How did Europeans justify invading indigenous lands in Africa, Asia and the Western Hemisphere? They asserted a right of discovery to assert dominion over all lands and peoples they encountered, as long as no other Christian Europeans had preceded them. Mainers and all Americans live as the benefactors of this unjustified taking of indigenous land and freedom.

Pope Nicholas V first articulated this “Christian Doctrine of Discovery” in the papal bull “Dum Diversas” in 1452. The Doctrine of Discovery consists of the idea that Christians have a right sanctioned by God to take non-Christian lands and property and assert political control over the indigenous inhabitants. For example, the papal bull Dum Diversas 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.'”

Later, Christian monarchs joined the Catholic Church asserting the 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 reads in part, “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 … 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.”

Before dismissing these horrific actions as the unfortunate history from the distant past, I have another shock for you — the Christian Doctrine of Discovery functions as the basis for U.S. law as it pertains to the indigenous people of this land. As Americans, we espouse a separation of church and state. Yet the most important Indian-related case ever decided by the US Supreme Court, Johnson v. M’Intosh, cites the Christian Doctrine of Discovery as justification for Congress’ plenary power over Indian nations.

The Native American scholar Steve Newcomb in “Five Hundred Years Of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice 1992” writes, “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.”

The precedent set by Johnson v. M’Intosh and the cases following it live with us today. Though federal courts recognize some degree of sovereignty for the 500-plus Indian nations found within the borders of the country, Congress through its plenary power can remove portions or all of tribal governments’ powers at any time, with the affected Indian nation having little legal recourse.

How do we overturn something as deeply ingrained as the Christian Doctrine of Discovery, that rests on a Supreme Court decision issued in 1823? What did African-Americans do to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court decision that permitted separate but equal facilities for black and white Americans? First, we must understand the doctrine of discovery and declare its illegitimacy in every forum we can.

The Episcopal Church adopted a resolution at its 76th General Convention last month that “repudiates and renounces the Doctrine of Discovery as fundamentally opposed to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and our understanding of the inherent rights that individuals and peoples have received from God.” The passage of the resolution represents a victory for the rights of indigenous peoples.

Former Sen. Bill Bradley offers an insightful approach about how we should address our nation’s relationship with indigenous people in his memoir “Time Present, Time Past.” He wrote ,”I know that an American living now is not responsible for wrongs committed more than one hundred years ago, but the nation itself is responsible… Failure to come to terms with having broken treaties and destroyed hundreds of thousands of people undermines our moral authority. How liberating it would be to escape the hypocrisy and become a society that lives by its professed ideals.”

John Dieffenbacher-Krall is a member of the Diocese of Maine Episcopal
Committee on Indian Relations and the originator of the Episcopal Church
resolution to repudiate the doctrine of discovery.  E-mail: [email protected]


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