Quaker Indian Committee disavows Doctrine of Discovery, affirms Declaration
By Gale Courey Toensing

Story Updated: Dec 17, 2009

PHILADELPHIA – Inspired by the actions of the Episcopal Church, a Quaker group has disavowed the Christian Doctrine of Discovery and voiced its support for the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The Indian Committee of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends issued a Minute – analogous to a resolution – at its September meeting.

The committee “renounces the Doctrine of Discovery, the doctrine at the foundation of the colonization of Indigenous lands, including the lands of Pennsylvania. We find this doctrine to be fundamentally inconsistent with the teaching of Jesus, with our understanding of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God, and inconsistent with Quaker testimonies of Peace, Equality, and Integrity,” the Minute reads.

The Doctrine of Discovery was a principle of international law developed in a series of 15th century papal bulls and 16th century charters by European monarchs. It was a racist philosophy that gave white Christian Europeans the green light to go forth and claim the lands and resources of non-Christian peoples and kill or enslave them – if other Christian Europeans had not already done so.

The doctrine institutionalized the competition between European countries in their ever-expanding quest for colonies, resources and markets, and sanctioned the genocide of indigenous people in the “New World” and elsewhere.

As a spiritual corollary of the renunciation, the Indian Committee also expressed its support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which was adopted by the General Assembly Sept. 13, 2007. The Declaration presents indigenous rights within a framework of human rights.

Only the U.S., Canada, New Zealand and Australia – countries with large populations of indigenous peoples with huge aboriginal land claims – voted against the Declaration’s adoption. Australia has since adopted it.

The action by PYM’s Indian Committee was initiated by Elizabeth Koopman, who said she was inspired by the Episcopal Church’s resolution, called “Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.” The resolution passed unanimously by the Episcopal House of Bishops and by an overwhelming majority of the House of Delegates during the church’s 76th General Convention held July 8 – 17 in Anaheim.

Within weeks, Koopman had amassed a packet of materials, including her own writings, on the Doctrine of Discovery, and sent it out to her circle of Friends.

“Friends have had a long relationship with Indian country,” Koopman said. “But Quakers were colonizers under Charles II’s Doctrine of Discovery when William Penn came here. We have been a people who have been of good intention and not always of such good works.”

But there is a growing understanding of the history and its ramifications, Koopman said.

“Our Committee understands now a history that none of us ever fully appreciated and we understand that we are the beneficiaries of a very unjust policy.”

Koopman, who has lived in Maine and now lives near Philadelphia, said she has discussed these issues with and read the writings of Steven Newcomb, indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, Indian Country Today columnist, and author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery.” She also has had lengthy conversations with her longtime friends Wayne Newell, a Passamaquoddy elder and teacher, and John Dieffenbacker Krall, the executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal-State Commission.

It was Dieffenbacker-Krall who started what has become a movement to have predominantly non-Catholic Christian churches renounce the Doctrine of Discovery. He spearheaded the effort that led Maine’s Episcopal Church to pass a resolution in 2007, calling on Queen Elizabeth and the Archbishop of Canterbury to rescind the 1496 charter given to John Cabot and his sons to go forth and claim possession of all the lands in the “New World” that weren’t already claimed by Spain and Portugal. That action led to a similar resolution in New York state and ultimately to the national resolution last summer.

A movement to persuade the Catholic Church to repeal the papal bulls has been in the works for years.

Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation (Haudenosaunee), co-signed a letter in 2005 urging Pope Benedict XVI, to revoke the papal bulls. There has been no response from the Vatican.

Koopman was surprised to receive a phone call from Lyons, whom she has never met, in early December before he, Newcomb and others in the indigenous community were leaving for the Parliament of the World’s Religions meeting in Melbourne, Australia, Dec. 3 – 9.

“We had a long conversation and I sent him a copy of the materials and, meanwhile, people are taking (the Minute) to other monthly meetings and we’re hoping it will get to the Yearly Meetings in the different areas,” Koopman said.

The circle is definitely widening, Koopman agreed.

“A lot of people are coming to this light. I think something’s happening and I feel it’s going to be good if we let these moments be beginnings and not endings. You can’t say, ‘I’m sorry, now it’s over.’ It has to be a beginning: ‘I know this now, I embrace this now and I will use this to move forward in better ways.’”

Haudenosaunee delegation advocates Doctrine disavowal

A delegation of Haudenosaunee people at the Parliament of World Religions in Melbourne, Australia, plans to persuade the meeting to pass a resolution repudiating the Christian Doctrine of Discovery – and they have received help from Maine.

The Rev. Dr. Richard Tardiff, co-chairman of the Committee on Indian Relationships of the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, wrote to Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation, Nov. 30 offering the committee’s support for the delegation’s efforts.

The Episcopal Church passed a resolution, called Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery at the church’s 76th General Convention July 8 – 17 in Anaheim. But the movement was spearheaded by John Dieffenbacker-Krall, a member of the Committee headed by Tardiff and the executive director of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission.

Writing to Lyons as the leader of the delegation, Tardiff said, “I understand that the Haudenosaunee delegation intends to ask the people gathered at the event to pass a resolution similar to the Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery resolution adopted by the Episcopal Church. On behalf of the Committee on Indian Relations, an officially sanctioned group operating within the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, I offer my wholehearted support of your effort to expand international awareness of the evil Christian Doctrine of Discovery.”

The Doctrine, which espouses the inherent superiority of one religion – Christianity – over all other religions, is antithetical to the Council for a Parliament of World Religions’ mission, Tardiff wrote.

“Not only has the Doctrine of Discovery resulted in religion conflict, but it has also served as the underpinning of international law justifying the taking of indigenous lands and property across the world,” he wrote.

The Parliament of the World’s Religions is an interfaith organization that was formed in 1893. Since 1988, the organization has met roughly every five years in various places around the world. According to its Web site, the organization was created “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.”

When the Indian Committee decided to sponsor the resolution, Tardiff said, it was motivated by the belief that “as Episcopalians we must decisively speak out about the moral bankruptcy of the Doctrine of Discovery and clearly state that it has no religious, ethical, moral, legal or political legitimacy.”

He said the church has been “astounded” by the positive international reaction to its resolution. If the PWR adopts a similar resolution, Tardiff anticipates an even greater response.

Among the key topics at the PWR – the environment, poverty, building peace with justice – is reconciling with the world’s indigenous peoples.

“The Parliament offers the opportunity to continue with the reconciliation process that the Australian government began by apologizing to indigenous people for the wrongs committed against them. Using this Australian context, the Parliament will provide an opportunity for indigenous peoples around the world to voice their own concerns and aspirations,” according to the Web site.

In addition to Lyons, the delegation to the Dec. 3 – 9 event included Tonya Gonnella Frichner, Esq., Onondaga Nation, the North American Representative to the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and president and founder of the American Indian Law Alliance; Steven Newcomb, Shawnee Lenape, the indigenous law research coordinator in the education department of the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay Nation, the author of “Pagans in the Promised Land: Decoding the Doctrine of Christian Discovery,” and Indian Country Today columnist; Jake Swamp, a former chief of the Akwesasne Mohawk Nation and a renowned educator and leader; Joanne Shenandoah, Oneida Indian Nation, award-winning singer-songwriter; Doug George-Kanentiio, Akwesasne Mohawk, an editor, columnist and author; scholars Philip Arnold and Mary McDonald.

Major speakers scheduled to appear at the Parliament included His Holiness the Dalai Lama and President Jimmy Carter.