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Two Kinds of Beings: The Doctrine of Discovery And Its Implications for Yesterday and Today by Robert Francis

First published online by Manataka American Indian Council 13 December 2003.

Archived from the Manataka American Indian Council site.

Our son John is 14 years old and in his eighth-grade year. He’s been home educated for the past five years, as have all four of our children…. or offspring. (Three of the four hardly qualify as children anymore.) Eight years ago, John was in kindergarten, Sarah was in third grade, Peter was in fourth. Luke was still enjoying Barney and Friends _and _Sesame Street. At the beginning of the public school year, I spoke to the children’s teachers, “If you’d like me to come in and talk to the class about American Indian history, cultures or contemporary life, just let me know,” I said. “I’ll be glad to do it.”

John’s kindergarten teacher invited me to come to her class on Tuesday before Thanksgiving. As I entered the room, I looked around to see paper cutouts of red leaves, orange pumpkins and brown turkeys taped to the walls along with modestly clad Pilgrims and nearly naked Indians. Before I arrived, the children had been busy preparing their costumes for the next day’s Thanksgiving parade. Half the class was making Pilgrim hats, bonnets and aprons. The other half was making paper-sack Indian vests along with construction-paper headbands and feathers. Quietly, I wondered what the celebration of Martin Luther King’s Birthday might be. Would half the class be in black-face and half in Ku Klux Klan robes?

Among other things, I shared the story of Tisquantum (called “Squanto” in the history books). Kidnapped by the English and taken as a slave to Europe not once but twice, upon his second return to his homeland, Tisquantum still had enough charity or naiveté to help the starving Pilgrims get a foothold in this land. After the story, I asked if anyone had a question. A hand belonging to a little red-headed girl with a freckled face and blue eyes was first to shoot up. “Are you a person, or are you an Indian?” was the question she asked.

This spring (April 2003) I was asked by the Colorado Baptist Convention to travel to Denver and speak to the ethnic Baptist ministers and their families from all over the state.”Ethnic” here is used to mean all who are outside the dominant Anglo-Saxon ethnicity. I went to the event dressed in full Cherokee regalia of the 1830s period, in order to illustrate the point of my talk, that being, “Whoever you are, your story is sacred, and the story of your people is sacred.” Before the program got underway that evening, everyone was milling around, meeting one another and looking at the various displays from the different ethnic groups involved. I was standing there, looking at one of the displays, when I noticed a little boy, about five years old, intently looking at me. This little boy had short straight black hair, coppery brown skin and dark brown eyes. He was standing there with his father. I found out shortly that their family had moved to Colorado from Mexico. But the first words this little boy said to me were, “Are you a person or are you an Indian?”

From the mouths of children, the truth is revealed. According to the prevailing wisdom of five-year-olds, there are two kinds of beings inhabiting this country. The majority are non-Indians. The remainder are non-persons. Now, before you laugh or pass this this off as childish foolishness rather than a statement of how things really are, please consider a few things.

On August 6, 2001, Ralph Boyd, Jr., U.S. Assistant Attorney for Civil Rights and Lorne Craner, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, testified before the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Among many other questions concerning race relations in the United States, the two high-level U.S. officials were asked, “What is the United States position with respect to its 1863 treaty with the Western Shoshone Indians?”

The treaty in question was the Ruby Valley Treaty, which, in 1863, clearly recognized the sovereignty and the territorial boundaries of the Western Shoshone Nation. But now, there seemed to be an issue of 24 million acres of that land that the U.S. wanted to buy from the Shoshones. When the Shoshones refused to sell the land and refused to accept the money, the U.S. government paid the Secretary of Interior’s office $26 million. The government claimed that paying itself a little over a dollar an acre for the land in question extinguished the Western Shoshone’s title.

How did Boyd and Craner answer the U.N. committee’s question concerning the U.S. treaty with the Western Shoshones? They referred to the 1823 United States Supreme Court decision of Johnson v. McIntosh. Boyd and Craner said the Johnson decision held that, “as a result of European discovery, the Native Americans had a right to occupancy and possession.” But “tribal rights to complete sovereignty were necessarily diminished by the principle that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.”

