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Remembrance, Recognition and Reconciliation: The Episcopal Church’s Call for Justice for Indigenous People A Sermon Preached by John Dieffenbacher-Krall at St. James’ Episcopal Church, Old Town, Maine October 15, 2006

Few of us gathered here today may know that our national church passed a resolution on 7/18/97 proclaiming the time period of 1997-2007 the “Decade of Remembrance, Recognition, and Reconciliation.” The resolution calls upon each diocese to “take such steps as necessary to fully recognize and welcome Native Peoples into congregational life.”

Last Monday Columbus Day occurred. If we as Episcopalians, if we as followers of Jesus Christ who commanded us to “love your neighbor as yourself” want to meaningfully reflect upon Columbus Day, we can use the title of our church’s resolution to remember what we must recall, to recognize what we must see and reconcile ourselves to overcome the past to love our Indigenous neighbors and all people as Christ has called us to do.

All of us have some awareness of our church’s past that has not reflected a love for our neighbors. The crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, witch hunts and many other efforts to strike down heathens and unbelievers cause us pain to remember them. We try to avoid pain. Our bodies instantly react to pain. In many respects, avoiding pain is justifiable and sensible. Yet bodily pain alerts us to the fact that something is wrong. If we are to remember our church’s particular history with the Indigenous People of the Western Hemisphere, forgive me as I remind us of some painful church history.

Pope Nicholas V in 1452 issued the papal bull Dum Diversas. It grants the king of Portugal the Pope’s blessing to go to the western coast of Africa, and to … “’capture, vanquish and subdue the Saracens, pagans and other enemies of Christ, and put them into perpetual slavery and to take all their possessions and their property.’” This papal sanctioning of Christian enslavement and power over non-Christians became known as the Doctrine of Discovery.

The Doctrine of Discovery became reinforced with the papal bull Inter Caetera issued in 1493. Pope Alexander VI settled a dispute between the monarchs of Portugal and Spain by drawing a line 100 leagues west of the Azores and Cape Verde. Spain was granted authority to take all lands and possessions west of the line as long as no other Christian ruler had previously claimed them. Portugal was given dominion to possess all lands east of the line with the same proviso that no other Christian ruler had previously claimed them.

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella required those working on their behalf to read a statement to any Indigenous Peoples they discovered. The statement was read in Latin and Spanish, languages spoken by none of the people they encountered. In part it said to the Indigenous People:

But if you do not do this (accept Spanish rule), 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…

Before we judge the papal edicts too harshly, we need to know of the Anglican connection to this Doctrine of Discovery. In 1496, King Henry VII granted a patent to John Cabot and his sons to possess all lands in the New World not previously discovered by Portugal or Spain. It is known as the 1496 Royal Charter of the Church of England. It reads in part:

And that the before-mentioned John and his sons or their heirs and deputies may conquer, occupy and possess whatsoever such towns, castles, cities and islands by them thus discovered that they may be able to conquer, occupy and possess, as our vassals and governors lieutenants and deputies therein, acquiring for us the dominion, title and jurisdiction of the same towns, castles, cities, islands and mainlands so discovered;

One of the many ugly legacies of this Christian Doctrine of Discovery is it serves as the legal underpinning of Federal Indian Law. Supreme Court Justice John Marshall used the concept in part as the legal reasoning for the 1823 Supreme Court decision Johnson v. M’Intosh. The brilliant Native American scholar Steve Newcomb writes in FIVE HUNDRED YEARS OF INJUSTICE: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice 1992, “Writing for the unanimous court, Chief Justice John Marshall observed that Christian European nations had assumed “ultimate dominion” over the lands of America during the Age of Discovery, and that–upon “discovery”–the Indians had lost “their rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations,” and only retained a right of “occupancy” in their lands. In other words, Indian nations were subject to the ultimate authority of the first nation of Christendom to claim possession of a given region of Indian lands.”

