Understanding the Doctrine of Discovery
Document date: 17.02.2012
WCC Executive Committee
1. Indigenous Peoples have the oldest living cultures in the world. Three hundred to five hundred million Indigenous Peoples today live in over 72 countries around the world, and they comprise at least 5,000 distinct peoples.
The ways of life, identities, well-being and very existence of Indigenous People are threatened by the continuing effects of colonization and national policies, regulations and laws that attempt to force them to assimilate into the cultures of majoritarian societies. A fundamental historical basis and legal precedent for these policies and laws is the "Doctrine of Discovery", the idea that Christians enjoy a moral and legal right based solely on their religious identity to invade and seize indigenous lands and to dominate Indigenous Peoples.
2. Around the world, Indigenous Peoples are over-represented in all categories of disadvantage. In most indigenous communities people live in poverty without clean water and necessary infrastructure, lacking adequate health care, education, employment and housing. Many indigenous communities still suffer the effects of dispossession, forced removals from homelands and families, inter-generational trauma and racism, the effects of which are manifested in social welfare issues such as alcohol and drug problems, violence and social breakdown. Basic health outcomes dramatize the disparity in well-being between Indigenous Peoples and European descendants.
3. The patterns of domination and oppression that continue to afflict Indigenous Peoples today throughout the world are found in numerous historical documents such as Papal Bulls, Royal Charters and court rulings. For example, the church documents Dum Diversas (1452) and Romanus Pontifex (1455) called for non-Christian peoples to be invaded, captured, vanquished, subdued, reduced to perpetual slavery and to have their possessions and property seized by Christian monarchs. Collectively, these and other concepts form a paradigm or pattern of domination that is still being used against Indigenous Peoples.
4. Following the above patterns of thought and behaviour, Christopher Columbus was instructed, for example, to "discover and conquer," "subdue" and "acquire" distant lands, and in 1493 Pope Alexander VI called for non-Christian "barbarous nations" to be subjugated and proselytized for the "propagation of the Christian empire." Three years later, England's King Henry VII followed the pattern of domination by instructing John Cabot and his sons to locate, subdue and take possession of the "islands, countries, regions, of the heathens and infidels . . . unknown to Christian people." Thereafter, for example, English, Portuguese and Spanish colonization in Australia, the Americas and New Zealand proceeded under the Doctrine of Discovery as Europeans attempted to conquer and convert Indigenous Peoples. In 1513, Spain drafted a legal document that was required to be read to Indigenous Peoples before "just war" could commence. The Requerimiento informed Indigenous Peoples that their lands had been donated to Spain and that they had to submit to the Crown and Christianity or they would be attacked and enslaved.
5. In 1823, the U.S. Supreme Court used the same pattern and paradigm of domination to claim in the ruling Johnson & Graham's Lessee v. M'Intosh that the United States as the successor to various "potentates" had the "ultimate dominion" or "ultimate title" (right of territorial domination) over all lands within the claimed boundaries of the United States. The Court said that as a result of the documents mentioned above, authorizing "Christian people" to "discover" and possess the lands of "heathens," the Indians were left with a mere "right of occupancy;" an occupancy that, according to the Court was subject to the "ultimate title" or "absolute title" of the United States. The Johnson case has been cited repeatedly by Australian, Canadian, New Zealand and United States courts, and the Doctrine of Discovery has been held by all these countries to have granted European settler societies plenary power (domination) over Indigenous Peoples, legal title to their lands, and has resulted in diminished sovereign, commercial and international rights for Indigenous Peoples and governments. Europeans believed this was proper based on their ethnocentric, racial and religious attitudes that they and their cultures, religions and governments were superior to non-Christian European peoples.
6. Consequently, the current situation of Indigenous Peoples around the world is the result of a linear programme of "legal" precedent, originating with the Doctrine of Discovery and codified in contemporary national laws and policies. The Doctrine mandated Christian European countries to attack, enslave and kill the Indigenous Peoples they encountered and to acquire all of their assets. The Doctrine remains the law in various ways in almost all settler societies around the world today. The enormity of the application of this law and the theft of the rights and assets of Indigenous Peoples have led indigenous activists to work to educate the world about this situation and to galvanize opposition to the Doctrine. Many Christian churches that have studied the pernicious Doctrine have repudiated it, and are working to ameliorate the legal, economic and social effects of this international framework. Starting in 2007, for example, with the Episcopal Diocese of Maine, followed by the Episcopal Diocese of Central New York in 2008, and in 2010 by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends, individual churches began adopting resolutions and minutes repudiating the Doctrine. In 2009, at its 76th General Convention, the Episcopal Church adopted resolution D035 – "Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery." In 2010, the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Canada adopted resolution A086 – "Repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery." In 2011, various Unitarian Universalist churches and Quaker organizations are adopting and considering adopting resolutions and minutes repudiating the Doctrine. This issue of the Doctrine of Discovery has also been brought to the forefront of world attention by Indigenous Peoples working with international bodies.