Well, whatever this Johnson decision was, it must be pretty important, if the United States Government can rely on it as legal grounds for arbitrarily taking possession of another 24 million acres of Indian land pretty much anytime they want. What is this thing? And what’s behind it?

In 1823, writing for the Court who had unanimously sided with Johnson, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that upon “discovery” the Indians lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,” and retained only a right of “occupancy” in their lands. Marshall went on to write that the United States, upon winning independence, became successor nation to the right of “discovery” acquiring the power of “dominion” from Great Britain. “As early as 1496,” Marshall continued, “her (England’s) monarch granted a commission to the Cabots, to discover countries then unknown to Christian people, and to take possession of them in the name of the king of England.”

Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote, “As infidels, heathens, and savages, they (the Indians) were not allowed to possess the prerogatives belonging to absolute, sovereign and independent nations.”

Christian versus heathen.

That sort of language did not begin in 1823. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V became aware that Portugal had begun a slave trade along the west coast of Africa. Pope Nicholas really liked this. To make it look as though he had come up with the idea himself, Pope Nicholas V issued to King Alfonso V of Portugal, the bull Romanus Pontifex.

… [W]e bestow suitable favors and special graces on those Catholic kings and princes, … athletes and intrepid champions of the Christian faith … to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and … to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate … possessions, and goods, and to convert them to … their use and profit …

This was a basic declaration of war against all non-Christians throughout the earth, specifically sanctioning and promoting the conquest, colonization, and exploitation of non-Christian nations and their territories. In today’s rhetoric, this papal bull would be called a mandate for terrorism. Non-Christians were considered enemies of the Catholic faith. As such, they were considered less than human, in effect, non-persons.

When Columbus sailed toward this hemisphere in 1492, it was with the understanding that he was to “take possession” of any lands he “discovered” so long as they were “not under the dominion of any Christian rulers.” As soon as he set foot on the beach of Guanahani Island, Columbus performed a ceremony to “take possession” of the land for the king and queen of Spain, in accordance with the bull Romanus Potifex.

The Taino people discovered Christopher Columbus on their shores in the Caribbean Islands in October of 1492. At that time, the Taino were a nation of more than 15 million human beings. The largest population was on the island of Bohi’o (around eight million). Bohi’o is known today as Espanola. The countries of Haiti and the Dominican Republic are on this island. On Christmas Eve, 1492, Columbus wrecked the Santa Maria near the shore of Bohi’o. The people helped Columbus get all the goods of the ship to dry land before it sank. Afterward, of the people and the country, Columbus had this to say….

…. They are an affectionate people, free from avarice and agreeable to everything. I certify to Your Highnesses that in all the world I do not believe there is a better people or a better country. They love their neighbors as themselves, and they have the softest and gentlest voices and are always smiling…. - Columbus’ Log. 

When Columbus returned to Europe, Pope Alexander VI issued a new papal document, at the request of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands Columbus had already “discovered” as well as any that might be “discovered” in the future. This document was the bull Inter Caetera of May 3, 1493. (Read Papal Bull of 1493)

In his absence, the Spanish seamen left behind took advantage of the Taino hospitality on Bohi’o by attempting to take control of the island. After seeing the true intent of the invaders, the Taino fought back, but were overcome when Columbus came the second time with 17 ships, loaded with canon, war dogs, armed soldiers and horses. Bohi’o was turned into a giant concentration camp where two objectives were met: the mining of gold through forced labor and the extermination of the people. By the time Columbus was relieved of his duties as governor of the Island in 1500, only 100 thousand Taino were left alive there. This is a population reduction of 7.9 million people within a period of less than eight years! After he left the Caribbean, Columbus’ policies remained in effect. Within 50 years the entire area was depopulated. By then slaves were being brought from Africa as well as from the main lands of North and South America.

Of course, Ferdinand and Isabella decreed that a statement be read to any “discovered” people before the advent of hostilities. The “Requirement” was read in Latin or Spanish, witnessed by a notary. That the people could neither speak nor understand Latin or Spanish was of little note.

