What does it mean for Pope Francis to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery? Let’s begin with a brief examination of the document’s history.
The Doctrine of Discovery, a papal bull from the 1400s, is also a mythology. Designed to spread Christianity across the world, it spurred the imaginations of five centuries of Europeans to invent a series of classifications: white people, Americans, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, Hawaiians, and other colonial identities. Add to this the concoction of white, male-dominated extractive capitalism, and one can see the evolution of settler systems of oppression. In this family, we have fought back against these systems of genocide all our lives.
The Doctrine of Discovery is the reason Native people were rounded up and herded onto reservations. Using its supposition of European Christian superiority as justification, American settlers planned and largely successfully executed our demise from the very inception of the United States of America. When the founding fathers crafted their own identities and formed a new, distinct, and separate political entity, they did so under the “legal” auspices of the Doctrine of Discovery.
This Doctrine still holds that Indigenous nations are not nations at all, that tribes and Indigenous nationals are not citizens of their own nations but rather “tribal members.” Sadly, even in this day and age, that’s often considered acceptable. We suppose the rationale is that at least it’s an improvement from the early settler practice of overt genocide predicated upon the Doctrine and accompanying belief system which declared all non-Christian creatures to be sub-human and worthy of subjugation and perpetual servitude — to be exacted upon them by any means.
The Doctrine of Discovery is the reason why Indigenous nations are only ever called Indigenous peoples at international fora such as the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which convened once again this week in New York City.
The Doctrine is also the reason why Indigenous nations are still subjected to the United States’ ongoing assimilation agenda, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s application of the Doctrine to “tribes” via the Marshall Trilogy, beginning with Johnson v. McIntosh 21 U.S. 543 (1823). Early leaders of the United States were only too happy to recognize the whole lie that Europeans gained a right of “discovery” merely by landing on our shores and performing various rituals. It is by this Doctrine that every subsequent decision of the U.S. Supreme Court and other subordinate courts reinforce this inherently racist and oppressive view of us.
You get the picture. The Doctrine of Discovery gave birth to a poisonous body of law which holds Indigenous nations in captivity; it’s “legal,” political, and economic terrorism. Most settlers are unaware of the depth of the colonial programming at work in the way they perceive themselves and their country — which is now our country too, like it or not. This is why it is vital to pay attention to Indigenous spokespersons.
The horrific way our children have historically been treated stems from all of this. Now is the time not only to recognize, but to take concrete steps that can begin fixing that truly ghastly history. Because of the unearthing of thousands of Native children who were buried in mass graves, the Catholic Church and the United States still bear one hundred percent of the responsibility to redeem themselves. Such unspeakable sin requires working with Native nations to give #landback and revamp the “trust relationship” imposed upon tribes.
But, as proved by the current legal attack on the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA), governmental bodies seem unwilling to reverse the historical trajectory. Look no further than this current Supreme Court to understand the continued destabilization of tribal sovereignty. As you well know, those who brought the Brackeen v. Haaland lawsuit seek to declare ICWA unconstitutional partially because — as opponents of tribal sovereignty assert — “Indians are a race of people and not distinct political entities.” They argue that a law ensuring Indian children be placed with the child’s Native family to protect their Indigenous identity is discriminatory against non-Indians (white people) and favors Native people. These rogue Supreme Court justices appear willing to entertain and perhaps back that argument.
The fact is that ICWA — an important and thoughtful piece of legislation — was signed into federal law in 1978 only after the armed resistance and revolutionary work of the American Indian Movement. It immediately began to help in fulfilling a great and urgent need to protect Native children from state-sanctioned genocidal practices. In the 1960s child welfare agents, emboldened by racist biases and religious motivations, stole children from their homes at drastic rates.
According to a 1969 report by the Association on American Indian Affairs:
Between “25-35% of all Indian children had been separated from their families and placed in foster homes, adoptive homes or institutions, and 90% of those placements were in non-Indian homes.”
This diabolical period of mass kidnapping robbed native children of their communities, cultural practices, and Indigenous identities. The gross misuse of the federal child welfare system was just the latest loophole designed to promulgate the centuries-long campaign of the United States government to eliminate its Indigenous “problem.”
The U.S. wasn’t alone, either. In Canada, the government enacted policies allowing child welfare authorities to steal Indigenous children from their families in an era that would become known as the “Sixties Scoop.” Previous to that, in both nations during the Indian boarding school era, religious institutions masquerading as “schools” were regularly used as tools of genocide. As you know by now, these institutions also worked to annihilate the cultural identities of Indigenous children who underwent every kind of horrendous treatment. The Church and states’ efforts to assimilate and “kill the Indian to save the man” often resulted in literal death for our young ones.
The remains of these innocent victims of unfathomable brutality are now being unearthed, and one would hope that reality might affect the decision in Brackeen. Instead, the case could become another sad example of unadulterated white privilege, favoritism toward religious fundamentalism grounded in the Doctrine of Discovery (the key plaintiffs, current caretakers of Native children, are avowed evangelicals), and inexcusable ignorance. To decide in their favor would be wildly concerning and ludicrously damaging, not only for the Native families and communities of the young ones involved in the ongoing litigation, but for Native peoples and families all across the United States.