As the United States expanded westward during the nineteenth century, an ever increasing amount of Indian land was seized. Treaties that temporarily ended hostilities over certain lands were routinely broken by the United States. The end result was a reduction of the Indigenous population from an estimated 12 to 20 million at the time of European contact to 237,196 Indians in 1900. This may be the most horrific genocide in human history.

We have done some remembering together of the evil perpetrated against Indigenous people. How do we recognize what to do to attempt to correct this injustice? Our national church has recognized the need to reverse this history. At the General Convention in 1985, our church passed a resolution that “the National Committee on Indian Work be instructed by the 68th General Convention of the Episcopal Church to direct all agencies of the Church to advocate and support the honoring of all Indian treaty rights and the right to internal autonomy and self-determination of Indian Nations and Tribes.”

What can we do here in the State of Maine to honor that 1985 General Convention resolution? First, remember that we have four living Indian Nations within the borders of what we today call the State of Maine. They are the Aroostook Band of Micmacs, the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, Passamaquoddy Tribe, and Penobscot Nation. These Tribes’ ancestors fought with the colonists to help us win our liberty from Great Britain only to see their sovereignty continually diminished through violence, theft and broken treaties. The Passamaquoddy Tribe and Penobscot Nation forced the US Dept. of Justice to file a lawsuit on their behalf in the 1970s to recover 12.5 million acres assessed at $25 billion. Eventually, the lawsuit was settled in 1980 and produced the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act. The Passamaquoddies and Penobscots received $13.5 million and 150,000 acres each in exchange for forever relinquishing their claim to millions of acres they once called their own. The Houlton Band of Maliseets received a much smaller settlement of $900,000. Besides specifying the compensation to be paid to the Tribes, the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act established a new legal relationship between the Tribes, the State of Maine and the US defining certain powers and jurisdiction belonging to each. Though enacted with the hope of settling these questions and strengthening the relationships, over time certain provisions of the Settlement Act have become viewed by the Tribes as oppressive and unjust.

We must understand that the Tribes are struggling to retain their identity as separate peoples with unique cultures, distinct languages and a spirituality thousands of years older than Christianity. They do not want to be assimilated. Any diminishment of their sovereignty weakens their prospect for survival.

We must listen to their pleas for justice. We must demand of our governor and the Maine Legislature to amend the Maine Implementing Act, Maine’s codification of the Maine Indian Claims Settlement Act, to respect the inherent sovereignty of the Wabanaki people. God created the Wabanaki and all peoples. No government, even our own, should deprive a people of their God derived right to exist.

At a national and international level, we should respond to the demand of Indigenous People from around the world who want the rescission of the papal bulls of 1452 and 1493 and the 1496 Royal Charter of the Church of England. Two months ago 23 nations and nongovernmental organizations and over 100 individual signatories signed a “Resolution of the Summit of Indigenous Nations Calling for a Rescission of the Conceptual Doctrine of Discovery and Related Documents, Specifically the Inter Caetera Bull (Papal Bulls) of 1493 and the 1496 Royal Charter of the Church of England.” The resolution urges:

that the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church and the Queen of England and Archbishop of Canterbury for the Church of England disavow and rescind the claimed validity of the doctrine of discovery against all peoples, specifically as it is documented in the Inter Caetera Bull of 1493 and the 1496 Royal Charter, and all other doctrines that have been relied thereon for the dispossession of lands and the subjugation of non-christian peoples from their initial use to the present…

When we renounce the 1496 Royal Charter of the Church of England here at St. James, in the Diocese of Maine, within the Episcopal Church and among the entire Anglican communion, we can achieve some degree of reconciliation with Indigenous People. As we reconcile ourselves with the Indigenous People of the Western Hemisphere, we also do our part in helping to reconcile this broken world with God. Amen.


John Dieffenbacher-Krall, "Episcopalian Remembrance, Recognition and Reconciliation," Doctrine of Discovery Project (27 July 2018), https://doctrineofdiscovery.org/episcopalian-remembrance-recognition-and-reconciliation/.

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