On the part of the king, Don Fernando, and of Doña Juana, his daughter, queen of Castile and Leon, subduers of the barbarous nations, we their servants notify and make known to you, as best we can, that the Lord our God, living and eternal, created the heaven and the earth, and one man and one woman, of whom you and we, and all the men of the world, were and are descendants, and all those who come after us. … 

Of all these nations God our Lord gave charge to one man, called St. Peter, that he should be lord and superior of all the men in the world, that all should obey him, and that he should be the head of the whole human race, wherever men should live, and under whatever law, sect, or belief they should be; and he gave him the world for his kingdom and jurisdiction. 

…One of these pontiffs, who succeeded that St. Peter as lord of the world in the dignity and seat which I have before mentioned, made donation of these isles and Terra-firma to the aforesaid king and queen and to their successors, our lords, with all that there are in these territories,….

_… Wherefore, as best we can, we ask and require you that you consider what we have said to you, and that you take the time that shall be necessary to understand and deliberate upon it, and that you acknowledge the Church as the ruler and superior of the whole world, ….

…But if you do not do this, and maliciously make delay in it, I certify to you that, with the help of God, we shall powerfully enter into your country, and shall make war against you in all ways and manners that we can, and shall subject you to the yoke and obedience of the Church and of their highnesses; we shall take you, and your wives, and your children, and shall make slaves of them, and as such shall sell and dispose of them as their highnesses may command; and we shall take away your goods, and shall do you all the mischief and damage that we can, as to vassals who do not obey, and refuse to receive their lord, and resist and contradict him: and we protest that the deaths and losses which shall accrue from this are your fault, and not that of their highnesses, or ours, nor of these cavaliers who come with us. …._

Some of the hostilities which, according to the “Requirement” the people brought upon themselves, were described in some detail by the Spanish Priest Las Casas.

“And the Christians, with their horses and swords and pikes began to carry out massacres and strange cruelties against them. They attacked the towns and spared neither the children nor the aged nor pregnant women nor women in childbed, not only stabbing them and dismembering them but cutting them to pieces as if dealing with sheep in the slaughter house. They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike. They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, ‘Boil there, you offspring of the devil!’ … They made some low wide gallows on which the hanged victim’s feet almost touched the ground, stringing up their victims in lots of thirteen, in memory of Our Redeemer and His twelve Apostles, then set burning wood at their feet and thus burned them alive. To others they attached straw or wrapped their whole bodies in straw and set them afire. With still others, all those they wanted to capture alive, they cut off their hands and hung them round the victim’s neck, saying, ‘Go now, carry the message,’ meaning, Take the news to the Indians who have fled to the mountains. They usually dealt with the chieftains and nobles in the following way: they made a grid of rods which they placed on forked sticks, then lashed the victims to the grid and lighted a smoldering fire underneath, so that little by little, as those captives screamed in despair and torment, their souls would leave them.”

All these behaviors were understood by the Conquistadores to be justified by the papal bulls, which, in turn, were understood to be based on the Bible, such Old Testament passages as these from the Psalms:

“Ask of me, and I will make the nations your inheritance, the ends of the earth your possession. You will rule them with a an iron scepter; you will dash them to pieces like pottery.” - Psalm 2:8-9 N.I.V.

May the praise of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands, to inflict vengeance on the peoples, to bind their kings with fetters, their nobles with shackled of iron, to carry out the sentence written against them. This is the glory of all his saints. Praise the Lord. - Psalm 149:6-9 N.I.V.

Add to this the Old Testament Book of Joshua which tells the story of the “chosen” people of Israel entering the “promised land” of Canaan, destroying whole cities of people: men, women, children, even livestock.

Captain John Smith was an admirer of Columbus and the Conquistadores, as were the Puritans of Massachusetts and the Founding Fathers of the United States. Just as the Spanish before them, these English immigrants to North America imagined themselves as the “chosen” people of Israel and the Indian inhabitants of the land as the Canaanites, doomed to destruction or subjection. In this country, a pre-contact population of from 12 to 20 million indigenous human beings was reduced to 200 thousand by 1920. The present American Indian population of the United States is around four million, most of which are of mixed ancestry.

