When the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues conveneson May 7th in New York, native peoples around the world will turntheir eyes to the most important effort to renounce the Doctrine ofDiscovery, a 15th century Papal bull that has been exploited for fivecenturies to deny the human rights of hundreds of millions of peoplewho continue to be subject to its power.
The Doctrine got its first expression in 1452, when Pope Nicholas Vissued a papal bull to Portuguese King Alfonso V authorizing the Kingto "invade, capture, vanquish and subdue ... all Saracens andpagans, and other enemies of Christ ... to reduce such persons toperpetual slavery" and further "to take away all their possessions andproperty." This bull was issued as Portuguese ships began colonizingareas of Africa occupied by millions of indigenous non-Christianpeoples.
Forty years later, soon after Christopher Columbus' voyage across theAtlantic ignited an imperialist rush by European powers to control theso-called New World, Pope Alexander VI issued Inter Cetera, a newPapal bull that granted those European monarchs the right to claimsovereignty over these newly "discovered" lands occupied bynon-Christian "barbarous nations." Those non-Christians were what wenow call American Indians, including my ancestors in the OnondagaNation, part of the confederacy of Indian nations we callHaudenosaunee, and Americans and Canadians call the Iroquois.
It didn't matter to the Christian invaders that we had lived here formillennia, or that 500 years earlier, our forebearers endedgenerations of war by creating a peaceful confederacy that became amodel for theUnited States government. All that mattered was that we -- along withhundreds of millions of other indigenous peoples living innon-Christian lands across the globe -- were living on land that theconquerors, and the colonists that followed, wanted for their own.
It has been a long path to get the United Nations Permanent Forum onIndigenous Issues to confront the racist underpinnings of the Doctrineof Discovery, in part because the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican'srepresentative to the UN, has claimed it is ancient history and nolonger relevant.
But as recently as 2005, the United States Supreme Court, relying on aseries of Indian law cases going back to 1823, specifically cited theDoctrine in its decision denying the right of the Oneida Indian Nationof New York to restore its right of sovereignty over land it ownedwithin the footprint of territory set aside for the Nation undertreaties dating back to the 18th century.
"Under the Doctrine of Discovery ... fee title to the land occupiedby Indians when the colonists arrived became vested in the sovereign --first the discovering European nation and later the original Statesand the United States," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in the 2005decision.
It is glaring who is left out of that formulation -- the people wholived here for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived.
In fact, the Doctrine of Discovery is the basis for all Indian landlaw in this country, and it has imposed similar burdens onindigenous peoples all over the world -- in Canada, Australia and NewZealand, in Africa, in Latin America and in the island nations of theCaribbean and Oceania. More than 500 million indigenous peoples aroundthe globe live today with the effects of the Doctrine's oppressiveracism.
We are encouraged that people of faith in this country and around theworld have joined in the call for the Catholic Church to formallyrenounce the Doctrine to help heal the grievous injuries that itspromulgation has released. Most recently, the World Council ofChurches, at its meeting this past February in Switzerland, denouncedthe Doctrine "as fundamentally opposed to the gospel of Jesus Christand as a violation of the inherent human rights that all individualsand peoples have received from God." The World Council went on to urgegovernments "to dismantle the legal structures and policies based onthe Doctrine of Discovery and dominance, so as to empower and enableIndigenous Peoples to identify their own aspirations and issues ofconcern."
This is not ancient history to Indians in this country, or toindigenous peoples around the world. It is a living insult to ourrights as citizens of the world and must be renounced. We are on theEarth to heal the world. This wound must be healed.