7. Considering the fact that the Doctrine of Discovery will be the theme for the 11th session of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (UNPFII) in 2012, churches and the international community need to be sensitized on this issue. The Doctrine of Discovery: its enduring impact on Indigenous Peoples and the right to redress for past conquests (articles 28 and 37 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) will be discussed at the UNPFII from 7 to 18 May 2012; this event will bring together representatives of Indigenous People's organizations and networks around the world. Churches and ecumenical networks of the WCC will be mobilized to be part of the 11th session of the UNPFII in 2012.
In this context, the executive committee of the World Council of Churches, meeting at Bossey, Switzerland, 14-17 February 2012,
A. Expresses solidarity with the Indigenous Peoples of the world and supports the rights of Indigenous Peoples to live in and retain their traditional lands and territories, to maintain and enrich their cultures and to ensure that their traditions are strengthened and passed on for generations to come;
A. Denounces the Doctrine of Discovery 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;
B. Urges various governments in the world to dismantle the legal structures and policies based on the Doctrine of Discovery and dominance, so as better to empower and enable Indigenous Peoples to identify their own aspirations and issues of concern;
C. Affirms its conviction and commitment that Indigenous Peoples be assisted in their struggle to involve themselves fully in creating and implementing solutions that recognize and respect the collective rights of Indigenous Peoples and to exercise their right to self-determination and self-governance;
D. Requests the governments and states of the world to ensure that their policies, regulations and laws that affect Indigenous Peoples comply with international conventions and, in particular, conform to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the International Labour Organization's Convention 169;
E. Calls on each WCC member church to reflect upon its own national and church history and to encourage all member parishes and congregations to seek a greater understanding of the issues facing Indigenous Peoples, to support Indigenous Peoples in their ongoing efforts to exercise their inherent sovereignty and fundamental human rights, to continue to raise awareness about the issues facing Indigenous Peoples and to develop advocacy campaigns to support the rights, aspirations and needs of Indigenous Peoples;
F. Encourages WCC member churches to support the continued development of theological reflections by Indigenous Peoples which promote indigenous visions of full, good and abundant life and which strengthen their own sacred and theological reflections.
The Following from ADL.org:
"No person shall be…deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law…"
This idea, which is a bedrock of American democracy, is from the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was completed in 1787. That same year, the U.S. government enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which created the first organized territory out of the region that is today Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. Among other regulations, the ordinance set forth a guiding principle for the treatment of Native Americans and their lands:
"The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their land and property shall never be taken without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed."
Just seven years later, in 1794, the U.S. government sent a regiment led by General "Mad" Anthony Wayne to conquer a confederation of American Indian tribes attempting to keep hold of their lands. At the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a band of 800 Native Americans was slaughtered and 5,000 acres of crops were destroyed. The tribes of the region were forced into a treaty that limited them to the northern region of what is today Ohio, and it took them twenty years to recover from the loss of lives and property.
In 1802, President Jefferson signed the Georgia Compact, which stated that in exchange for land (what is today Alabama and Mississippi), the federal government would remove all American Indians within the territory of Georgia "as soon as it could be done reasonably and peacefully." By 1830, the U.S. government had passed the Indian Removal Act, which authorized the President to remove the remaining Eastern Indians to lands west of the Mississippi. Between 1938 and 1939, under President Andrew Jackson, 15,000 Cherokee Indians were forcibly taken from their land, herded into makeshift forts, and made to march-some in chains-a thousand miles to present-day Oklahoma. Over 4,000 Cherokee died from hunger, disease, and exhaustion on what they called Nunna daul Tsuny or the Trail of Tears. By the late 1840s almost all Native Americans had been moved to lands west of the Mississippi.
It seems astonishing that a country founded upon the ideal of "life, liberty, and property" could move from a policy of "good faith" toward the Native Americans to one of complete domination in the space of one generation. In order to understand how such a contradiction could occur, it is necessary to go back in time almost seven centuries before the American Revolution.
In 1095, at the beginning of the Crusades, Pope Urban II issued an edict-the Papal Bull Terra Nullius(meaning empty land). It gave the kings and princes of Europe the right to "discover" or claim land in non-Christian areas. This policy was extended in 1452 when Pope Nicholas V issued the bull Romanus Pontifex, declaring war against all non-Christians throughout the world and authorizing the conquest of their nations and territories. These edicts treated non-Christians as uncivilized and subhuman, and therefore without rights to any land or nation. Christian leaders claimed a God-given right to take control of all lands and used this idea to justify war, colonization, and even slavery.
By the time Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492, this Doctrine of Discovery was a well-established idea in the Christian world. When he reached the Americas, Columbus performed a ceremony to "take possession" of all lands "discovered," meaning all territory not occupied by Christians. Upon his return to Europe in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued the bull Inter Cetera, granting Spain the right to conquer the lands that Columbus had already "discovered" and all lands that it might come upon in the future. This decree also expressed the Pope's wish to convert the natives of these lands to Catholicism in order to strengthen the "Christian Empire."