According to recent U.S. Government statistics, 110 of every 1,000 American Indians in the U.S. were victims of violent crime within a given period of five years (1993-1998). This compares to 43 per 1,000 for blacks and 38 per 1,000 for whites. It is also noted that while most violent crimes committed against blacks were committed by blacks, and most violent crimes committed against whites were committed by whites, most violent crimes committed against Indians were committed by_ non-Indians_. Another government study found that one-in-ten hate crimes in the U.S. are committed against American Indians. American Indians comprise less than 2% of the U.S. population! In the United States, Children are taught in school that while it is wrong to kill human beings, a person may kill thousands, millions, even entire nations of Indians and be celebrated, even worshipped as a hero. When attempts are made at teaching about American Indians, it’s often done by teaching children to play Indian, promoting stereotypical thinking or mocking the complex cultures of Indian peoples. In church, children often learn a hateful theology that says God left Indian people in spiritual darkness for thousands of years, until Europeans arrived and brought God to this land.

As a follower of Jesus, this theology of racism that gives legitimacy to conquest and genocide, is most offensive to me. I understand Jesus to be Eternal Creator-Son, not bound by time or distance or oceans or anything. According to John 1:9, Jesus is “The true light that gives light to every [person]….” The good news Jesus came to bring, the news of Creator’s awesome love is not foreign to any people. Jesus himself said his followers are not identified simply by words professed, i.e. “Lord, Lord,” but by love shown to neighbors and even to enemies (Matthew 7:21; John 13:35; Matthew 5:44-45). Columbus himself testified to Creator’s presence with the people of the Caribbean, saying they were “In-Dio” (With God). Those who say Columbus or even the missionaries brought God to America are making Columbus and the missionaries out to be greater than God. This theology justifies the theft, the rape, the murder, anything and everything, for all is done in the name of Christ.

Even our Indian people believe these lies. American Indians are five-times more likely to commit suicide than are people of any other ethnicity in this country. Most of these are our young people, our teenagers, who are taught in school and even in church, that our ancestors were worthless savages, standing in the way of progress, and so had to be wiped out. If it was all in the past, maybe we could forget it. But it’s not all in the past.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision for Johnson in 1823 has been used by the United States to justify the breaking of hundreds of treaties the U.S. entered into with Indian nations, despite the fact that the United States Constitution says all such treaties are “the supreme Law of the Land.” This ruling has been used to justify the stealing of the homelands of Indian peoples living east of the Mississippi through the Indian Removal Act of 1835. It was used to justify the General Allotment Act of 1887, robbing Indian people of an additional 90 million acres of their lands. It was used to steal the Black Hills from the Sioux in violation of the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie. It was used to justify the U.S. Government paying itself for 24 million acres of Western Shoshone land, extinguishing the title granted in the 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty. These are just a few examples.

In the case of Standing Bear vs. Crook (April 1879), Judge Elmer S. Dundy ruled that an Indian is a person. As a result of this case, the United States government did allow Chief Standing Bear and a small group of Poncas to remain on a fragment of their ancestral homeland in Nebraska, rather than being forcibly sent back to Indian Territory. However, within a short time, General William T. Sherman arbitrarily decreed that Judge Dundy’s ruling “does not apply to any other than that specific case.”

In 1973, a federal judge told the Blackfeet Tribe, “The blunt fact…. is that an Indian tribe is sovereign to the extent that the United States permits it to be sovereign - neither more nor less.”

All this is based on the decision of 1823, which in turn is based solely on the Doctrine of Christian European Discovery. This doctrine, in turn, is based on the papal bulls of the 1400s, which are themselves based on an ethnocentric and racist reading of the Christian scriptures…. a theology of conquest, a holdover of the Dark Ages, which, indeed, has brought an age of darkness to us.

