” said Jake Swamp, Wolf Clan sub-chief of the Kahniakehaka, Mohawk Nation, author, and founder of the Tree of Peace Society, an international organization promoting peace and environmental conservation.

“I think that’s the most important thing in our time is to finally attack the roots of the oppression experienced by indigenous peoples worldwide.”

The papal bulls were 15th century documents issued by the popes of the Roman Catholic Church giving permission to the kings of Spain and Portugal to conquer and claim “undiscovered” lands, enslave or skill their non-Christian populations, and expropriate their possessions and resources. The English monarchy followed suit with “charters” to explorers such as John Cabot to colonize “the New World.”

The Doctrine of Discovery, which these documents formulated, was a principle of international law – a kind of early trade agreement that whichever Christian European country “discovered” lands populated by non-Christians could claim those lands and resources.

The Doctrine concerns indigenous people all over the world, because it continues to negatively affect people everywhere, said Philip Arnold, associate professor of indigenous religions in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University, and a member of the Haudenosaunee delegation.

Arnold, who is married to a Mohawk woman, participated on a panel with some members of the Haudenosaunee delegation where he discussed how the Doctrine even affects his own family.

The Doctrine justified the establishment of the notorious boarding schools in the 19th and 20th centuries that aimed to “civilize” Indian children by removing them from their families and stripping them of their language, traditions, and culture, Arnold said.

“My wife’s family suffered through boarding schools, so I was able to talk about the Doctrine and how it negatively impacts us. In those boarding schools, everything was stripped out of these kids, so even though it was more than 100 years ago that my wife’s grandfather was in a boarding school, we still deal with that legacy every day with our children, trying to help them understand what was done and why they don’t participate in Long House ceremonies, for example, because their clans were taken from them by this ‘civilizing’ process.”

He said the panel presentations by the Haudenosaunee delegation were effective in stimulating interest.

“There were a lot of Christians from a variety of denominations and they got very active and wanted to know what they could do to help bring awareness about the Doctrine of Discovery and we encouraged them to do that within their own denominations. There was a Catholic priest who was very animated about this.”

A movement to repudiate the Doctrine is gaining steam among Christian churches since the Episcopal Church issued a resolution renouncing it and urging support of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous peoples at its national meeting last summer. Last September, the Indian Committee of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends made a similar commitment.

Arnold said members of the Haudenosaunee delegation will continue to work to raise awareness of the Doctrine in the hope of gaining a critical mass of grassroots support the Vatican will not be able to ignore.

“The Doctrine maps a cultural attitude – our arrogance – toward the indigenous peoples and the earth. The whole colonial project, which is the legacy of America, is based on these principles, which are directly antagonistic to Native peoples, but also antagonistic to the life systems of the earth. So this idea of Discovery just can’t hold up.”