The Catholic Church issued a statement on March 30 repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery. The Vatican acknowledged the suffering of Indigenous people “due to the expropriation of their lands . . . as well as the policies of forced assimilation, promoted by the governmental authorities of the time, intended to eliminate their indigenous cultures.”
Many activists petitioned the Vatican for decades in pursuit of such a statement. While it is a welcome step in the process of repair, the work of dismantling the Doctrine of Discovery is far from over.
The Doctrine of Discovery is a philosophical and legal framework dating to the 15th century that gave Christian governments moral and legal rights to seize Indigenous lands and dominate Indigenous people. The patterns of oppression that continue to dispossess people of their lands today are found in numerous historical documents, but originally contained in papal bulls authorizing Christian monarchs to “capture and subdue” non-Christians and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” The original blueprint for European colonization was conceived and affirmed by the Catholic church, which held governing power over European nations.
I have received calls and emails from several Christian activists offering congratulations that, with the admission of the Catholic church, our work to dismantle the Doctrine of Discovery is done. From my point of view, it is a small step on a long road.
the U.S. Supreme Court enshrined the Doctrine of Discovery in U.S. legal canon in 1823, making it the corner-stone of jurisprudence justifying seizure of Indigenous lands to make way for European settlers and extract resources, a practice that continues. This legal doctrine is not a historical artifact. It is current reality. The land and its wealth are possessed by settlers’ descendants, a legacy of racial inequality made possible by Christian supremacy via the Doctrine of Discovery.
It was cited as the basis for a 2005 land-sovereignty decision pertaining to the Oneida Nation, in which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained in her majority opinion that the Doctrine of Discovery is a matter of settled law. While Ginsburg is known as a progressive justice who championed human rights, she joined colleagues in affirming the Doctrine of Discovery as valid basis for Indigenous land seizure.
The Doctrine of Discovery defines reality for Indigenous people today because our legal canon justifies seizure of all Indigenous lands and makes tribal sovereignty subordinate to the national government. Native American tribes are denied self-determination. The Doctrine of Discovery’s purpose is to remove Indigenous people from their lands.
Perhaps the most effective way the U.S. has removed Indigenous people is by child removal. A disproportionate number of Indigenous children are in state foster-care systems. While Congress passed the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978, key legislation that requires Indigenous children to be placed among their own people is at risk of being revoked. The ICWA challengers advocate for a return to the time when state authorities determined what was best for Indigenous children, rather than their own people.
A case before the Supreme Court argues that preferred placement for Indigenous children discriminates against white families. Christian churches have historically advocated for the removal of Indigenous children from their communities to white Christian homes.
Resource extraction on Indigenous lands also continues, as evidenced by the proposed copper mine at Oak Flat in Arizona. Oak Flat is the unceded traditional homeland and territory of the Apache people and a sacred worship site. A 2014 defense appropriation bill authorized the U.S. to trade forest land for land owned by mining companies. Their activities will create a crater 1,000 feet deep and two miles across at Oak Flat.
Native Americans face major disparities because the Doctrine of Discovery is a legal doctrine threaded throughout all U.S. institutions. They have the lowest graduation rates and highest teen suicide rates of all racial groups, high incarceration, low home ownership, poorest access to maternal health and disproportionately high rates of infant mortality. Native Americans have the highest poverty rate among all minority groups, with household wealth at 9% of the national average. The Vatican’s statement, while a step in the right direction, does nothing to ameliorate this reality.
The Doctrine of Discovery, created and enjoyed by Christians, is firmly in place today and must be dismantled.