James Madison wrote, “Religion is not in the purview of human government. Religion is essentially distinct from civil government, and exempt from its cognizance; a connection between them is injurious to both.”

Thomas Jefferson said that when the state uses church doctrine as a coercive tool, the result is “hypocrisy and meanness.” This is the understatement of the past millennium!

You may have thought there was a healthy separation of church and state in this country. However, the U.S. Indian policies of today are based on the assumption that since our American Indian ancestors did not possess the Christian Bible and had no connection with any European church at the time of first European contact, our ancestors were simply brute animals occupying the land. Furthermore, because of our ancestral connections and regardless of any present religious connections, Indians of today are ourselves, non-persons, with no true sovereign rights within our own ancestral homelands.

In 1993, 500 years after its issuance, the Indigenous Law Institute petitioned Pope John Paul II to renounce the Inter Caetera bull. Seven years later, in March 2000, the Pope openly begged God to forgive the sins of the “sons and daughters” of the Church. His stated goal was to purify the memory of the Church by expressing sorrow for misdeeds committed by Christians over the past 2,000 years. The Pope failed to mention particular historical cases and made only an extremely obscure reference to American Indians. In response to the petition to renounce the Inter Caetera bull, there has been nothing but stony silence.

In conclusion, I will say again: There are two kinds of beings inhabiting this country: non-Indians and non-persons.

If you agree with this conclusion, do nothing.

If you disagree with this conclusion. If you actually believe that American Indians are, in fact, persons and that American Indian tribes and nations are, in fact, peoples, then I challenge you to do something to prove your belief. Educate yourself on these issues. A good place to start is with the Indigenous Law Institute website. Discuss these issues in your home, in your church and within any other groups to which you belong. Write your congressman. Ask him why in the world current U.S. Indian policy is based on archaic church doctrine. While you’re at it, ask your congressman why our tax dollars (including the tax dollars of non-persons like me) are used to fund a national holiday that celebrates a mass murderer. Finally, talk to a Roman Catholic clergyman in your hometown. Ask him why the church has not renounced these papal bulls that continue their damage to this very day. Discuss this also with non-Catholic clergy.

Most Christian denominations in the United States have roots in the Roman Catholic Church of the 15th Century, and non-Catholic church leaders and governments have taken the Doctrine of Christian European Discovery as their own in these past centuries. If churches and denominations openly renounce (even ceremonially burn ) the bull Romanus Pontifex and the bull Inter Caetera, the evil of the Doctrine of Discovery will be revealed. This could start a stir that could ultimately lead to a complete change in U.S. Indian policy and in government policy toward indigenous peoples throughout the earth.

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ (You worthless thing!) is answerable to the Sanhedrin (Council or Court). But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ (You who have no relationship with Creator!) will be in danger of the fire of hell.

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

“Settle matters quickly with your adversary who is taking you to court. Do it while you are still with him on the way, or he may hand you over to the judge, and the judge may hand you over to the officer, and you may be thrown into prison. I tell you the truth, you will not get out until you have paid the last penny.” - Mathew 5:21-26 N.I.V.


  • “Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice” by Steve Newcomb, Indigenous Law Institute - http//ili.nativeweb.org
  • “Pagans in the Promised Land: A Primer on Religious Freedom” by Steven T. Newcomb
  • “Pope Asks Forgiveness - Will the Vatican Repeal the Inter Caetera?” By Steven T. Newcomb, Indigenous Law Institute - http//ili.nativeweb.org
  • “The Legacy of Religious Racism in U.S. Indian Law” by Steven Newcomb, Indigenous Law Institute - http//ili.nativeweb.org
  • “American Indian Sovereignty: Now You See It, Now You Don’t” by Peter d’Errico, Legal Studies Dept., University of Massachusetts, Amherst.


  • Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen
  • A Violent Evangelism by Luis N. Rivera
  • Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee by Dee Brown

Cite this item

Robert Franics, “Two Kinds of Beings: The Doctrine of Discovery And Its Implications for Yesterday and Today,” Archived from Manataka American Indian Council, first posted 13 December 2003. Archived 27 May 2021.


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