In 1573 Pope Paul II issued the papal bull Sublimis Deus, which denounced the idea that Native Americans "should be treated like irrational animals and used exclusively for our profit and our service," and Pope Urban VIII (1623-1644) formally excommunicated anyone still holding Indian slaves. By this time, however, the Doctrine of Discovery was deeply rooted and led nonetheless to the conquest of non-Christian lands and people in every corner of the world. Although the U.S. was founded on freedom from such tyranny, the idea that white people and Christians had certain divine rights was nevertheless ingrained in the young nation's policies. The slave trade, for example, and centuries of violence against black people depended upon the idea that non-Whites were less than human. The theft of Native American lands required a similar justification.
In 1823, the Doctrine of Discovery was written into U.S. law as a way to deny land rights to Native Americans in the Supreme Court case, Johnson v. McIntosh. It is ironic that the case did not directly involve any Native Americans since the decision stripped them of all rights to their independence. In 1775, Thomas Johnson and a group of British investors bought a tract of land from the Piankeshaw Indians. During the Revolutionary War, this land was taken from the British and became part of the U.S. in the "County of Illinois." In 1818, the U.S. government sold part of the land to William McIntosh, a citizen of Illinois. This prompted Joshua Johnson, the heir to one of the original buyers, to claim the land through a lawsuit (which he later lost).
In a unanimous decision, Chief Justice John Marshall wrote that the Christian European nations had assumed complete control over the lands of America during the "Age of Discovery." Upon winning independence in 1776, he noted, the U.S. inherited authority over these lands from Great Britain, "notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens…" According to the ruling, American Indians did not have any rights as independent nations, but only as tenants or residents of U.S. land. For Joshua Johnson, this meant that the original sale of land by the Piankeshaws was invalid because they were not the lawful owners. For Native Americans, this decision foreshadowed the Trail of Tears and a hundred years of forced removal and violence. Despite recent efforts to have the case repealed as a symbol of good will, Johnson v. McIntosh has never been overruled and remains good law.
In 1845, a democratic leader and prominent editor named John L. O'Sullivan gave the Doctrine of Discovery a uniquely American flavor when he coined the term Manifest Destiny to defend U.S. expansion and claims to new territory:
".... the right of our manifest destiny to over spread and to possess the whole of the continent which Providence has given us for the development of the great experiment of liberty… is right such as that of the tree to the space of air and the earth suitable for the full expansion of its principle and destiny of growth."
The idea of Manifest Destiny was publicized in newspapers and debated by politicians. It furthered the sense among U.S. citizens of an inevitable or natural right to expand the nation and to spread "freedom and democracy" (though only to those deemed capable of self-government, which certainly did not include Blacks or Native Americans).
Whether called the Doctrine of Discovery or Manifest Destiny, the principles that stimulated U.S. thirst for land have been disastrous for Native Americans, African Americans, Mexicans, and many others both in North America and abroad who lost life, liberty and property as the result of U.S. expansionism. The history of Christian law helps us to understand how our leaders-many considered heroes and role models today-undertook monstrous acts in the name of liberty. This insight into the prevailing ideas of the day, however, does not excuse their behavior. Some may have truly been misled by the ideals of Christian discovery, but others acted knowingly out of self-interest, greed and bigotry. Even as far back as Columbus, however, there were religious and political leaders, as well as ordinary citizens, who knew better and worked against racism, colonization and slavery.
When the Indian Removal Act of 1830 came up for debate in Congress, for example, New Jersey Senator Theodore Frelinghuysen, a strong believer in Christian compassion, led a bold attack with a six-hour speech that extended over three days. Frelinghuysen predicted terrible suffering and therefore argued to uphold the independence of the Cherokee Nation. Many other members of Congress, including Tennessean Davy Crockett, fought against the Act. Though it passed in both houses, 47% of Congress (116 of 246 members) voted in opposition to the bill.
It is tempting to view the problems of the past as ancient history-long resolved and no longer relevant to our lives. The effects of manifest destiny, however, continue today. American Indian Nations are still in court over land disputes, and countless native people suffer from extreme poverty and other social problems as a result of past policies. September 11th and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have ignited age-old debates about U.S. objectives. Though the public discourse no longer includes terms such as "expansion," "discovery," and "destiny," discussions about globalization, preemptive war, and the responsibilities of the world's only "superpower" echo familiar themes. It is perhaps fitting that this dialogue ensues as the country commemorates the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, or Corps of Discovery, which paved the way for U.S. expansion. The anniversary presents an important opportunity to pay tribute to the victims and survivors of Indian genocide, to learn about contemporary native culture and issues, and to work against prejudice and discrimination in local communities. (See also Manifest Destiny)