When the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues convenes on May 7th in New York, native peoples around the world will turn their eyes to the most important effort to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, a 15th-century Papal bull that has been exploited for five centuries to deny the human rights of hundreds of millions of people who continue to be subject to its power.
The Doctrine got its first expression in 1452, when Pope Nicholas V issued a papal bull to Portuguese King Alfonso V authorizing the King to “invade, capture, vanquish and subdue … all Saracens and pagans, and other enemies of Christ … to reduce such persons to perpetual slavery” and further “to take away all their possessions and property.” This bull was issued as Portuguese ships began colonizing areas of Africa occupied by millions of indigenous non-Christian peoples.
Forty years later, soon after Christopher Columbus’ voyage across the Atlantic ignited an imperialist rush by European powers to control the so-called New World, Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Cetera. This new papal bull granted those European monarchs the right to claim sovereignty over these newly “discovered” lands occupied by non-Christian “barbarous nations.” Those non-Christians were what we now call American Indians, including my ancestors in the OnondagaNation, part of the confederacy of Indian nations we call Haudenosaunee, and Americans and Canadians call the Iroquois.
It didn’t matter to the Christian invaders that we had lived here for millennia or that 500 years earlier, our forebearers ended generations of war by creating a peaceful confederacy that became a model for the United States government. All that mattered was that we – along with hundreds of millions of other indigenous peoples living in non-Christian lands across the globe – were living on land that the conquerors, and the colonists that followed, wanted for their own.
It has been a long path to get the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues to confront the racist underpinnings of the Doctrine of Discovery, partly because the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican’s representative to the UN, has claimed it is ancient history and no longer relevant.
But as recently as 2005, the United States Supreme Court, relying on a series of Indian law cases going back to 1823, specifically cited the doctrine in its decision denying the right of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York to restore its right of sovereignty over land it owned within the footprint of territory set aside for the Nation under treaties dating back to the 18th century.
“Under the Doctrine of Discovery … fee title to the land occupied by Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign –first the discovering European nation and later the original States and the United States,” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the 2005 decision.
It is glaring who is left out of that formulation – the people who lived here for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.
In fact, the Doctrine of Discovery is the basis for all Indian land law in this country, and it has imposed similar burdens on indigenous peoples all over the world – in Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, in Africa, in Latin America and in the island nations of the Caribbean and Oceania. More than 500 million indigenous peoples around the globe live today with the effects of the Doctrine’s oppressive racism.
We are encouraged that people of faith in this country and around the world have joined in the call for the Catholic Church to formally renounce the Doctrine to help heal the grievous injuries that its promulgation has released. Most recently, the World Council of Churches, at its meeting this past February in Switzerland, denounced the Doctrine “as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christ and as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individuals and peoples have received from God.” The World Council went on to urge governments “to dismantle the legal structures and policies based on the Doctrine of Discovery and dominance, so as to empower and enable Indigenous Peoples to identify their own aspirations and issues of concern.”
This is not ancient history to Indians in this country or to Indigenous peoples around the world. It is a living insult to our rights as citizens of the world and must be renounced. We are on theEarth to heal the world. This wound must be healed.
Tadodaho Sid Hill, "Stand for Human Rights for Indigenous Peoples and Renounce the 'Doctrine of Discovery'," Doctrine of Discovery Project (6 May 2012), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/blog/human-rights-doctrine-discovery/.